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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

He chose to be a better man, not a bitter man

It was 25 years ago today and he was all of 15 years old, full of future, with no doubts on his mind. Darryl Williams had just caught his first pass as a varsity wideout for Jamaica Plain High School and he was going all the way to the NFL.

It was halftime and he was standing with his teammates in the east end zone of Charlestown High School's football field when the .22 caliber bullet fired from the project rooftop went into the back of his neck and forever took away all the pass patterns he would have run and all the great catches he would have made.

The bullet stripped Darryl of his innocence and independence, but it did not take his spirit or his soul. And all these years later -- even after a city summer that had too many shootings involving too many kids -- Darryl's home voice-mail message still concludes with "peace."

A thoughtful man, with too much time to think, Darryl is saddened by the ongoing violence in our city.

"It's discouraging that we are not making as much progress as I would have hoped in 25 years, especially in the area of racial intolerance," he said from his South Shore home. "I take personal offense to it because I had my fun and did my thing, but not at the expense of harming anyone else. And I have to deal with this situation that I have, and I see these people without any regard for human life, let alone any respect for themselves. They are wasting their life, their time. If there's anyone who can attest to how valuable time is, and a person's physicality, it's me."

A quarter of a century has passed since the Friday afternoon high school football game was halted and an ambulance rushed Darryl to City Hospital. Like so many tragedies, none of it ever made any sense. Three Charlestown teens were hanging out on a rooftop, drinking beer and getting bored. Police later said the youths were shooting at pigeons, but nobody bought that.

In the early years of busing, Boston's combustible racial climate was national news. In the hours after Darryl Williams was shot, city officials worked overtime to squash the obvious racial motive behind the crime. Pope John Paul II was due in town 72 hours after the shooting and Mayor Kevin White didn't want a hate crime to rain on the papal visit. So Darryl was told the city would take care of things and the two older boys from the roof went to jail. The triggerman later was shot and killed by his own cousin. Charlestown High didn't play another home football game for nine years.

Meanwhile, Darryl learned how to live without any feeling below his neck. More amazingly, he learned to live without hate in his heart.

He graduated from Northeastern in 2001 with a degree in human resources management, and for 13 years has worked at the Massachusetts lottery. He's writing a book, looking for a publisher, and hopeful that Denzel Washington will play the lead when his story goes to the big screen. A good-looking man (weekly haircuts and stylish threads) with a broadcast voice, Williams easily could host his own sports talk show or the TV news at 11.

He's also one of the most powerful motivational speakers in Massachusetts.

Jeff O'Brien, senior social director of the Northeastern Center for the Study of Sport in Society, said, "The first time I heard Darryl speak was in 1995. When he is wheeled into a room, there's a hush in the crowd and a lot of sympathy, then they find out what happened to him. But the amazing thing about Darryl is that there's no malice in his heart, no hatred, no ill will. He uses his story, his life, to change people's perspective. It's a powerful thing."

"My message is to try and educate individuals on perseverance," said Darryl. "I want to educate persons on learning diversity and the harms of stereotyping. I have reflected on my 25 years and know that there's plenty of experiences I've amassed, some good, some bad. But a strong person learns from the bad, rather than let those things hold them in bondage. I've been put in a pretty unique position to acquire education, not just academically, but emotionally and socially.

"I've been fortunate to live my life as an able-bodied person and see things from that perspective, as well as the last 25 years being a physically challenged person. I see the way people treat one another."

Darryl's home is equipped with a voice-activated computer and an environmental control system that enables him to operate his television, telephone, and computer. His mother, Shirley Simmons, has devoted the last 25 years to caring for her son. When Darryl needs to go somewhere, his pals John Kelly, detective Steve Morgan, and firefighter Joe Teixeira know how to get him around town.

Kelly is an accomplished singer who has performed the national anthem at Fenway, and the ball club has been generous in accommodating Darryl when he wants to watch the Sox play or hear his friend sing. The Krafts of Foxborough have been great, too. Darryl's first love always will be football.

But the city and state let him down. And in 1985 his $3 million civil rights suit was dismissed by a US District Court judge.

"I was a kid when all this was going on," he said. "I personally feel, without mentioning names, a lot of city and state officials duped my parents."

He revisited the site of the shooting in 1990 and a year later the bullet was removed from his neck. Boston Police confiscated it. Darryl is still not sure why.

Few can imagine how hard his life is.

"I'm only human," he said. "I get depressed every now and then, but when I think about how other people perceive me, I know that I can't wallow in that pit of depression. I prefer to lead by example. I pray a lot. I have a good support system with certain family members and friends. Ultimately it has a lot to do with knowing that other people look to me for inspiration. They get inspiration and strength from me and that makes me honored. The best thing in my life without a doubt would have to be my belief in God and spirituality.

"I know a lot of people -- who don't know me -- they see me and my situation and they feel sorry for me. I don't feel sorry for myself, so why would you waste your time feeling sorry for me?"

There's something chilling about this date, though. It's been a quarter of a century, 25 whole years since he last felt the grass under his feet.

"I was so young," he said. "That kind of blows me away. I was only six years away from the NFL."

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com. 

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