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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Tragedy struck the Denver Broncos and the National Football League on Monday morning when cornerback Darrent Williams was shot and killed in the overnight hours of New Year's morning.
He was 24 years old.
"All of us are devastated by this tragedy," President/CEO Pat Bowlen said in a statement. "To lose a young player, and more important, a great young man such as Darrent Williams, is incomprehensible. To lose him in such a senseless manner as this is beyond words.
"My deepest feelings, all my thoughts and prayers, go out to Darrent's mother and family. The entire Broncos' organization shares my grief. Darrent was a wonderful young man, and his passing is a great loss for his family, the Broncos and the city."
Added Head Coach Mike Shanahan: "Losing a fine young man such as Darrent Williams leaves me speechless with sadness. We all know that Darrent was an excellent player, but as a person, he was a first class young man who brightened every room with his smile, attitude and personality. I cannot express how heartsick I feel at this loss. All of our players and coaches are completely shocked by this terrible tragedy, and my deepest condolences go out to the entire Williams family."
Williams was just hours removed from playing extensively during the Broncos' season-ending 26-23 overtime loss to the San Francisco 49ers, a game in which he logged three tackles and returned a pair of punts for 50 yards, including a 34-yarder that was his longest of the season.
The Oklahoma State product joined the Broncos as a second-round draft pick in 2005 and immediately made an impact upon the team, rising to the first team before the campaign was halfway complete. He finished his first year as a first-team All-Rookie selection by Pro Football Weekly and the Pro Football Writers Association, logging 58 total tackles, intercepting two passes -- one of which he returned for a touchdown at Oakland -- and adding a sack.
It was a splendid first year for Williams -- especially considering he went into the season expecting the vast majority of his work to be on special teams.
"I really don't plan on playing a lot at corner but I plan on contributing on special teams and returning kicks," Williams said during the team's 2005 organized team activities. "This year that will be my place to shine."
Williams, however, made at least as much impact with his demeanor around Broncos headquarters as he did by his play on the field, brandishing one of the most ebullient personalities to hit the team's locker room in many years.
"(Darrent) lived his life to the fullest," his mother, Rosalind Williams, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He had a big heart and helped many people," Rosalind Williams said. "He's going to be sorely missed by his family and friends and he has a big family. I don't mean just blood relatives. It is such an extended family because there's so many people that loved him."
Many of them were in the Broncos' locker room.
Williams was born in Fort Worth, Texas on Oct. 24, 1982, and was raisde there, eventually matriculating at O.D. Wyatt High School, where his life in football first began to flourish a decade ago. He commenced his on-field time there by playing running back before making a switch to cornerback -- a shift that would eventually lead him to the NFL.
In his senior season during the autumn of 2000, Williams was named the 7-4A Most Valuable Player after a year that saw him intercept five passes and average 30 yards per punt return. Oklahoma State took notice, offering him a scholarship.
It took Williams scant time to make his impact in Stillwater. He would start four of OSU's last six games as a true freshman, logging 33 tackles, two passes defensed and a pair of interceptions -- both of which he returned for touchdowns in a win over Baylor.
As a sophomore, Williams became a full-time starter, notching 53 tackles, intercepting three passes and breaking up 13 more. But just as the move to cornerback would affect his future, so too would OSU's decision to move him to punt returns as a junior.
Williams excelled on punt returns in his last two years at OSU, averaging 17.9 yards on 13 returns as a junior and 27.7 on nine runbacks during an injury-marred senior season in which he was limited to seven games. It would be his junior year that was his finest, as he notched 66 tackles, broke up 17 passes, logged six interceptions and scored four times -- twice on punt returns and twice more on punt returns.
"He was the greatest player I have coached in my 20 years," said Joe DeForest, Williams' position coach at OSU. "He wanted to prove to the world that he could play. He had a chip on his shoulder and I mean that in a good way. He wanted to prove himself, and that's the way he approached every game. It was what made him a great player."
And it was Williams' big-play ability that compelled Denver to make him its first pick in its 2006 draft class at the No. 56 slot.
"His ability to return punts as well as kickoffs was the factor that brought him to the forefront of our list," General Manager Ted Sundquist said at the time. "He's also been a really dynamic guy with the ball in his hands after turnovers with regard to interceptions. He's run a number of interceptions back for touchdowns. We got excited about his playmaking ability with the ball in his hands in any manner and the fact that he can do that as a punt returner was the reason we went in that direction."
But then Williams came to Denver, and for two seasons, became all the Broncos hoped he could be -- and more.