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.
Everything was going right for Kess on the mat, but, off it, the path of success started to veer.
He left Curley and enrolled at Overlea. (His parents say he kept butting heads with the coach.) Still, he was wrestling and got to show off his skills against local public school competition.
He won a match by technical fall — wrestling’s version of slaughter rule — over the public school state champ. In half a season, he ran his record to 21-0 without giving up a single offensive point and winning every bout by technical fall or pin.
“I just go out to dominate,” Kess told The Baltimore Sun that year. “I don’t plan on any of my matches going the distance.”
But he never got to finish the season.
Kess was kicked out of Overlea and charged with felony assault in 2001. Convicted a year later, Kess spent nearly two years behind bars.
His mother, Annette Moses, blames his friendships with bad influences for his trouble with the law.
“Darian was in the neighborhood and got caught up in some stuff,” she says. “A guy got hurt up on Milton Avenue and they all caught the felonies.”
After the conviction, Kess found many of the doors that had once been opened to him were now closed.
“He was dying to get out of the city, because they had given him all kinds of scholarships. But when that judge gave him that assault charge, he couldn’t go,” his mother said. “He felt that his wrestling career was over.”
While many of Kess’ opponents went on to success in college, graduate degrees and lucrative careers, Kess never wrestled a competitive match again.
“I think he gave up. He wanted to go to school. That was his dream,” his mother says.
As Kess sat behind bars, Baltimore Sun columnist Gregory Kane weighed in on the case: “Darian Kess, whose wrestling talent far surpassed … that of possibly every other kid in the area, made all the right choices on the mat and none off it,” Kane wrote.
After emerging from jail, Kess struggled to find work. He was arrested several more times on drug charges, including marijuana and cocaine possession. The state placed him on a watch list of “high risk” offenders called the Violence Prevention Initiative.
“He wanted to work and get a job. Every time he’d go to get a job, they’d see his record. Now he can’t do anything,” Moses says.
Darian stopped wanting to talk about wrestling, altogether.
“It bothered him so much that he didn’t go as far as he wanted to,” says Sherda Davis, 25, his girlfriend. “He worked so hard. All these accomplishments. People would ask him, ‘What are you doing now?’ That
weighed heavy on him.”
Kess’ life then began a period of ups and downs. He had lost wrestling, but he was about to gain something he loved even more: A son.
The ‘excellent’ father
Born in 2008, Darian Marlon Kess Jr. gave his father new meaning in life. Where wrestling had once fulfilled him, now his child would.
“He’s my world, my life, my everything, my number one fan, and my hero,” Kess wrote of his son on his Facebook page. “A good dad I gotta be otherwise I failed at life.”
His parents noticed the change in him.
“Other than wrestling, I’ve not seen him love nothing like he loved his son, Darian Jr.,” his mother said.
Kess began attending church more and was baptized; his probation agent started giving him sterling reviews.
“Darian as a father was excellent,” says Davis, the mother of his child. “My son loved his dad. He came to every school program. He’d say, ‘Thank you for my son.’”
But then trouble struck again. Kess started feeling bad, terrible really. He didn’t know what was wrong with him. He was losing weight. He was sweating through his clothes. When he went to the hospital, the
doctors told him he had lymphoma.
He told his mother he didn’t want to die and began undergoing chemotherapy. He went religiously. Always a fighter, it took Darian Kess little more than six months to send the cancer into remission.
Things were starting to look up. He began planning a move to Atlanta, where old wrestling buddy Artis (now a Bank of America employee with a master’s degree in finance) and a favorite cousin live.
He was going to get a fresh start in a different city, somewhere he could teach his first passion — wrestling — without all the baggage that followed him around.
“He wanted to move away and start a new life,” his mother said.
But as had been the case for much of his life, every time something good happened for Darian Kess, something bad was sure to happen. This time it would cost him his life.
A life cut short
On April 27, Kess was hanging out with two female friends in the 1200 block of Linworth Ave. He went outside to borrow a food menu from a neighbor, but when he returned, there were three masked men behind him holding guns.
He was falling victim to a home invasion.
The masked men ordered Kess and his friends to the ground and stole money, cell phones and other property, according to police. Then one stabbed Kess in the neck.
Kess clung to life for nearly a week at the hospital. He was pronounced dead on May 2.
Both Moses and Davis believe Kess was “targeted.”
At his funeral, nearly 1,000 people packed the church.
“People were coming in telling me, ‘I’m his grandmother.’ I said, ‘I’ve never seen you before,’” Annette Moses says. “He shined wherever he went. People loved him. ... When they heard Darian had passed on, people started making shirts. ... People were walking around with a ‘Kess’ cloth on their heads. He was like a God to people.”
Police say the primary suspect in Kess’ killing, Alex Venable, 24, was murdered 12 hours after the stabbing — gunned down in a triple shooting in the 1900 block of N. Collington Ave.
“An unknown suspect walked up, opened fire and ran off,” said police spokesman Det. Kevin Brown. The murder case of Darian Kess became closed by exception.
Venable’s death brings no solace to Moses, she says.
“I’m actually numb about the whole situation,” she says. “It won’t bring my Darian back.”
After his death, his mother found bulletins around the apartment that showed he’d been going to church.
“It put a real great big smile on my face. Darian would always say he believed in God,” she says. “Do I want him back? No. I believe he’s where he always wanted to be right now. It’s hard because I miss him so much.”
So, now, the friends and family of Darian Kess are left to talk about their memories of him: How he could remember directions from anywhere, balance on one leg, how he chased after Cooperman, how he loved his son.
And those in the wrestling community who remember him from his days as a small, fearless, talented champion can cling to this impression: He was one of the best we’ve ever seen.
Luke Broadwater is managing editor at b. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter, @lukebroadwater