At Locke, Hagan got on surprisingly well with his gang-member classmates. They respected his decision to concentrate on school and sports. "A lot of people think the gangs recruit you, they don't let you do what you want to do, but that's wrong," says Hagan, who maintained a B average. Not only did the gangs not hassle Hagan, they actually supported him, driving to away games and paying admission—three and four bucks a pop—to see him play.
"It was almost as if they wouldn't let Darian do what they were doing, out of deference to his talent," says Robbs. Indeed, Hagan says, "Guys wouldn't want to smoke around me. They put it out." He is not referring to tobacco.
It was hard not to respect Hagan's performances. Five times during his high school career he rushed for more than 200 yards in a game. In three seasons at Locke he ran for 4,338 yards, and as a senior he was the most sought-after option quarterback in the country. Nebraska, USC, UCLA, Oklahoma and Notre Dame all wooed Hagan. The day he left for Boulder, Robinson shook his hand and said, "Don't come back."
Hagan knew what he meant. Don't pull a Leon Otis on me. Otis was Hagan's predecessor at quarterback for Locke, and Robinson still winces at the mention of Otis's name. "If ever a kid had pro written all over him, it was Leon," says the coach. "He was 6'2", 190, great speed, great option instincts. He punted, he could play receiver. He was better than Hagan. His senior year, he made first team All-City ahead of Jamelle Holieway [who would go on to star at Oklahoma]. Tom Osborne spent a week here trying to get him to go to Nebraska."
Osborne, the Cornhuskers' coach, made a hard pitch for Otis and was successful—at first. Otis signed with the Huskers and lasted all of two months. He got homesick, stopped going to class, came home for midterm break and did not go back to Lincoln. The following season Nebraska gave Otis another chance. This time he lasted until Thanksgiving. When he returned to the neighborhood this time, it was for good. He joined a gang, and nine months after dropping out of Nebraska, he was murdered, shot seven times. Two years after his death the police have no suspects. Hagan cites two reasons for signing with Colorado: coach Bill McCartney's concern for his players and his religious zeal ("My family's into that," Hagan says); and his own desire "to get out of California."
From Day One in Boulder, Hagan's athletic ability turned heads. But his attitude was less impressive. He wasn't much for studying film. And why should he give himself a headache learning the game plan, as long as junior Sal Aunese was the starter? "Darian didn't see that as his responsibility," says quarterback coach Gary Barnett. "He saw his job as going in, finishing the game and having some fun. Typical freshman."
Hagan's lack of preparation was often glaring. During his brief appearances in relief of Aunese, he stuttered in the huddle and raised his teammates' eyebrows by checking off into nonexistent plays at the line of scrimmage. He made some reads against Kansas that "we're still wondering about," says Barnett. Against Iowa State, an ill-advised Hagan pitchout was intercepted by a defensive back and returned 48 yards for a touchdown.
But Hagan's lowest moment as a freshman came in Anaheim, Calif., in the Freedom Bowl against Brigham Young. Late in the game, after Aunese had been unable to move the team, McCartney inserted Hagan. With the score tied 17-17, Hagan rewarded his coach's confidence by forcing a pass into triple coverage. It was intercepted, and BYU drove for the winning field goal.
That's it, thought Hagan. I quit. "I wasn't picking up on how to read defenses as fast as the other quarterbacks were," says Hagan. "So I thought, Why put all this pressure on myself? If I was a tailback, all I'd have to do is know which way to run."
Upon returning to campus after the Christmas holiday, Hagan gave Barnett the news: He was finished at quarterback. Barnett humored him for the rest of the winter. "Think it over," he said. "We'll talk about it in the spring." The coaches never had any intention of letting Hagan switch, Barnett says. The issue suddenly became moot on March 30. Hagan was at home in L.A. for spring break when the phone rang. It was Barnett. Aunese had been told he had inoperable stomach cancer. "That means it's yours," said the coach.