By the time he entered high school, Darian Kess was already a legend in the making.
Though he weighed less than 100 pounds and was only 14 years old, Kess carried with him a large reputation, thanks to his four junior league state wrestling championships and the smooth, almost effortless style with which he dispatched opponents.
He did not disappoint. He shattered Archbishop Curley’s four-year takedown record in little more than one year. He captured two state titles in two seasons. And, in one year alone, he managed to beat seven wrestlers ranked in the top 10 in the country.
“He was the best I’ve ever seen wrestle,” says high school teammate Kevin Artis, who went on to be a two-time All-American in college.
Darian Kess could have gone on to finish high school as a four-time state champ (a rare accomplishment in Maryland). He could have gone on to be a star in college. He could have used wrestling to get an advanced degree. He could have done a lot of things with the special skills he had.
Instead, at age 27, Kess died last month in a bed at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He had been stabbed during a robbery, another casualty of Baltimore’s seemingly unending pattern of violence.
Kess’ death warranted a small mention in local media, no more than a few sentences. He was now a statistic, homicide No. 71 of 2011. But each murder victim is immeasurably more than just a cause of death and a block number and another notch in the murder tally — typically the last things we read about them. Each victim had hopes and dreams and promise. Each has a story.
Darian’s story is of a special kid with unique athletic abilities. It’s a story about the easy wrong and the hard right. It’s a story about beating cancer. It’s a story about finding meaning in fatherhood. It’s a story about trying to get right with God. And, ultimately, it’s a story about tragedy.
Unafraid of anyone
It was luck that landed Darian Kess in wrestling. His stepfather, Charles Moses, was getting something to eat at a local pit beef stand manned by famed Golden Ring junior league wrestling coach Tom DeCarlo, who talked him into bringing the boy out to a practice.
Right away, it was obvious that Kess was a natural.
“Darian was 8 years old when he walked in our wrestling room,” says former Golden Ring coach Will Summers, better known as “Coach Peanut.” “Darian was something special. When he walked in, a star was born.”
While most wrestlers take years to learn the sport — with its hundreds of combinations of positions, moves and techniques — Kess picked it up instantly.
His first year wrestling, weighing only 50 pounds, he finished second at the junior league states. Each of the next four years, he won youth league state titles.
Any Maryland wrestler who defeated him, such as future standout wrestlers at Harvard and Boston University, Kess would quickly figure out and beat at the next meeting. He chased Blair Academy star Cory Cooperman at the finals of the National Preps, though most believed he would have been a heavy favorite up a weight class at 119.
A four-time National Prep champion, Cooperman says he was shaken when he heard of Kess’ death.
“Darian wrestled me tougher than anyone else in the country,” Cooperman recalled this week. “We had a mutual respect for each other. He got caught up in his environment, but he was a great person as well.”
Perhaps it wasn’t that much of a surprise that Kess become so dominant so quickly in wrestling. As a child, he always had a special blend of fearlessness and that intangible quality found in many great athletes best described as “a sense of where you are.”
Before he had legs long enough to touch the pedals on a bike, a young Darian Kess would go zooming down the road, using hills and poles to stop his momentum. He mastered snowboarding on his first try,
advancing to expert courses. His first time waterskiing, he kicked off a ski and did it on one foot. If he traveled somewhere once, he always knew the route the next time. When he got in trouble, his mother would make him stand on one leg for hours as a punishment. Darian made it look easy.
Still, rarely in life does someone find something they’re that good at and, once Kess realized his talent for wrestling, he dedicated himself to the sport.
“It was his destiny,” Charles Moses says.
By his second year of high school, Kess had amassed 433 takedowns, shattering powerhouse Curley’s career record of 242. (Kess broke the record in one season and two tournaments.) He earned the distinction of Maryland’s best wrestler from Wrestling USA magazine, where he was dubbed a “takedown artist.” Iowa State coach Bobby Douglas was talking to his parents on the phone.