Detroit Olympian Darnell Hall finds calling as mentor after struggle with depression
Detroit — Darnell Hall needed more than a decade to truly appreciate his Olympic gold medal.
Once he had a taste of glory, Hall wanted more, but after failing in pursuit of fame, fortune and more gold medals, the Detroiter struggled through years of depression.
When he was 20, Hall won gold as a member of Team USA's 4x400-meter relay in Barcelona in 1992. He didn't run in the final, but was awarded the medal as a member of the qualifying team and went on to become one of the world's elite quarter-milers in the mid-1990s.
Hall was considered the top threat to eventual 400-meter gold medalist Michael Johnson in 1996. But after failing to qualify for the Atlanta Olympics, he watched the games at his apartment in Detroit with a bottle of tequila, marking the beginning of his long struggle with depression.
"I still don't feel that Darnell was able to really reach his full Olympic potential," said Calvin Johnson, his former personal coach. "Granted, he was able to reach his full potential in terms of being a world champion, and he had some outstanding experience competing at the elite level. But in terms of Olympics, he never was able to reach that full Olympic level as an individual."
Hall, now 41, didn't find his second calling until 1999, when an old friend recommended he join the Detroit Police Department. After graduating from the police academy, he drew an assignment working for Think Detroit PAL, where he, among other things, developed a track program and has become a mentor for thousands of the city's youths.
"When he suggested it to me, I looked at him and I said, 'You must be crazy,'" Hall said. "You know what neighborhood we grew up in. We grew up in the projects. The last thing I want to be is a police officer.
"But … I took his advice."
Hall's depression remained for a few years after he started with PAL, but after finding his supportive wife Karen, with whom he had a son, Darnell II, now 5 years old, the gold medalist has come to terms with his rise and fall as a sprinter.
"Karen and Detroit PAL is what saved him," said Juanita Easterling, 30, one of at least nine former PAL children for whom Hall has become a surrogate father. "If he didn't have Karen and he didn't have this program, I couldn't imagine what dark place he'd be in right now."
Rolling the dice to turn pro
Growing up in the Sojourner Truth housing projects on Detroit's east side, Hall never dreamed of advancing to the Olympics.
"I didn't know what that was," he said. "I knew about Jesse Owens, but growing up in the housing projects, I didn't realize on the other side of Belle Isle was another country."
One thing Hall did know: He was fast.
Hall graduated from Pershing High, but low college entrance exam scores kept him out of many universities. He went to Blinn College, a junior college about 75 miles northwest of Houston known for its excellent track program. While there, Hall dropped his quarter-mile time from 46.80 seconds to 44.95, former Blinn coach Steve Silvey said.
Hall said he tried to transfer to the University of Tennessee, but his credits would not. Hall knew he was fast enough to have a legitimate shot at the Olympics, so he decided to drop out of school, much to the chagrin of Silvey, who wanted him to go to a Division II or III college.
Hall, then 20, has long regretted that decision to turn pro.
"For one, because I still would've had my degree," he said. "And athletic-wise, it was a gamble. I still would've been good. I still would've been one of the elite quarter-milers in the world, but it was just a gamble and I rolled the dice just to go turn pro."
After ditching school, he began working with Berkley High School track coach Calvin Johnson, now at Southfield Lathrup, in early 1992, and although Silvey and Hall's father questioned his decision to train with a high school coach, the pair had a great relationship.
'Like you made it'
Hall began racing in Europe in the months leading up to the 1992 Olympics, and that summer he qualified to be a member of Team USA's 4x400-meter relay team.
"If you make a U.S. team, it's an honor," Hall said. "You have a certain … swag about yourself. It was like you made it, like I finally went across Eight Mile."
Still 20, Hall arrived in Barcelona with eyes wide and tried to take in every experience. One memory that stays with him is the first time he put on his Team USA jersey: "That's when the weight started to come down on your shoulders, the realization of what you were trying to accomplish."
At 3 a.m. the day of the race, Hall was informed he'd be running the first leg of a qualifying heat. He'd never run a first leg in his life, but Hall said he'd do anything for his country.
The next day, Aug. 8, four of Hall's teammates ran to victory, securing his gold medal. At the time, not running in the finals wasn't as disappointing because he expected to have more shots at Olympic gold.
An untimely cramp
After the Barcelona Olympics, Hall continued to run on the professional circuit. In May 1995, he became a world champion, winning the indoor 400-meter title.
Although some of the world's best runners don't compete in indoor track, Hall's consistency in 1995 proved he was one of the elite quarter-milers. His personal best of 44.34 seconds came in Lausanne, Switzerland, in May 1995.
A confident 24-year-old, Hall talked a lot of trash to Johnson and truly expected to back it up.
"Darnell's not intimidated by anyone," Michael Johnson said. "We were very similar in that way, and that's why Darnell would say what he felt and he would go out there and back it up. There were guys that felt like, 'I'm never going to beat Michael. It's impossible to beat him.' Darnell never thought that way, and that's tough to compete against. It's much easier to compete against guys that are beating themselves."
But Hall wasn't in Atlanta to compete against Johnson. His Olympic dreams ended with a cramp in the first qualifying heat of the Team USA trials.
"I watched the Olympics that summer, shoot, two weeks straight with tequila," he said. "I didn't drink prior to that, but that whole Olympics I was drinking tequila."
Hall and Calvin Johnson went to Atlanta just three days before the trials.
Calvin Johnson wishes he had insisted that Hall train in Atlanta for a month prior to the trials to accustom himself to the heat and humidity. But Hall chose to keep training at home.
"I went with his decision at that time, and I regret that," Johnson said.
His dreams shattered, Hall isolated himself, drinking, when he returned to Detroit.
In addition to missing his best chance at individual gold, Hall owed nearly $100,000 in back taxes because he said he didn't claim his winnings from overseas events.
Hall had already agreed to run four races in Europe in 1997, and he finished in the top two in all of them, losing only to Johnson. He returned to Detroit, retired from sprinting and picked up the bottle again.
"In my opinion, Darnell Hall retired three to five years earlier than he should have from track and field," Silvey said.
Hall married his first wife in 1997, which helped him escape some negative people in his life, he said, but didn't help with his depression.
"I made personal decisions I shouldn't have made," he said. "I involved people in my life that I shouldn't have. I should have been concentrating on my athletic ability. That's me speaking now, but I didn't realize it then."
The first person to truly help Hall was former Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee. Hall grew up playing football with Godbee in the Detroit Police Athletic League, and in 1999, the then-lieutenant suggested he enroll in the police academy.
Out of options, Hall took his advice. When he graduated, Chief Benny Napoleon, now Wayne County's sheriff, assigned him to work with the athletic program, Think Detroit PAL.
"I was honored to have the opportunity to give back to a program that really saved me and a lot of others by being active and being a PAL kid," he said.
Hall hoped to be assigned to the program, but wouldn't have run away from typical police work. With his athletic career over, he was ready to step into the real world.
"I'm proud to be a Detroit Police officer; I am proud to serve and protect," he said. "But I'm also blessed to have an opportunity to give back, and being able to have that passion for a program and these kids in Metro Detroit."
And the kids are lucky to have him. Hall started the track and field program in 1999, and more than 800 children participated in its three seasons in 2012.
He runs the track program with two other officers and several volunteers and serves as the commissioner for the football program that had about 2,400 boys last year, including 90 percent from within the city limits.
Even though he found an ideal job for his abilities, Hall continued drinking on the weekends. His wife, Karen, remembers watching him coach her two children in the track program and could see his mind wandering back to his failures from time to time.
On Aug. 10, 2003, Hall had his last drink. With Karen's support, he decided to try out for the 2004 Olympic team, more for closure than success. He failed to qualify, but immediately after the race, he asked Karen to marry him.
On Aug. 10, 2004, they were married in Toledo, and until last week, Karen didn't know why he chose that date.
The indoor track program has two groups, one for ages 6-12, the other for 12-18. Hall mostly works with the older children, and during a recent indoor practice at the Boysville gym on Detroit's west side, his loving relationship with the children was obvious.
Kourtney Gribble, 11, said, "When you need something, he'll be there."
Ada Jones, 32, who has two children in the program, said Hall "sees them as his kids."
Jones said Hall shows the children a different side of a police officer, one they don't fear.
"Being a part of the inner city, kids are easily strayed, so having someone like him around to keep them focused and to take up a portion of their time out of the day keeps a lot of kids out of the street," said Tuere Cooper, 40, who has two sons in the track program.
And the extent to which some of the children can stray is frightening. Hall said he has to teach children how to dream.
"I feel like it shouldn't be your aspiration to be locked up," he said. "That's a bunch of crap."
As much as Hall has helped the kids in the PAL program, Karen says they have helped him escape his demons.
"Putting his time and energy in the kids took his focus off what happened in the past," said Karen, who is a volunteer with the program.
"The other thing, too, is he saw a lot of kids that were in the same circumstance he was when he was growing up — in the projects. He was able to kind of help them through some of the issues they were dealing with."
Now, after years of depression, Hall can appreciate what he accomplished back in 1992, even if he never reached his original goal of an individual Olympic medal.
"Just to be a U.S. team member, to walk away with a gold medal, that's something you will never forget," he said. "They can't take that away from me."