A year ago, Darryl Dorsey confronted an outlook so bleak he could only dream about playing high school football and one day making it to college.
Jailed on charges of first-degree murder, the 17-year-old was enduring a stay in the Baltimore City Detention Center that lasted nearly a month. His sports career had faltered, too, as a failing grade in one course had kept him off the team at Dunbar High.
Dorsey said he learned a lot about himself while in jail. "Being locked up, I realized the value of my education, because, when I was in there, I helped guys with reading, writing letters. They were real hungry for the little bit of knowledge I had," he said. "But every Friday I thought about how I could be helping the team. I never want to go back to the place where I was."
Today, the future looks far brighter for Dorsey, 18, a Dunbar slotback whose six touchdowns in the Poets' season opener were one shy of tying a state record.
The charges against him were dismissed without a trial, and Baltimore police concede they lack evidence against him. His lawyer contends Dorsey's arrest and detention was a tactic to flush out the killer, whom police believe he knows.
Dorsey has pulled up his grades to restore his athletic eligibility at Dunbar, where he plays both offense and defense for the Poets (8-2). His achievements on the field helped Dunbar grab a berth in the playoffs, where it faces two-time City West Division champ Edmondson (10-0) in a state quarterfinal game at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Dorsey has caught 35 passes for 1,516 yards to lead the Poets to a share of the City East Division title with Patterson. He has 17 touchdowns, in a variety of ways. On special teams, he has returned three kickoffs and three punts for touchdowns. As a defensive back, he has scored three off his six interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
Dunbar coach Ben Eaton said Dorsey, 6 feet 1, 170 pounds, has always "shown great athletic ability."
"It's one of God's gifts that he was blessed with," Eaton said. "The discipline, as far as being a student-athlete, you knew when he came here that he had the potential to make his mark here [at Dunbar] as well as later on in life."
A senior, Dorsey works about 25 hours a week in Morgan State's dining hall. His boss, Kevin Fauntleroy, said Dorsey has performed well on the job he has held for eight months. Scholastically, he has a 2.8 grade-point average and will take the SAT on Nov. 20.
A year after being jailed, Dorsey is at home in Northwood, where he sleeps in a bedroom whose decor reflects his status among college recruits.
The door to his room is covered with letters from Florida State, all of which begin, "Dear Darryl." In one, Seminoles assistant coach Tim Juhlin writes, "We will be following your progress."
On the walls are recruiters' letters from North Carolina, Northwestern, Temple and Maryland.
Dorsey has kept trophies from four straight championship Pop Warner teams from 1992 to 1995. He also kept awards for perfect attendance as a Chinquapin Middle School eighth-grader and a Dunbar freshman.
A notification of his listing in "Who's Who Among American High School Students," says the honor is "reserved for 5 percent of the nation's 10th-graders."
By contrast, Dorsey recalls the horror of being incarcerated for 28 days last fall in a cell that "was nothing like my bedroom."
"It was like two closets put together. There were two metal bunk beds connected to the wall. We had like, two little sheets. It was real cold," Dorsey said. "People made noise all night. You never really got any sleep.
"And the toilet," Dorsey continued, "was right there in front of you. When you had a cellmate, you had to use the bathroom right in front of each other."
Dorsey said he has tried to put the events of last fall behind him. "I play sports, work as a stock-loader, keep myself busy. I just try to keep my mind off of it," he said.
Dorsey was arrested at his home on Oct. 17, two days after Shey Mario Allen, 20, was gunned down behind a strip of rowhouses.
It remains unclear what happened when Allen was apparently chased by a group of young men after an argument. But a single witness picked Dorsey out of a photo lineup as the teen-ager seen arguing with the victim and leading the chase.
The witness did not see the shooting. Police said they believe Dorsey was involved, but lack evidence to prove it.
Detective Martin Young of the Baltimore Police Department's homicide unit said the shooting stemmed from an argument between Dorsey and Allen over a girl.
Court documents filed by Young indicate that Dorsey confronted Allen at Argonne Drive and Tivoly Avenue shortly before 10 p.m. on Oct. 15, 1998. Police said that Allen hit Dorsey hard enough to cause him to fall to the ground, and that Dorsey and several of his friends chased Allen to the rear of the 1500 block of Argonne Drive.
Dorsey's lawyer, Warren A. Brown, acknowledged that Dorsey and Allen had a long-running dispute over a girl, but said that was not a factor in the shooting.
"It is very important to note that Darryl was never a suspect in the shooting," Brown said. "Police figured he knew who did the shooting. But even when he was locked up, Darryl always maintained he didn't know."
He said that Dorsey was returning home from work at a nearby hardware store, and from an evening workout at Morgan State's gym when he was jumped by a group of "stick-up boys and ran."
He ran past a group of guys "from the neighborhood who were sitting on a wall," Brown said. Using Dorsey's nickname, he said they asked, 'What's up little Magic?' "
Brown said they "came to Dorsey's aid" by chasing down the alleged robbers behind the house, where Allen was shot.
Dorsey was unaware of what had happened behind the house because "he was already at home," Brown said.
"I'm sorry that it happened, but God knows that I didn't do it," said Dorsey.
Dorsey "had a part-time job, was working out to become a better athlete, going to school," Brown said. "I just didn't think it was fair for him to be in jail because he couldn't afford the bail."
To gain Dorsey's release on Nov. 13, Brown persuaded authorities to lower bail to $5,000, which Brown paid out of his own pocket.
"Some of Darryl's former coaches in the Northwood program expressed to me that he had a lot of promise," said Brown, a former coach in the same recreation league. "It's a solid program that produces good kids, and I just felt strongly Darryl was doing what he had been expected to do.
"Once he was out, I convinced them that it was unfair for Darryl to be prosecuted when they were certain he wasn't the shooter," said Brown. The case was dismissed Dec. 29.
Detective Young said charges could be refiled if more information becomes available. He said he knows of Dorsey's athletic promise, but stands by his case.
Picking up the pieces
When Dorsey was released, he had a lot of catching up to do. He had lost his job. He had missed weeks of classes and was still academically ineligible to play at Dunbar because failing a class in the spring had lowered his GPA to 2.3.
Dorsey decided to transfer to Southern, a school where he would be eligible to play basketball. "A lot of other schools were trying to get me," he said, explaining he was guided by his aunt and by Southern's coach Meredith Smith and its All-Metro guard Melvin Scott. "They said I should come there," said Dorsey, who played in his first game for Southern against Lake Clifton in December.
At Southern, he raised his grades and then returned to Dunbar, where he said he has a 2.8.
"The only way for me to succeed in life," said Dorsey, "is to use my God-given talents to the best of my ability. That's in my head every time I touch the field now. That's why I play my hardest."
At a recent football practice, Dorsey stretched out his arm to display a tattoo of his likeness on his right bicep. The tattoo, which Dorsey said he "got the day before basketball practice" his sophomore year, is an image of himself with "a lot more muscles than me," holding a basketball.
Dorsey said the tattoo reminds him that he respects and likes himself despite his hard-life experiences, such as his not having seen his father since he was 3, nor his mother since he was 5.
"I had a lot of anger when I was younger. Still do, a little bit," said Dorsey, who has played football since age 11, and basketball since age 13. "My parents weren't there for me, but I owe a lot to a lot of people. I want to give back what was given to me."
Among Dorsey's many role models are people such as his uncle, Butch Dorsey, with whom he lived for five years, and, who "taught me everything I know about sports." And his cousin, Earthel Garris, 47, with whom he has lived for the past eight years.
He calls Garris his mother and her daughters, Terrell Wilson, 27, and Kea Garris, 22, his big sisters. Dorsey also has relied on Ann Godwin, his aunt and godmother.
Outside the family, he names Dunbar football and basketball coaches, Ben Eaton and Lynn Badham; athletic director Barbara Allen and middle school security guard Darren Wheller, as "people who helped me keep my head on straight."
But Eaton constantly warns Dorsey he can expect scrutiny.
"You hope people can put that [incarceration] in the past. He's paid his dues, as far as that's concerned," Eaton said. "But there's a fish-bowl attitude about Dunbar's program -- it has to remain squeaky clean, academically and athletically.
"I always challenge Darryl, and I always tell him, 'the intensity of what you put into your work, in the classroom and on the field, that's exactly what you're going to get out of it,' " Eaton said. "By having all of his athleticism, expectations are greater for Darryl on and off the field."
Even his young cousin, Trae Anderson, has expectations.
Recently the boy, whom Dorsey has nicknamed, "Baby Magic," stopped playing ball with his friends in the street in front of Dorsey's home. He had spotted Dorsey arriving in a car and ran joyfully to greet him.
On tiptoe, Trae reached over the passenger-side window, balled up his fist and tapped it against Dorsey's fist for "daps" -- a show of respect.
"He's seen all the trophies I've brought home," said Dorsey, sounding like Coach Eaton, "but I've got to get school through his head so he doesn't think sports is what life's all about."