At quarterback for Colorado in the Orange Bowl will be a walking advertisement for the resilience of youth. Only a year ago, after throwing a foolish interception that cost the Buffaloes a game, Darian Hagan despaired. "I couldn't read defenses, and the offense didn't have confidence in me," recalls Hagan, now a sophomore. "I thought, Hey, maybe I'm a tailback." He requested a position switch. Request denied.
Because it was, Notre Dame goes into the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day faced with a task that has proved too tough for 11 teams this season: stopping the 19-year-old, ambidextrous, vastly improved Hagan. Should the Irish win, this year's mythical national championship promises to be more mythical than usual. A Colorado loss could yield as many as three claimants to the throne—Notre Dame, Miami, even Michigan. Colorado, of course, would end all debate by beating the Irish, thus clinching for the Buffs their first-ever national title.
Win or lose, Hagan probably won't spend the off-season wondering about what kind of tailback he would have made. Four days after Colorado completed its perfect regular season with a 59-11 rout of Kansas State, Hagan returned home to Los Angeles for the long Thanksgiving weekend. A hero's welcome awaited him. "I bust at the seams every week watching him," says Edward Robbs, his former principal at Locke High School.
During the holiday, wherever he roamed in his Watts neighborhood, congratulations rained down. "Yo, Hagan! Nice job, man!" and "Darian, my man! How 'bout a ticket for the Notre Dame game?"
December 25, 1989
"They're talking about naming a street after him," says his mother, Wanda Webb, repeating an unofficial report from neighborhood kids.
Not everyone, though, was thrilled to welcome the local hero. "It's great to see him," said E.C. Robinson. "Now I wish he'd go back to Colorado."
Robinson was Hagan's coach at Locke. He knows that Hagan has beaten the odds by escaping the drugs, the gangs and the shortened life expectancy that attend the life of a young man in Watts. Sad experience has taught Robinson that the more time Hagan spends around the neighborhood, the likelier it is the odds will catch up with him. "Anything could happen, and around here it has a tendency to," says Robinson. "Last year there were five or six shootings over the Christmas holidays, all within a two-week period, all right in the same area, and all of them over colors." The gangs identify their members—and their enemies—by the colors they wear. In some sections of Los Angeles, donning the wrong hue of hat, sweatshirt or bandanna can result in a violent death.
The house in which Hagan grew up, like most of those on the street, is small but well kept. The lawns in the neighborhood are welcome mat-sized but meticulously groomed, and by the first week of December, trees and shrubs have been hung with Christmas lights. "People here take pride in their property," says Locke assistant principal Annie Webb. "When graffiti goes up, you watch how fast it comes down."
But civic pride has not kept the gangs out. The blocks around Locke are the fiefdom of two sets of Crips (who wear blue to distinguish themselves from the red colors of the Bloods, the other dominant gang). Two blocks west of the high school is Main Street, from which the Main Street Crips borrow their name. Farther south and east, starting at about 118th Street, the East Coast Crips hold sway. Many of Hagan's boyhood friends have cast their lot with one set of Crips or the other. "Early in my life I had to make a decision," says Hagan. "I decided I was going to be a ballplayer."
Until he was seven years old, Darian lived with Wanda, who was 18 when he was born. Darian's father wasn't around much, and disappeared completely nine or 10 years ago. "I haven't seen him since about sixth grade," says Hagan.
Young Darian spent as much time as he could with his cousins, the Wickliffe twins, Derrick and Eric, who lived two blocks away. The twins were three years older than Darian and lived for sports. Hagan, who idolized his cousins, did too. "Football, basketball, baseball—we played some sport every single day," says Derrick, now a defensive back at East Central (Okla.) University. (Eric played one year as a defensive back at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo.) "That was how you stayed out of trouble. I know a lot of guys who could have played somewhere if they hadn't gotten mixed up with drugs and gangs."
By the time he was in third grade, Darian was sleeping over at the Wickliffes' several times a week. No one can recall exactly when he began living there; they just know that he did, which meant abiding by his Aunt Brenda's rules: make your bed, wash your dishes, mop the floors and take out the trash. "And they had to maintain their grades, or I'd take them out of sports," says Brenda. Most important, Brenda insisted that the boys let her know their whereabouts after dark. "I knew where they were every minute," she says.
Still, Hagan did have a few scrapes. One autumn afternoon in ninth grade he was walking home from Enterprise Park with his friend Leonard Hicks. Both boys wore the red uniforms of their Pop Warner team, the Enterprise Broncos. The uniforms caught the attention of a group of Crips who were driving by in two cars. "They slowed down and looked at us real strange," says Hagan. "When they were gone, I said, 'Leonard, they're coming back.' "
Moments later, tires squealed behind them—the gangsters had gone around the block and were back. Darian turned to Leonard. "But he was already gone," says Hagan.
Leonard sprinted into his house and locked the front door. One of the Crips approached the door, brandishing a gun, but eventually went away. Darian made tracks for an alley behind the Hicks house, which was a shortcut to his own house, but a locked gate blocked his path. "So I just kicked it in," he says. He got away. Later, he called the Hicks house and had this conversation with Leonard's mother:
"Darian Hagan, are you O.K.?"
"Then get your scary ass down here and fix my goddam gate."
So, what is Leonard doing these days? "He's doing time," says Hagan. "And the guy who followed him to the door with the gun—he got killed last year."
A few years after Hagan's narrow escape a close friend of his, Tushan Wilson, was beaten and kicked to death by a gang only a block or so away from Locke High. "I don't mean to sound pessimistic, but I don't see an end to any of this," says Robinson.
At Locke, Hagan got on surprisingly well with his gang-member classmates. They respected his decision to concentrate on school and sports. "A lot of people think the gangs recruit you, they don't let you do what you want to do, but that's wrong," says Hagan, who maintained a B average. Not only did the gangs not hassle Hagan, they actually supported him, driving to away games and paying admission—three and four bucks a pop—to see him play.
"It was almost as if they wouldn't let Darian do what they were doing, out of deference to his talent," says Robbs. Indeed, Hagan says, "Guys wouldn't want to smoke around me. They put it out." He is not referring to tobacco.
It was hard not to respect Hagan's performances. Five times during his high school career he rushed for more than 200 yards in a game. In three seasons at Locke he ran for 4,338 yards, and as a senior he was the most sought-after option quarterback in the country. Nebraska, USC, UCLA, Oklahoma and Notre Dame all wooed Hagan. The day he left for Boulder, Robinson shook his hand and said, "Don't come back."
Hagan knew what he meant. Don't pull a Leon Otis on me. Otis was Hagan's predecessor at quarterback for Locke, and Robinson still winces at the mention of Otis's name. "If ever a kid had pro written all over him, it was Leon," says the coach. "He was 6'2", 190, great speed, great option instincts. He punted, he could play receiver. He was better than Hagan. His senior year, he made first team All-City ahead of Jamelle Holieway [who would go on to star at Oklahoma]. Tom Osborne spent a week here trying to get him to go to Nebraska."
Osborne, the Cornhuskers' coach, made a hard pitch for Otis and was successful—at first. Otis signed with the Huskers and lasted all of two months. He got homesick, stopped going to class, came home for midterm break and did not go back to Lincoln. The following season Nebraska gave Otis another chance. This time he lasted until Thanksgiving. When he returned to the neighborhood this time, it was for good. He joined a gang, and nine months after dropping out of Nebraska, he was murdered, shot seven times. Two years after his death the police have no suspects. Hagan cites two reasons for signing with Colorado: coach Bill McCartney's concern for his players and his religious zeal ("My family's into that," Hagan says); and his own desire "to get out of California."
From Day One in Boulder, Hagan's athletic ability turned heads. But his attitude was less impressive. He wasn't much for studying film. And why should he give himself a headache learning the game plan, as long as junior Sal Aunese was the starter? "Darian didn't see that as his responsibility," says quarterback coach Gary Barnett. "He saw his job as going in, finishing the game and having some fun. Typical freshman."
Hagan's lack of preparation was often glaring. During his brief appearances in relief of Aunese, he stuttered in the huddle and raised his teammates' eyebrows by checking off into nonexistent plays at the line of scrimmage. He made some reads against Kansas that "we're still wondering about," says Barnett. Against Iowa State, an ill-advised Hagan pitchout was intercepted by a defensive back and returned 48 yards for a touchdown.
But Hagan's lowest moment as a freshman came in Anaheim, Calif., in the Freedom Bowl against Brigham Young. Late in the game, after Aunese had been unable to move the team, McCartney inserted Hagan. With the score tied 17-17, Hagan rewarded his coach's confidence by forcing a pass into triple coverage. It was intercepted, and BYU drove for the winning field goal.
That's it, thought Hagan. I quit. "I wasn't picking up on how to read defenses as fast as the other quarterbacks were," says Hagan. "So I thought, Why put all this pressure on myself? If I was a tailback, all I'd have to do is know which way to run."
Upon returning to campus after the Christmas holiday, Hagan gave Barnett the news: He was finished at quarterback. Barnett humored him for the rest of the winter. "Think it over," he said. "We'll talk about it in the spring." The coaches never had any intention of letting Hagan switch, Barnett says. The issue suddenly became moot on March 30. Hagan was at home in L.A. for spring break when the phone rang. It was Barnett. Aunese had been told he had inoperable stomach cancer. "That means it's yours," said the coach.
There was a long pause—long enough for Hagan to kiss his adolescence goodbye. "O.K.," he finally told Barnett. "Then that's what I'm going to do."
Back in Boulder, Hagan's attitude underwent a complete reversal. "He did not have a bad day the entire spring," says McCartney. For a change, Hagan was keenly interested in what was said at meetings. "Whenever Coach Barnett spoke, I turned on the tape recorder in my head," he says. Suddenly he was reading defenses as if they were the top row on an eye chart. His checks at the line of scrimmage were unerring. His teammates, who admit that they lacked confidence in him at the beginning of spring ball, had total faith in him by the end of it.
"His leadership turned on like that" says wide receiver Jeff (Soupy) Campbell, snapping his fingers.
"I decided I would be the man," says Hagan. The early returns on his decision were excellent. Hagan sprinted 75 yards in the '89 season opener against Texas, on his second play as a starter. He confounded opposing defenses all season, rushing for 1,004 yards and passing for 1,002, becoming the first player in Big Eight history to achieve that thousand-plus double.
Colorado's coaches knew he was fast and tough. What surprised them was his ability to improvise. Over the course of the season, two of his trademarks became the downfield "rugby" pitch and the "foul-shot" pitch. Twice, while falling forward, at the last possible moment he pitched the ball free throw-style over the heads of opposing defenders. At least half a dozen times—most memorably in Colorado's 27-21 win over Nebraska on Nov. 4—he pitched the ball back to his tailback after running 10 or more yards upfield.
"We have sophisticated rules about where and when he can pitch the ball," says Barnett. "Darian never breaks the rules. He expands them."
"He makes you hold your blocks longer," says senior tackle Bill Coleman, "because all Darian needs is that one step. If he gets that, he's gone. The next time we see him, we're all in the end zone, jumping up and down."
Says Campbell, "Every time he approaches the center, we all think, O.K., something great is about to happen."
And if it doesn't, if Hagan's protection breaks down or a back goes the wrong way, leaving him naked and alone against a horde of snarling foes, Hagan deals with it. Unlike a lot of quarterbacks, who execute dramatic hook slides when a defensive player so much as appears on the horizon, Hagan runs like a fullback. He enjoys taking hits and giving them out.
"When I tuck that ball away, I am a running back, not a quarterback," says Hagan, a blockish 5'10", 185 pounds. "It's just the way I am." Hagan's gritty inside running is the primary reason for Colorado's remarkably effective short-yardage offense this season. Thirty times the Buffaloes found themselves in third-and-one situations; thirty times they converted. Hagan showed further evidence of his toughness in the game against Oklahoma State on Nov. 11. Early in the contest, with the Buffs trailing 10-0, a linebacker named Sim Drain III stuck Hagan on the right shoulder. "He was legitimately hurt," says McCartney. Hagan had the trainer numb his arm, then returned to the game and rallied the Buffs to a 41-17 win.
For all of his highlight-film gallops—Hagan broke three runs this season of more than 40 yards—his most spectacular scramble may have been a 13-yarder in the Nebraska game. With the Buffaloes 10 yards beyond field goal range and time running out in the first half, Hagan dropped back to pass. He had hardly taken the snap before it was necessary to start ducking Cornhuskers. "Six guys hit him, then four more, then three, then five," marveled Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz, who was still talking about the play three weeks later. "Then he runs for the first down, and they kick the field goal."
Like Notre Dame's quarterback, Tony Rice, Hagan is an alchemist, marvelously adept at transforming common gainers into precious big plays. Of the two, Hagan is the more accomplished passer, completing 56.5% of his 85 aerials this season, to Rice's 49.6% (on 137 attempts).
As a freshman, Hagan emphasized his lack of discipline by shooting off his mouth. This fall, he has given his vocal cords a rest. It's all part of the grown-up, sophomore Hagan. "All these things happened at once, and they matured me," he says. Did he mean Aunese's death and his becoming the starting quarterback? "Yes," says Hagan. "That, and being a father." He has a 14-month-old son, Darian Jr., back home in L.A. with the child's mother, Pier Johnson.
As he has mellowed, Hagan has earned the right to do some talking. His teammates chose him MVP this season, and he was flown to New York City to be present at the Heisman awards ceremony. He finished fifth in the voting, which was won by Andre Ware.
The night before he flew to New York, Hagan stopped by defensive tackle Art Walker's apartment for a trim. Walker, the team barber, shaved into the back of Hagan's skull a wavy arrow pointing to the word SAL. In New York, Hagan was not often asked to explain his haircut. This might have been because Aunese's story was already widely known. Then again, it might have been because, throughout the weekend, Hagan seldom removed his hat—one of those natty felt numbers favored by the rap group Run DMC.
In a letter written a few days before he died, Aunese implored his Colorado teammates to "bring back the Orange Bowl." Once that game is history, will the Buffaloes finally release their grip on his memory? "I don't think so," says Hagan. "He's a legend now. The way he lived, the courage he showed while he was still alive—I know I'll never forget it. He made me a follower."
And happily for Colorado, the follower became a leader.