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FIRST THERE WAS A CRASH. No squealing brakes, just the dull crunch of a car caving in a home’s front porch and shattering the predawn quiet. And then nothing. No cries for help, no movement in the vehicle, nothing to suggest anyone was behind the wheel. It was as if the car, a red 1974 Plymouth Duster, had driven itself up over the curb, aimed for the front door, and hit the gas.

The sun was still hours from rising on October 20, 1988, when Tacoma police and fire units pulled up to the scene of the accident, at the corner of 13th and South I. In almost any other part of the city a car-on-house collision would set neighbors buzzing, but it was tame for the gang-controlled Hilltop neighborhood. That very morning a man was beaten to death one block away in an abandoned house. Police raided crack houses on these streets all the time. This thing with the car? Probably just a local burnout who got drunk and passed out behind the wheel. 

There the Duster sat, no signs of life inside, steam rising from the busted radiator. As police approached, emergency lights splashing red across the lawn and lighting up the car’s interior, they saw an African American man slumped over in the front seat. Sir? You’ve been in an accident, sir. Are you hurt? No response. Sir? Then they saw it: the small hole in his sweatshirt and the blood that saturated the fabric around it. Suddenly the car, the lawn, the street—they were all part of a crime scene. The man was still alive—barely—but by the time paramedics transported him four blocks to St. Joseph Medical Center he was dead. He was ID’d as Darryl Baines, and, once word started to spread around the police department, officers realized this wasn’t just another dead gangbanger.

Wait, Darryl Baines. Wasn’t he…?
Yep. Star wide receiver at Lincoln High School.
Didn’t he…?
Yep. Got a chance to play up in Seattle last year, for the Seahawks.
Man. That kid could run.

 

THE ROPE WAS ROUGH, FRAYED STRANDS poking into his palms, but the fearless eight-year-old gripped it harder and pulled it close to his chest as he swung out off of the bridge. There were train tracks below—a long way down—but he didn’t see them. He was looking straight ahead, toward downtown Tacoma. Maybe even beyond that, to some place and time where people looked up to him, instead of the other way around.

As a kid, Darryl Willie Baines would race his brother Jessie through the neighborhood to swing on that rope hanging from a tree near the 43rd Street Bridge in Tacoma. Jessie was older by four years, and they’d compete to see who could swing farther away from the bridge. Darryl never blinked. The challenge made it interesting, but the freedom of floating out above the tracks—the thrill—made it exciting.

He was born in Tacoma on April 11, 1960, the ninth of Hezzie and Burnetta Baines’s 10 children. The Baines’s door was always open to the kids’ friends, and even though they didn’t have much money—Hezzie cut hair at Fort Lewis, and Burnetta was a building inspector for the city—there was always a spot at the dinner table for someone from the neighborhood. Darryl never lacked for playmates, but he and Jessie were closest. They went everywhere together, at first because Jessie was instructed to take his little brother with him and then, later, because they became best friends. They did “dumb things that brothers do,” Jessie says now, like riding go-carts and looking for mischief in the fields near their home. Their grandfather had a small farm, and when they visited him they’d chase the horses through the tall grass.

The Baines boys—there were seven of them—might as well have been born in a locker room. They inherited a passion for sports from Hezzie, who’d played baseball in the Negro Leagues. More than that, they loved competing with each other. Eddie, the oldest, ran track. Hezzie, named after his father, was a boxer. And for the rest it was football. They played, they watched each other play, they fought for the unofficial title of Best Baines in a Helmet and Pads. Ron, the fourth oldest and
Darryl’s senior by 14 years, was the first to have any success outside of the city, first when he earned a scholarship to the University of Montana and then when he was selected by the Buffalo Bills in the 10th round of the 1969 NFL draft. 

Ron never played in a professional game, but the idea that a Baines could make it to the NFL at all flipped a switch inside Darryl. He was a quiet kid, partly because he had a slight stutter and partly
because, as the youngest boy, he was the easiest target for the standard brother-on-brother ribbing that was bound to get passed down the ranks in a family with that many kids. And the sibling rivalry that had pushed him to keep up with his brothers motivated him to one-up Ron by actually playing in a pro game. “I’m gonna be better than all of you guys,” nine-year-old Darryl boasted to his brothers. 

Darryl was big. He was strong. He was fast. And by tagging along to his brothers’ practices and games, he soaked up their coaches’ instructions, like how to find the sideline when he was running with the ball on offense. But as a wide receiver at Lincoln High School he didn’t run away from defenders, he ran them over. Otis Embree, a high school friend, remembers sitting in the stands with Darryl’s parents and watching him lower his head and charge at anyone who tried to wrap him up. “He wasn’t a finesse guy,” Embree says. “He would hit you so hard if you tried to tackle him. He actually punished tacklers.”

Off the field, though, Darryl started getting into trouble. By the time he graduated from high school he’d racked up 11 traffic tickets and been arrested for lifting a CB radio from a local electronics store. Maybe it was the fearless streak that made him hard to stop on the football field. Most likely it was that no one bothered to rein him in. Hezzie was nearing 70 when Darryl was in high school—ancient from a teenager’s perspective—not to mention in poor health. Burnetta, a decade younger than her husband, had heart problems. They hadn’t given up on parenting by the time Darryl came of age, they just couldn’t keep up with him the way they’d been able to with his older siblings. Darryl’s a good boy, Burnetta told police. He just can’t stand up to peer pressure. 

But the arrests kept mounting. In July 1979 he and a friend broke into a home and stole a TV, stereo, and $500 in change. Darryl might have gotten away with it, too—if his friend hadn’t left fingerprints at the scene, got pinched, and ratted him out. 

In a letter to the judge before his sentencing the next year, he pleaded his case and acknowledged he’d been running with the wrong crowd: “I am now trying, in the best words I know, to explain to you…that I have learned my lesson, and that I need the chance…to prove that being locked up is only depriving [me] of trying to finish college and become more than a jail inmate.” He’d straightened himself out since the burglary and played for the Wenatchee Community College football team in fall 1979, and now he was begging for a light sentence that would allow him to work and “pay for summer school classes so that I can play football this season so that I may be able to earn a scholarship.” 

Despite a review from Baines’s probation officer that labeled him a “marginal candidate for probation,” the judge sentenced him to three months in jail and 10 years of probation. He’d get his chance to prove his mother right.

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Man at Rest Baines, pictured in the 1987 Panthers team program

A SHOTGUN WAS THE FIRST thing Darryl Baines saw in his rearview mirror. He couldn’t see the face of the man holding it, just that it was poking out from behind the open driver’s side door of a police car that idled behind him. Then he heard the distinctive shk-shk as the gun was cocked and a shell loaded into the chamber. Then a voice: “Put your hands on the windshield, palms out!”

He didn’t think. He just reacted. It had barely been a year since his burglary conviction, and he’d already proved his probation officer right by assaulting a DJ at a club. And here he was again, drawing heat—but this time he had no idea why. Fear, anger, resentment, they all mixed together in his chest and then exploded down his right leg and into his foot. He stomped on the gas pedal in his red Camaro, leaving that cop kneeling on the side of the road with the shotgun on his shoulder.

Baines didn’t know where he was going. Didn’t have a plan. But the more distance he could put between himself and the law—and the faster he could do it—the better. He held his foot to the floor, gunning the Camaro up to 100 miles per hour along 40th Street West toward South Tacoma, diving into and back out of oncoming traffic. He shot through one red light. Then another.

As Baines peeled away, officer Bruce Ramsey of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office jumped back into his cruiser and took off after him. He didn’t know anything about Baines’s past when he pulled him over that afternoon, on June 1, 1981. Ramsey only knew that the Camaro Baines was driving matched the description of a vehicle seen two blocks away leaving an armed robbery at the United Mutual Savings Bank. 

Baines was running out of road; up ahead 40th Street ended in a T. He’d have to turn—left or right, it didn’t matter—but his brain had gone dark minutes earlier and pure adrenaline was guiding him now. It was the way he’d carried the ball for the Lincoln High School football team: No scanning the field for holes, no plotting a course to the end zone. Just running where his feet took him. He yanked the wheel to the right, skidding onto South Orchard Street, and then leaned hard into a countersteer to bring the sports car under control. Traffic was thick and moving slowly, so he took the center turn lane and blew through three more intersections, forcing one car after another off the road. 

Ramsey was keeping pace, but just barely. He looked at his speedometer: 115 miles per hour. And Baines was starting to pull away. Help was coming, though. Two more officers from the sheriff’s office were pulling on to Orchard a few miles down the road and speeding back toward Baines to box him in. Baines saw them as soon as their flashing lights came into view. Without slowing down, he jerked the wheel left and pulled a U-turn in the middle of the road, cutting off cars on both sides of the street. The sound of squealing brakes were drowned out by the Camaro’s muscular engine as Baines revved it and sped back in the direction he’d come from. Ramsey, unable to slow down in time, flew past. Another few quick turns and Baines ducked into a residential neighborhood and roared by an elementary school where kids laughed and chased each other on the playground.

And then, as if his brain suddenly lit up again and he realized this wasn’t a football field and there was no end zone, he just cut the engine and got out of the car. Ramsey and the other two officers pulled up, and Baines surrendered without a fight. Only then did he bother to wonder why they were chasing him in the first place, and when they told him about the bank robbery he was incredulous. “I didn’t rob any bank,” he insisted. “All I did was run, and I wouldn’t have done that if that cop hadn’t pulled that gun on me.”

That’s what they all say, but in this case it may have been true. It was a coincidence that he happened to be near the bank after the robbery, Baines said. He’d driven through the parking lot on the way to a nearby gas station to inquire about an oil change. And in fact when police searched his car they found just a baggie of marijuana—no guns and no money, nothing to suggest he’d had anything to do with the hold-up. 

It didn’t matter, though. Baines pleaded guilty to felony pursuit and a Pierce County Superior Court judge sentenced him to five years in prison. It was the only way anyone thought they could keep him from running.

 

THE CALL WENT OUT TO THE Thurston County Sheriff’s Office at 5:57am on October 4, 1981: Two prisoners had escaped from Cedar Creek Correction Center. One, identified as Randy Dewitt, was a 19-year-old white male. The other, a 21-year-old black male, was Darryl Baines.

Cedar Creek is located in Littlerock, Washington, a tiny town 15 minutes southwest of Olympia, that’s mostly flat, save for a stretch of lumpy landscape known as the Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve. The facility is classified as a minimum security prison, but it’s more of a work camp, and being assigned there was considered a privilege because of its comparatively lax environment. Inmates worked hard on Department of Natural Resources forestry crews, though it wasn’t hard time in the Shawshank
Redemption sense of the term.

Baines had been especially lucky to land at Cedar Creek after the high-speed chase in Tacoma, and it took him just a week to start wearing out his welcome. He was at odds with his DNR foreman from the start, thanks to the fact that he spent more time horsing around than working. He hadn’t adapted well to the prison’s culture either—he was suspected of bullying the younger inmates—and officials were already considering transferring him. And on top of that, he’d received a letter from his high school girlfriend telling him in no uncertain terms that they were through. Baines wasn’t about to let her go that easily, though. He was young and in love. He had to talk to her. In person.

Cedar Creek wasn’t designed to keep inmates from leaving; the opportunity to serve time there—as opposed to being locked up in a more traditional prison—was all the motivation most inmates needed to stay put. At the time there was no perimeter fence, there were no guard towers, and inmates slept in dormitories that were often unlocked. So Darryl didn’t need an intricate plan for escape. He simply waited patiently in his bunk until after the nightly count on October 3, and then slipped out under cover of darkness. 

By 6:21am, two hours after Baines had been discovered missing and less than a half hour after local police had been alerted, he’d covered nearly nine miles, on foot, to I-5. Along the way he’d hooked up with Dewitt, and now the two of them were trying to thumb a ride. Instead, they spotted a cop, Deputy Ed Littlejohn, a 13-year veteran of the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, driving to work in the opposite direction. Littlejohn spotted them, too, and as he whipped his car around in pursuit they ran into a cornfield along the interstate and disappeared among the tall stalks.

Baines put as much thought into what he’d do after he left Cedar Creek as he did into leaving it. He made it to a bus station and then back to Tacoma, but rather than lie low, he went to his parents’ house, where Burnetta threatened to call the police. From there he ran again, this time to the girlfriend’s place. It must not have gone well, because two days later, he called his mother and asked her to tell the police where he was. Within 45 minutes the authorities arrived, and once again he was headed to jail.

Another impulsive act. Another bad decision. Baines wasn’t a bad kid—he wasn’t violent—but he was making it hard for anyone to argue anymore that he was a good one. “Mr. Baines was
selected for minimum security before he was ready for it,” a Cedar Creek supervisor wrote in his file after he was apprehended. “He did have a chance to do his time in a more comfortable, relaxed
environment, and he blew it.” 

Over the next five years, as he wound his way through the Washington State Department of Corrections—from minimum security to medium, then to maximum, then back again—he tried to straighten himself out. He attended community college classes while incarcerated and made plans to get a two-year degree in physical education after he was released. In a handwritten letter to prison officials, he assured them he’d changed. “My goal in life is to become a recreation leader and play the game that I’m best at, football,” he wrote in immaculate, looping cursive. “I don’t want people to see me as no tough, big black man. I would much prefer being seen as Darryl Baines, who plays football.”

But he was changing in other ways, too. Periodic reviews show he was developing a “widespread reputation for being an intimidating personality which…he employs to his full advantage.” For the most part he had a good relationship with the guards—one called him “congenial,” even—but to the other prisoners he was someone to avoid. He was denied early release in March 1984 after he and another inmate tried to force a third to give them sexual favors. 

Jessie Baines says that when Darryl transferred from Cedar Creek to the rougher medium- and maximum-security facilities, he went into survival mode, shedding any semblance of the playful kid he’d been and replacing it with an aggressive, menacing persona. Darryl learned early, after another inmate stabbed him in the arm and sent him to the infirmary for 10 stitches, that it was better to be feared than fearful in a place where weakness was an invitation to a beatdown. “He had to take on that mentality to take care of himself,” Jessie says. “In there, you have no one. You’ve got your own back.”

Darryl finally walked out of the McNeil Island Corrections Center for the last time on March 26, 1985, nearly four years after the high-speed chase in Tacoma. Jessie barely recognized him. His little brother had grown up to be a big man. Just shy of his 25th birthday, Darryl weighed 210 pounds and at six-foot-one, stood a full four inches taller than Jessie. And with little else to do inside, Darryl had hit the weights. Hard. “He had a body on him,” Jessie says. “He looked like a pro running back. But his mind was just not there.”

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With teammates at the Sports Page in Tacoma

WHATEVER BAINES’S mental state was when he left prison, there’s no question that in almost every other way he had a chance to make a smooth transition. His family, which had supported him however they could while he was inside, welcomed him back without reservation. He had a job lined up with his father’s landscaping business. And most important there was football. A year earlier the Auburn Panthers had begun play in the Northwest Football Alliance, a semipro league that at the time consisted of nine teams predominantly from Washington, and they were always looking for capable running backs. 

Semipro conjures up images of broken-down has-beens and starry-eyed never-will-bes, but the Panthers treated it as anything but beer league football. The team’s owners, Michael Highsmith and Phil Pompeo, had stacked it with solid high school and college players who, for whatever reason, had never made it to the next level. The players weren’t getting paid—any ticket proceeds from games went toward equipment and renting Troy Field on the Auburn High School campus—so their compensation was playing time and exposure to get to that next level.

It was the perfect situation for Baines. He’d have a chance to demonstrate his skills to pro scouts. And he’d be among friends: Ron was a player-coach there, and Otis Embree, Darryl’s buddy from high school, began playing with the team the year before Darryl’s release. But even better, no one thought twice about his criminal past. “The kid could play football, and that’s all we cared about,” Highsmith says. “If the players treated the fans okay, if they treated their teammates okay, we didn’t have any problems.” And Baines didn’t have any problems, at least not with the Panthers. On the field he was all business, and he was a good sport, too, always offering to help up the defenders he ran over. Off the field, like when he’d have a couple postgame beers at a bar with teammates, he was quiet. Friendly—affable, even—but quiet.

The uniform was like a hazmat suit for Baines, hermetically sealing him off from the negative influences that had brought him down in the past.

All that time away from football had done nothing to diminish his skills. In fact, his constant weight lifting in prison had made him that much harder to stop. Just before halftime in the sixth game of the 1986 season, the Panthers found themselves trailing the Eastside Express 10-0, until Baines ripped off a 45-yard touchdown—the first of three scores—to spark a 28-10 come-from-behind victory. By the end of the year, in which Auburn beat the Chicago Cowboys of the Metropolitan League of Chicago for the national championship of semipro football, Baines was the fourth-leading rusher in the NFA. And that was after missing five games. “Football was his savior,” Embree says. “Football was the place where he could shine.”

Baines was attracting attention, too, and for one of the first times in his life it was for good reasons. College coaches started attending Auburn games to get a peek at his explosive play, and a few wanted to offer him a scholarship. But he was holding out for a ticket straight to the pros. That kind of jump wasn’t completely unheard of in semipro ball, but it was uncommon. Even Mike Oliphant, a one-time Panther who went on to play in the NFL, had made a stop at the University of Puget Sound first. Baines was either blind to reality or willfully ignoring the truth: He needed a miracle if he wanted to play on Sundays.

And then, as if the football gods believed he’d earned a second chance, he got that miracle. On September 21, 1987, the NFL players voted to strike. Suddenly 28 teams needed to fill their 53-man rosters. General managers and their assistants called former pros who had washed out. They called middling college players who’d shuffled off the field and into office park cubicles. They called Darryl Baines.

Less than a week after the strike began, Highsmith, the Panthers owner, drove Baines to a hotel just off of Highway 520 in Bellevue to meet with a member of the Seattle Seahawks front office. Together, they looked over the contract that the team was willing to offer: $3,000 a game, for as long as the strike lasted. Baines signed his name, and just like that he was an NFL player. A replacement, a strike-breaking scab who’d be spit at and cursed by the real players as he crossed the picket line at the Seahawks practice facility, but still an NFL player. He called his big brother Ron and announced the news: “You ain’t the only pro in the family now.” Darryl’s first chance to step onto a pro field, against the Miami Dolphins at the Kingdome, would be on October 4—six years to the day after he ran from Cedar Creek. And those who knew his talents had high hopes. “If this strike lasts a long time,” Highsmith told the press, “Baines might be the Super Bowl MVP.”

He never played a down, though. Three days after the game against Miami, the Seahawks released him. Baines didn’t get cut for a lack of talent, though. He got cut for allegedly stealing shoes.

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THERE WERE A FEW GAMES left in the Panthers’ season after Baines lost his job with the S-eahawks, but he didn’t bother to go back. It might have been a soft landing for him, a chance to stay straight. The uniform was like a hazmat suit for Baines, hermetically sealing him off from the negative influences that had brought him down 

in the past. If he could have played all day, every day, he might have been okay. But eventually he had to take it off, and then he was exposed.

Highsmith, Embree, Baines’s other teammates—none of them heard from him again. And he only popped up on his brothers’ radars sporadically, so it’s hard to piece together what happened in the last year of his life. In fact, the only way to build a narrative is through police reports and accounts from the cops he crossed paths with. He stayed out of trouble for a few months before being involved in two domestic disputes in January 1988. Then a month later he was charged in Pierce County Superior Court for robbery in the second degree. 

“Oh sure, I remember Darryl—hell of an athlete,” says Marcus Mann. In 1988 Mann was the public information officer for the Tacoma Police Department. He also worked on the K Street Task Force, which patrolled the Hilltop to beat back the LA-based gangs that were infiltrating the neighborhood. Mann knew Baines by name because he’d see him every shift, hanging out at the same bars on K Street. “It saddened some of the officers and shocked others that Darryl had so much potential but put himself at risk,” Mann says. “We’d tell him to his face: ‘You know you’re at risk, hanging out up here.’ ”

Baines was still friendly to those who knew him, but his intimidating physique and his hair-trigger temper—remnants of the warrior’s mentality he adopted in prison—made him a target. When Ron saw him, he’d try to warn his little brother to take it easy, that Tacoma’s streets weren’t like McNeil Island. “Darryl, nowadays these guys out here, they don’t fight—they shoot,” Ron remembers telling him. “People are afraid of you, and somebody’s going to shoot you because they’re afraid of you.”

Ron’s words were oddly prophetic. Darryl was still awaiting sentencing on the robbery charge when he was killed on October 20, 1988. At the time, police reported that he ran into a known crack house at 1420 South I Street, grabbed some rock cocaine out of a dealer’s hand, and tried to run. He was shot as he reached his car, police said, where a girl was waiting, ready to drive him away. She was so distraught, though, that she ran the car into a house, and then fled the scene.

Ron canvassed the neighborhood after it happened, looking for answers. He didn’t believe his brother was desperate enough to try something that stupid. He interrogated anyone he could find. They told him Darryl got into an argument with someone in the house—“Y’all little gangbangers with your guns, I’ll kick all y’all’s asses!” Darryl supposedly yelled—and then got shot in the back from a second-story window after he left. 

No one really knows for sure, though. Tacoma Police never found the shooter. And the initial official reports of what happened early that morning weren’t borne out. According to a source in the Tacoma Police Department who couldn’t speak on the record because the case is still open, there was an altercation in the house, but it’s not entirely clear that Baines was involved in it. And he was most likely already in the car when the shot was fired.

Darryl Baines was one of 33 people murdered in Tacoma in 1988. But his death was front-page news in the News Tribune a day later: “Bullet Ends the Troubled Life of an Athlete,” read the above-the-fold headline. Next to it is a photo of Ron sitting at his dining room table, looking dazed, hollowed out by the realization that Darryl’s athletic potential would go unfulfilled. “He was living his life,” he told the paper. “The way he lived, maybe that’s the way he was supposed to go.”

 

SAVE FOR GAME DAY PROGRAMS and a few articles in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and regional papers, the Panthers didn’t leave much of a paper trail, little to document their phenomenal success—they set a semipro record with 57 straight wins—or Darryl Baines’s talents. Video is even more scarce.

There’s one VHS tape, though, that’s made the rounds among former players. It’s just a bunch of raw footage from the Panthers’ national championship victory over the Chicago Cowboys on November 29, 1986, that would later be edited down for a report on the local news: pregame warm-ups, locker room pep talks, in-game highlights. It’s been dubbed again and again, to the point that the screen rolls every few minutes and a grainy line of static frames the bottom of the picture.

The camera pans up, and there are the players, running out of the tunnel at Troy Field, their shadows long in the late-afternoon sunlight. There’s wide receiver Harry Washington, sprinting down the field with the ball for one of his three touchdowns that day.

And then there’s Baines, lined up in the backfield on the Panthers’ 40 yard line, midway through the second quarter. He crouches in a three-point stance, leaning forward and bracing himself with the first two fingers of his right hand, a spring ready to uncoil. The ball is snapped, and he darts straight for quarterback Roy Medley, his arms open, ready to receive the ball and tuck it close to his body. 

He’s got the ball now, and for less than a second he disappears into the mass of bodies slamming into each other at the line of scrimmage. Almost as soon as he enters the scrum, though, he’s out, blasting through a hole that he saw before it opened. A Chicago defender lines him up and runs straight for him. Baines charges right past him, though, and the defender slips and falls as he tries to reverse course.

He’s in the open field now, pursued only by shadows. Arms pumping, his shoulders lurching with each stride, as if he’s trying to throw his upper body forward to keep up with his legs and feet. He crosses the goal line and holds the ball above his head. There isn’t another player within 15 yards of him. They’ve given up. 

They know they can’t catch him.

This article appeared in the September 2012 issue of Seattle Met Magazine.

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