At quarterback for Colorado in the Orange Bowl will be a walking advertisement for the resilience of youth. Only a year ago, after throwing a foolish interception that cost the Buffaloes a game, Darian Hagan despaired. "I couldn't read defenses, and the offense didn't have confidence in me," recalls Hagan, now a sophomore. "I thought, Hey, maybe I'm a tailback." He requested a position switch. Request denied.
Because it was, Notre Dame goes into the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day faced with a task that has proved too tough for 11 teams this season: stopping the 19-year-old, ambidextrous, vastly improved Hagan. Should the Irish win, this year's mythical national championship promises to be more mythical than usual. A Colorado loss could yield as many as three claimants to the throne—Notre Dame, Miami, even Michigan. Colorado, of course, would end all debate by beating the Irish, thus clinching for the Buffs their first-ever national title.
Win or lose, Hagan probably won't spend the off-season wondering about what kind of tailback he would have made. Four days after Colorado completed its perfect regular season with a 59-11 rout of Kansas State, Hagan returned home to Los Angeles for the long Thanksgiving weekend. A hero's welcome awaited him. "I bust at the seams every week watching him," says Edward Robbs, his former principal at Locke High School.
During the holiday, wherever he roamed in his Watts neighborhood, congratulations rained down. "Yo, Hagan! Nice job, man!" and "Darian, my man! How 'bout a ticket for the Notre Dame game?"
"They're talking about naming a street after him," says his mother, Wanda Webb, repeating an unofficial report from neighborhood kids.
Not everyone, though, was thrilled to welcome the local hero. "It's great to see him," said E.C. Robinson. "Now I wish he'd go back to Colorado."
Robinson was Hagan's coach at Locke. He knows that Hagan has beaten the odds by escaping the drugs, the gangs and the shortened life expectancy that attend the life of a young man in Watts. Sad experience has taught Robinson that the more time Hagan spends around the neighborhood, the likelier it is the odds will catch up with him. "Anything could happen, and around here it has a tendency to," says Robinson. "Last year there were five or six shootings over the Christmas holidays, all within a two-week period, all right in the same area, and all of them over colors." The gangs identify their members—and their enemies—by the colors they wear. In some sections of Los Angeles, donning the wrong hue of hat, sweatshirt or bandanna can result in a violent death.
The house in which Hagan grew up, like most of those on the street, is small but well kept. The lawns in the neighborhood are welcome mat-sized but meticulously groomed, and by the first week of December, trees and shrubs have been hung with Christmas lights. "People here take pride in their property," says Locke assistant principal Annie Webb. "When graffiti goes up, you watch how fast it comes down."
But civic pride has not kept the gangs out. The blocks around Locke are the fiefdom of two sets of Crips (who wear blue to distinguish themselves from the red colors of the Bloods, the other dominant gang). Two blocks west of the high school is Main Street, from which the Main Street Crips borrow their name. Farther south and east, starting at about 118th Street, the East Coast Crips hold sway. Many of Hagan's boyhood friends have cast their lot with one set of Crips or the other. "Early in my life I had to make a decision," says Hagan. "I decided I was going to be a ballplayer."
Until he was seven years old, Darian lived with Wanda, who was 18 when he was born. Darian's father wasn't around much, and disappeared completely nine or 10 years ago. "I haven't seen him since about sixth grade," says Hagan.