By Jillian McCartney and Jonathan Weaver, Salisbury Post
Darris Morris wanted two things: To be somebody and to make his mama proud.
He dreamed of playing professional football.
By his senior year at Catawba College, that dream was becoming a reality.
His mama, Cleavie, waited for the day she could watch him walk proudly across the stage, flash his megawatt smile and accept his diploma.
He was so close.
Cleavie Morris came to Salisbury on Saturday and accepted her son's diploma, his most valuable player award and his class ring.
Darris wasn't there.
He's buried at home in Batesburg-Leesville Memorial Garden.
On Jan. 25, a fight broke out at a Catawba dorm party, then spilled outside, and a bullet ripped through Darris Morris' heart. Six Livingstone College students are charged in his death, opening a wound in the Salisbury community that may take years to heal.
Salisbury and Batesburg-Leesville shared the tragedy of Darris' death. But they share more: young lives lost, potential squandered.
Catawba's first blow came when Stephen Andrew Grooms died in October after a fire at the Foil House Dorm.
This month Matthew Greear and Frank Long V were shot and killed in an off-campus apartment. Police said that shooting was drug-related.
In Batesburg-Leesville, three other students have died since 1997.
Omar Todman was stabbed to death during the 1997-98 school year. His girlfriend was charged with murdering him.
A few weeks later, tailback Rashad Isles died in a crash when he fell asleep at the wheel while traveling to see his mother in Aiken, S.C.
In the summer of 2000, William Phillips, a football and baseball player, also died in a car accident. He's the son of Batesburg-Leesville Athletic Director Gary Phillips.
The towns share Darris.
"Why? That is the eternal question," said Tonia Black-Gold, chief communication officer at Catawba. "We want to think there is some logic or some hidden meaning that we don't get."
Black-Gold said people in the community are asking: "Why us? Why this little place? Why our little world?
"This kind of stuff is supposed to happen somewhere else."
"Such a waste of a young man's life who had such potential to offer," said Principal Pat Padgett.
Darris Morris was born April 2, 1980, at Richmond Memorial Hospital to Ivy and Cleavie Morris.
He grew up in Batesburg, which merged with its twin city in 1993 to become Batesburg-Leesville. Situated in the midlands of South Carolina, the towns are divided by Main Street's rows of awning-covered mom-and-pop shops.
The odor of Columbia Farms' chicken processing plant hangs thick in the air. Poultry is king here -- thousands were expected to invade the town this weekend for the annual South Carolina Poultry Festival.
Visitors may stop for a plate or two of mustard barbecue from local restaurants such as Shealy's or Jackie Hite's.
But even birds and barbecue take a back seat each year from late August through November. That's when the Panthers of Batesburg-Leesville High School play. The team has won five state championships.
"Man, this is a football town," said Matthew Hill, supervisor of street maintenance for the town of Batesburg-Leesville. "These are all Panther fans around here."
Budding gridiron stars start young in Batesburg-Leesville, Hill said. "When they're 8 or 9 years old, they start out playing Little League Football."
Naturally, gangly Darris wanted to throw on some pads and hit the field.
At the age of 9, "he just came to me and said he wanted to play,"Cleavie Morris said. "So we took him down there and signed him up."
Even then, Cleavie Morris went to every game.
Teammates called him String Bean, "because he was so bony," said friend Travis Gates, 23. Gates played next to him on those elementary school-age teams.
Darris' natural talent and a strong work ethic quickly emerged. He soon was known as the playmaker.
Joe Barr considers Darris his second son, having coached him in track and football.
Barr remembers the first time he met Darris at the age of 12. Barr had gone with his son Jamaal to the gym on a Sunday to play basketball. There sat Darris, watching the older boys play.
"Why aren't you playing?"Barr asked.
"I'm not big enough," Darris replied.
"We're playing next," Barr told him. Barr and his two "sons" played together for the first time that day, a tradition that would last for many years.
Even as a teen, Darris was a jokester.
When he was about 13, Darris' aunts Cornelia Nicholson and Aleathea Carter came home to find him lying flat on his back in the driveway. Since he had a reputation for pranks, they thought he was kidding and yelled from the car for him to get out of the way. After fussing over who was going to get out and get him to move, they realized he had fallen out of a nearby tree. Nicholson said when they finally helped him up, "he was walking like a drunk person."
But he had a serious side.
Darris valued education, always harping at his baby sister, Nakesha, 9, to mind her studies so she could go to college.
But like any red-blooded teen-ager, Darris often did only what he needed to do to get the job done. "Darris was a bright kid," said English teacher Kathie Toth. "And when I say he was bright, he really was bright." But, she added, he didn't always use his brightness as much as he could have.
Younger students like Ryan Todman and Brandon Harris, both juniors, remember Darris always looked out for people.
"He was a big brother type," Harris said. They remember Darris coming back to visit from Catawba. "He never would forget where he came from," Harris said.
Friends agree, the ladies loved Darris. "The boy had women on each arm," basketball and football coach Ross Cary said.
Wherever they traveled as a team, Darris seemed to know a girl, if not several, Cary said.
Phil Strickland, head coach of Batesburg-Leesville High School's football team, remembers the "skinny little player" the coaches had to coerce into playing football. Darris liked football and ended up an exceptional player, but it was not his first love.
"He thought he was the next Michael Jordan," Strickland said.
But Darris was an average basketball player on the varsity team, according to Cary, who coached Darris in basketball for three years. "He just loved playing. He was one of the few kids you had to run off the court at the end of practice."
His sophomore year, when Darris didn't show up one day for football tryouts, Coach Barr went to his house. Darris told Barr he wasn't playing football that year; he wanted to concentrate on basketball.
But Barr changed Darris' mind. "He's a good basketball player but a great football player," Barr said.
Great football players are local celebrities in Batesburg-Leesville, said Darris' cousin and teammate Frederick Morris.
On Friday nights, fans flow in to the pride and joy of Batesburg-Leesville High School: Panther Stadium. In a town with a population of about 6,500, Panthers' home games pack the 6,600-seat stadium.
Like so many Batesburg-Leesville athletes, Darris' dreams extended beyond the stadium's chain link fences.
"If you want to make it, you have to leave this town,"said friend Kevin "Popsicle" Rowe, who attends Claflin University in Orangeburg.
The town has "great people, just the wrong environment,"friend Eric Derrick said.
Many teens hope athletics will lead to a scholarship. For Morris, it did.
David Bennett, former Catawba College head football coach, remembers the trip to Batesburg-Leesville High School to see Darris play basketball. "Darris always thought he was a basketball player," he said. But Bennett had other plans.
Several other football coaches had planned to attend that same game, but when the day came, it snowed. Catawba recruiters were the only ones to show.
Bennett and his staff were relieved the competition wasn't there. He was impressed by Darris' size and athletic ability and determined to make him an Indian. "We were just thrilled to recruit him," Bennett said.
It helped that Bennett had connections.
Bennett served as an assistant for football coach Gary Smallen while the two were at Newberry College. Smallen later moved to Batesburg-Leesville to coach. Bennett learned that Smallen's son, Jason, was one of Darris' best friends, and Gary Smallen and his wife, Linda, knew Darris and his family.
Jason Smallen and Darris met through football and became close. "That's the good thing about football ... It has a family kind of sense," Smallen said.
From the moment Darris stepped on Catawba's campus, Cleavie Morris made it her business to know the people watching over her boy. She told them to call her if he stepped out of line.
Darris began his freshman year as a linebacker with two other freshman, Shaun Sanders and Shawn McBride. Spending four years together on the same team, playing the same position, the three became close.
"It was the linebackers everybody talked about," said Catawba head football coach Chip Hester.
But Darris knew that no one person made up a team. He reminded his teammates of that daily, through his words and actions.
During training camp last summer, the seniors each gave a speech. When it was his turn, Darris stood in front of 120 men holding a ball made of rubber bands. He took one off and threw it on the floor. The rubber band hit the floor and stayed there.
"This is what happens to one of us alone," he told his teammates.
Darris bent down, picked up the rubber band and wrapped it back around the ball. He then threw the whole ball at the floor, and they watched it bounce high in the air.
"If we all pull together, we can go through the roof," he said.
Darris told his teammates not to complain if they weren't starting and not to care who got the glory because, as a team, they earned it together.
The team gave Darris a standing ovation. In Bennett's 12 years at Catawba, Darris was one of only three players ever to get a standing ovation, Bennett said. The team grew very close.
"Just the dynamic of the sport, you've got to rely on your teammates," Hester said. "You're dealing with brothers."
Said Bennett, who's now the head football coach at Coastal Carolina University: "It's hard to put into words the things that you go through and the bonds that you make."
D-Mo, as his Catawba teammates called Darris, began his freshman year as a promising athlete. But when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in one of the first games of the season, he had to sit out the rest of the year. He wondered if he would ever play as well again, Hester said.
But Darris dedicated himself to rehabilitation and came back his sophomore year a better player.
In his senior year, he was an All-South Atlantic Conference linebacker who helped Catawba get to the national semifinals and an 11-2 record.
But college wouldn't have been the end of Darris' football career.
"He's the one that the pro scouts were looking at," Bennett said.
Said Hester: "He was just the best all around athlete on our team. He had so much going for him."
"Iused to talk to him some about it,"said Matthew Hill, the Batesburg-Leesville maintenance supervisor who gave Darris a summer job one year. "I told him handling a pick and a shovel is a whole different world ... 'You need to make something of yourself.' "
"He felt like he had a shot," said longtime friend Eric Derrick. "He wanted it, but that wasn't his main concern. His main concern was graduating."
Darris went home to Batesburg-Leesville for winter break in December just like he always did. He hung out with friends and stayed with his family.
His baby sister, Nakesha, remembers the times she spent with Darris the last two weeks he was home for Christmas break. The two played in the snow and built a snowman.
"Darris was real protective of Nakesha," said older sister Ivette Kelley, 24.
Nakesha remembers how important it was to Darris that she go to college. She studies hard because she knows he would want her to. Nakesha said Darris' friends, like cousin Roderick Morris, have looked out for her in the months since his death.
One Friday in December, Darris got together with Eric, Red, Roderick, Popsicle and the rest of his hometown friends.
They visited a few friends, then headed to Columbia to the clubs. It was like any other night the group would get back together.
Shortly before Darris headed back to Salisbury, Roderick Morris tried to talk him out of his Timberland boots. The two shared clothes often, but "Darris said 'You can't get my trees,' " Roderick said. "Then he wanted my Seiko watch." The two went back and forth for a bit. Before he left, Roderick Morris hugged Darris.
"Isaid, 'I love you, dog,' "Roderick Morris said. "He said, 'I love you, too.' " It was the first time he could remember them expressing such affection. It was the last time Roderick Morris saw his cousin alive.
Thirteen days before Darris died, Ivette Kelley drove her brother back to college. Cleavie Morris' car had broken down, and Darris let her borrow his truck.
During the ride, Darris told his sister "he said he wanted to be somebody. He wanted to take care of mama."
"You don't have anything to worry about once I graduate from school," he told her.
"He was always saying life is too short; you need to live it to the fullest," Ivette Kelley said.
On Jan. 23, a Wednesday, Cleavie Morris called Salisbury.
"Ijust told him Iloved him," she said. "He wanted to know how everybody was doing. We talked briefly. He told me he needed some money for a book, so I told him Iwould send him some on Friday."
That was the last time she talked to her son.
Close friend and teammate Nick Means remembers that fateful Friday afternoon, Jan. 25. He and Darris went to the mall. That night they hung out in Means' room at Rowan-Salisbury Dorm "cutting up" and "fussing about the season."
Means remembers the guys talking about what they should have done. Darris defused the conversation with humor. "That was him. Always made you laugh."
A problem in the dorm earlier that day put students on a 24-hour quiet period, so they went across campus to a party they had heard about.
Means remembers the moments before the fight broke out in Pine KnotDorm. Darris stood in the corner with his hood on. Means had been talking with a girl, and Darris was giving him "that funny look" and smiling.
Students were stuffed into the room. As another friend walked out of the room, he bumped into a visiting Livingstone student, Means said.
Other Livingstone students surrounded his friend, Means said, and Darris came over. "He's our big brother so he came to see what was going on."
Some words were exchanged. The students hosting the party told everyone to leave. The altercation continued outside.
Six Livingstone students headed toward their car and retrieved two guns, police have since said.
Shots were fired.
Abullet hit Catawba student and basketball player Demetrius "Duke"Phipps, 19, in his hand and leg. Another hit Catawba student Bradley David McCrary in his leg.
One bullet went through Morris' heart. Paramedics rushed him to Rowan Regional Medical Center.
When Hester, who had succeeded Bennett as football coach, arrived at the hospital, he asked if the family had been notified. They had not.
Then he made the call that anyone dreads. He called Darris' mama.
"He said Darris had been shot, and, of course, Ibroke down,"Cleavie Morris said. "I asked him where he was shot, and what kind of gun he was shot by. He just said 'Miss Morris, you just need to get here, Idon't have any details.' "
Aunt Cornelia Nicholson remembers the long ride to Salisbury. The trip took longer when the group took a wrong turn and got on Interstate 95.
Hester said Cleavie Morris kept calling to see how Darris was doing, but he had little to no news with each phone call.
When Cleavie Morris arrived at the hospital, she demanded to see her son. When she saw where the bullet had hit, she knew he was gone.
Four months later, the pain is fresh.
Ivette Kelley still has the screaming message her mother left that night on her answering machine.
"We had to wake up to her screams," Kelley said. "It was just so terrible."
Cleavie Morris wears a button with a smiling Darris in his football jersey. "Mama's Boy" is scrawled across the bottom of the button.
When talking about her son, she often has to stop and take short, quick breaths to regain her composure.
Since the burial, she has not visited his grave. She's not sure she ever will.
"Ijust want to call him, and let him know Ilove him," she said. "That's all."
Cleavie Morris and other family members have attended all the court hearings for the six Livingstone students charged in Darris' death.
Three are charged with murder. Three others are charged with accessory after the fact.
At each hearing, Cleavie Morris sits in the courtroom, slowly rocking back and forth, weeping. She always clutches a picture of Darris to her chest.
And it's only begun.
"It's going to be the longest road and the toughest road to go through ... ,"reliving her son's death in court, Cleavie Morris said. "It will be hard, but I'll do it. For Darris, I'll do it."
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Contact Jill McCartney or Jonathan Weaver at 704-797-4253. You can email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.