ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – One by one on a crisp day back in January, they stepped forward and laid their hearts bare to Rosalind Williams, pouring out tears and laughter and stories. Each man delivered a tale about how Williams' son, Darrent, had filled part of their lives and made them a little richer. Listening to it all, Champ Bailey couldn't keep himself from crying.
Not just because he'd lost Darrent Williams, who had been murdered in a drive-by shooting only days earlier. But because he'd never heard many of his teammates talk this way about anyone. Hell, he'd never even heard some of his teammates talk this much, let alone so passionately and vulnerably.
"You learn a lot about yourself in a room like that," Bailey said. "And you learn a lot about the people around you, too."
It was one of the cathartic moments in a cruel offseason for these Denver Broncos, who lost Williams only hours after their 2006 season ended, then suffered another tragedy when running back Damien Nash passed away from cardiac complications less than two months later. And it's one that still tugs this team at the seams on occasion, as it floats forward with their lives and careers and ambitions. But in a profession that prides itself on moving on, this is a team that still carries the last few months with it – for better or worse.
"It will never leave us," safety John Lynch said. "Even now, there's not a day where something doesn't come up that makes you laugh or smile or makes your eyes well up all over again."
"I'll sit there and look at his picture and think 'Damn, he was just with us.'" Bailey said. "It sucks that he's gone. I think of all kinds of things we did together. Even after his death, there are things that I keep to myself. It's amazing to me that a person like that can be gone – poof – just like that."
So this is where the Broncos find themselves, in the midst of training camp and coping each day. In some ways they are tighter than ever, galvanized by tragedy and its tendency to create new relationships and strengthen old ones. But there is an underlying current that mirrors part of the Denver community: questions about whether Williams' killer will ever be brought to justice and concerns about how the offseason deaths will manifest themselves as a trying season moves forward.
"You're never ready for something like this," coach Mike Shanahan said. "But now you go on. You've got to live life. You've got to respect the memories of those young men and move forward."
From time to time, the murder investigation pops into Bailey's head. He hears the latest updates. He wonders how long it will take for closure.
"I want to know who did it," Bailey said. "And I hope that person pays the full price for it."
He's not alone. The entire franchise, if not the city, continues to follow the case closely, waiting for some defining details from an investigation that has plunged into a complex tale of guns, drugs and gangs.
Three men were identified as being in the white Chevrolet Tahoe which sprayed bullets into a Hummer limousine carrying Williams and wideout Javon Walker, according to a source with intimate knowledge of the investigation and reports in the Denver Post. That trio &ndash Willie "Little Lett" Clark, Daniel "P.T." Harris and Vernon "Lil' 30 Ounce" Edwards – is currently in federal custody on drug trafficking charges. However, none of the three men has been charged with Williams' murder.
A criminal complaint acquired by Yahoo! Sports ties Clark to Brian "Solo" Hicks, who owns the white Tahoe believed to be used in the shooting. According to the complaint, Hicks and Clark were part of a large drug and crime ring. Sources also have tied Harris and Edwards to that drug trafficking operation. The complaint states that the operation "engaged in a long-term pattern of large-scale cocaine and crack cocaine trafficking, weapons possession and gun trafficking, as well as numerous acts of violence including drive-by shootings, drug rips and home invasion robberies." The complaint also states there are 11 unsolved murders that can be traced to the drug and gang ring, but doesn't mention Williams' death specifically.
Beyond the ties between Hicks, Clark and the white Tahoe – which was found abandoned and spray-painted black several days after Williams' murder – details and motives related to the shooting remain foggy. What investigators do know is that a verbal altercation ensued between several men outside the nightclub before the shooting. Witnesses told investigators that Williams, Walker and others left in a limousine after the verbal confrontation. Shortly after, the white Tahoe opened fire on the limo before speeding off.
Investigators haven't provided any previous ties between Williams, Hicks or any of the three men believed to be in the Tahoe the night of the shooting. But federal investigator Robert Fuller testified in July in U.S. District Court that when Clark was arrested on a parole violation – only four days after Williams' murder – Hicks ordered an intermediary to visit Clark in jail and instruct him to keep from "saying something stupid" to police.
Despite these details, the source close to the investigation said it's likely Williams' killer may never be revealed.
"That is only part of a much larger picture," the source said. "You're talking about a group of people wrapped up in many, many (crimes). Suggesting that someone is going to be positively identified for that (specific murder), well, I just think it's unlikely at this point. "Someday, maybe that will happen. But I don't think it will be anytime soon."
To hear them tell it, the Broncos actually began their trek forward long ago, from the meeting with Williams' mother to the funeral where Shanahan delivered an impassioned eulogy that still echoes in the ears of his players. Emotions that were recycled in February, when Nash passed away following his own charity basketball game.
The team went through the anger and sorrow of seeing Williams' life being taken by another, then the introspection and bonding through faith of seeing Nash pass away. And all the while, they grew together.
"What happened – it doesn't get any tougher than that," Shanahan said. "That was reality. That was permanent. We all love what we do, but it's still a game. These were two young men that the man upstairs took for a reason, but it's hard to deal with that."
And the Broncos have been forced to find their own way, which comes in different forms to different people. Lynch had gone through tragedy once before, when former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Demetrius DuBose was killed after an altercation with police in 1999. He knows the numbness that comes with each little reminder. It's the same feeling he got when training camp opened and the seat next to him in his defensive meeting, the one where Williams often sat, was empty.
Meanwhile, Shanahan has been left to worry about how his players will react, much the way he did in 1989, when as the coach of the Los Angeles Raiders, he lost safety Stacey Toran in an automobile accident during training camp.
If the offseason is any indication, it might be Shanahan who guides this team and keeps them focused this year. He was one of the spiritual beacons over the last several months, peeling away his private veneer and showering his players with uncommon emotion. And he might be the one who can best connect with wideout Javon Walker, who held Williams in his arms as he died, and then in what can only be explained as shock, showed up at the Broncos' practice facility nearly 12 hours later still wearing clothing soaked in blood.
For Shanahan, it brought back the memory of when his own friend, Mickey Bertini, died in Shanahan's arms after a motorcycle accident in Chicago decades ago.
"I've lived through that and you never get used to it," Shanahan said.
On Wednesday, Walker spoke to the media for the first time since the shooting, but didn't touch on the events of that night, much less his own emotional state. But Shanahan and some Broncos players say they have given Walker support and left the door open, should he ever need to talk.
Until then, they live each moment in this training camp a little different than they would have only one year ago.
"When the day ends, I don't even think of going to the hotel to go to sleep anymore," Bailey said. "I'm in here hanging with these guys, because I look at them every day and never know how long I have with them.
"Don't pass up on relationships, because you may never have that chance again. That camaraderie means more than anything to me right now."