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Friends to the End

Pain hasn't stopped for the families of Mike Darr and Duane Johnson, who were close before fatal crash

September 25, 2002|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don Johnson straps on thick arm pads, sets his jaw and orders UCLA defensive linemen to charge at him, one after another. The assistant coach makes like an offensive tackle, thrusting his forearm into the face of each onrushing player.

It's called the pass-rush drill, Johnson's favorite time of day.

For a few blessed minutes, he can forget.

Practice ends and he retreats to his office, plops in the chair and stares at the photos of his son Duane taped to the computer. Before calling a recruit or studying game film, Johnson, 47, quietly sheds a tear.

Seventy miles away at Norco High, Mike Darr Sr. stands in a bullpen, giving a young pitcher his undivided attention. The assistant coach cherishes baseball practice.

For a few blessed hours, he can remember.

Darr, 46, cannot bring himself to return to work at the grocery warehouse that for so long enabled him to provide for his family while leaving enough time to coach his sons. He whiles away the morning hours in a living room filled with photos, clippings and baseball cards of his son Mike wearing a San Diego Padre uniform.

Finally it is time to leave for the diamond, the place he can feel Mike's presence and the bond they shared.

*

The Johnsons and Darrs, families linked through two decades of good times and one night of unspeakable horror, are agonizing proof that children aren't supposed to go before their parents.

Denial, depression and rivers of tears resulted from the deaths of inseparable lifelong friends Mike Darr, 25, and Duane Johnson, 23, in an auto accident Feb. 15 in Peoria, Ariz.

Their mothers still wait for them to walk through the door. Their fathers see glimpses of them in every player they coach. Their brothers, sisters and friends struggle to make sense of a tragedy that tore Mike from his wife and two young sons, and Duane from the cocoon of a loving family.

"The Darrs and Johnsons were so into their sons and active in their pursuits," said Darrin Chiaverini, an Atlanta Falcon receiver who grew up in Corona with both dead men.

"The parents were always on hand. It's a big void in their lives."

Mike and Duane had spent the day moving Mike's belongings into an apartment near the Padres' spring training site. They worked out and went out for a late dinner and drinks with Padre pitcher Ben Howard.

On the way back to the apartment, Mike's sports utility vehicle drifted into the dirt center median of the freeway. He overcorrected and the car rolled across three lanes and crashed through a fence. Mike and Duane, not wearing seat belts, were ejected and killed.

Howard, in the back seat wearing a seat belt, suffered only a bruised knee and minor facial cuts. Mike's blood-alcohol level was 0.11, more than the Arizona legal limit.

The tragedy sent shockwaves from San Diego to Westwood.

Mike was a rising star, popular in the clubhouse, an opening day starter for the Padres in 2001. He was Corona through and through, having married his high school sweetheart, Natalie, then settling down to raise a family a cutoff throw from where he grew up.

Duane was a college football player and former Philadelphia Phillie minor leaguer, an ebullient brother and son whose radiant smile lit up a room. He was Mike's constant companion, traveling to Padre games on airline passes from his mother, Deborah, an America West employee.

"Michael had charisma, you couldn't help but look up to him, and Duane didn't have a mean bone in his body," said Chiaverini, who along with his twin, Ryan, spent countless hours at the Darrs and Johnsons after their own parents divorced.

"Duane was the fastest kid I've ever seen, faster than the guys in the NFL, a great athlete in his own right. But he was always the first to tell Michael or I how well we did."

The families were neighbors, the dads coached the kids and the moms filled the homes with love. Mike had a younger brother and sister. Duane was the third of four children.

Sometimes there would be six teenage boys piled in a car--Mike and Ryan Darr, Donald Jr. and Duane Johnson, and the Chiaverinis. They were the best athletes, popular with girls, rollicking through what seemed a never-ending California summer.

"I started coaching those boys when they were young," Mike Darr Sr. said. "All the kids played for me. Watching them grow up was what we did. It's what the Johnsons did too. It's what we all did together."

From years of coaching, Mike Sr. and Don knew teens better than most dads. If they didn't keep the group in line, nobody would.

When the boys hung out at the Johnsons, they trod lightly around Don, an even-handed disciplinarian they nicknamed Pinky because his face would color when he got angry. Don looks menacing with his shaved head and lineman's build, yet UCLA senior Sean Phillips calls him "an armored car. He's hard on the outside and all the good stuff is on the inside."

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