When Dannie Farber transferred in 2008 from Silverado High in Victorville, Calif., to Narbonne High in Los Angeles, the 5'7" receiver immediately sought out Narbonne's football coach, flashed a smile and told him, "I'm your guy, Coach. I'm going to make plays for you. Watch."
"Of course I'd heard that a million times before," recalls Manuel Douglas, who has coached dozens of Division I players at Narbonne during his 10 years at the school. "But Dannie lived up to it."
On May 24, 2009, just five months after making the all-city team and helping lead Narbonne to a share of its first city championship, Farber lay bleeding to death inside a fast-food restaurant in Compton, his date kneeling over him screaming. He was a victim of the most senseless of gang killings.
Farber had taken his date, Araceli Nogueda, to Louisiana Fried Chicken. As the two ordered their food, 21-year-old Arlon Watson, a member of the Tragniew Park Compton Crips, rode by in a friend's SUV. Watson glanced through the window of the restaurant, which sat on the border between rival gang territories, and saw a young black man he didn't recognize. Watson told the driver to pull over.
Surveillance cameras recorded Watson approaching the restaurant moments later, hoodie pulled over his head, then entering and walking up to Farber, who had just brought his tray of food to the table where Nogueda was seated. According to eyewitness accounts, Watson asked Farber, "Where you from, cuz?" Farber replied "What?" and stood up. Watson immediately fired four shots, killing Farber.
Watson, who had never met Farber, was later convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 80 years to life in prison.
This was not just another killing in what police call "the South L.A. strip," a ribbon of gang-ravaged cities south of downtown Los Angeles, with Inglewood at its northern tip, Compton in the center and Long Beach at the bottom. Though hardened to gang crime, these communities all mourned Farber. An eight-month police investigation confirmed that Farber had never been in a gang. Those who knew him remembered him as a positive force among his friends and teammates at Narbonne High. Hundreds attended his funeral. USC coach Pete Carroll spoke. Stevie Wonder sang.
Narbonne star running back Melvin Davis was there as well. A Division I prospect, Davis dedicated his senior season to his fallen friend. The 6'2", 225-pound Davis rushed for more than 1,400 yards and 13 touchdowns that fall, helping the Gauchos become the first team in school history to reach back-to-back city finals. On a rainy day at the L.A. Coliseum, Davis left his green-and-gold number 5 jersey in the locker room and instead wore Farber's number 4. Tears flowed in the stands that night for reasons far deeper than Narbonne's hard-fought loss to Crenshaw High.
Davis hoped to carry Farber's memory with him to the University of Washington, but he failed to qualify academically.
On June 25, 2011, Davis attended a party in Long Beach at which he ran into another storied running back from the South L.A. strip, former Dominguez High star Brandon Johnson. (Johnson had rushed for a combined 390 yards at Washington during the 2007 and '08 seasons before leaving the school following academic problems.) Several fistfights broke out at the party, one of which spilled onto the sidewalk outside. Shots were fired, killing 18-year-old Dajon Daniels, who authorities say was a member of the Long Beach Insane Crips.
Over the next two months, Davis and Johnson were arrested and charged with murder in connection with Daniels's death. Johnson was picked up in Las Vegas, N.Mex., where he had just begun practicing with the Division II football team at his new school, New Mexico Highlands University. Also charged was 19-year-old Rakeem Williams, the alleged shooter, who briefly attended Narbonne High and according to authorities is a member of the Campanella Park Pirus, a Compton-based subset of the Bloods.
L.A. County deputy district attorney Dean Bengston told SI that Johnson and Davis were also "directly affiliated" with the Pirus, a claim that the Johnson and Davis families vehemently deny. Douglas, the Narbonne coach, isn't buying it either. "You can't grow up where he grew up without knowing guys who are mixed up in that [gang] stuff," Douglas said, "but Melvin's only colors were green and gold."
The alleged gang connections and the circumstances of Daniels's death will soon be examined more closely. Davis, Johnson and Williams all have pleaded not guilty and are scheduled to be in court for a preliminary hearing on Dec. 14.