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.