From the time I first learned about Jackie Robinson, his uniform number 42 resonated to me. Through my childhood, adolescence, adulthood and now advanced years, the number 42 always symbolized strength – of character, as much if not more than physical attributes.

Years ago Major League Baseball retired Robinson’s No. 42. And it’s probably no coincidence that Jamestown High’s boys’ basketball program recently retired No. 42.

Last Feb. 17 Darian Keyser fell asleep. Now he is in God’s embrace, praying for the rest of us here on earth – especially those grieving his loss and still attempting to reconcile it.

“To me it really goes back to dedication and hard work,” said Jamestown basketball Coach Lucas Widger. “He worked so hard to transform his body. He was physically fit – his agility, his movement. His dedication to school, too. He was a good student.

“You know, first and foremost, if you’re a high school basketball player it’s about being a good representative for the community and being a good student, and ‘athlete’ kind’ve goes to the end. So that was his legacy: Being a good classmate, being a good teammate. And I guess, what really comes to mind is the improvement, the hard work.

“Darian was much more than a high school basketball standout. He was a young man with strong faith in God, loyal to his family and friends, and dedicated to personal success, both in athletics and in life,” Widger emphasized.

Keyser concluded his scholastic career in All-State fashion. He averaged 19.1 points per game, annexing the career 1,000-point plateau Feb. 6, 2020. As a senior he posted 14 double-doubles, including highs of 34 points (7 treys) and 22 rebounds, and scored 20 or more points in 11 games.

He scored 1,034 career points for Jamestown, and was selected to the Pennsylvania Sports Writers’ 3rd-Team All-State squad in Class 1A. He intended to matriculate at Geneva College as a business management major and continue his cage career.

“Excellence in all areas of his life was his goal, but he knew that he couldn’t get there alone; instead, he looked to his team, to his family, his friends, and to God,” related former teacher Jennifer Klink. “He was humble, giving credit where credit was due out of respect for those with whom he competed. He was grateful for every opportunity given to him, and he was sure not to squander them.”

“This dedication to better himself never wavered,” said Marilyn Hutchinson, Jamestown’s former athletic director, who coached Darian’s sister, Mikayla, in volleyball. “He was committed to being the best God wanted him to be. You could see it while he was practicing, watching or playing the game. He always wanted to be part of the game. His teammates, fans and coaches admired him for not only putting big points on the board or blocking shots or calling plays, but for helping them to be better players and better individuals.”

Recently, Mrs. Hutchinson offered a tribute to Keyser, reciting Christian D. Larson’s poem, “Promise Yourself”:

“ ... To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind ... To talk health, happiness, and prosperity to every person you meet ... To make all your friends feel that there is something in them ... To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true ... To think only the best, to work only for the best, and to expect only the best ... To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own ... To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future ... To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile ... To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others ... To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble ... To think well of yourself and to proclaim this fact to the world, not in loud words, but great deeds ... To live in faith that the whole world is on your side, so long as you are true to the best that is in you ... 

“ ... Life may not be the way we want it to be; there are still tons of reasons to be positive. Smile, hope, love, and live. It can be hard but, at times, it’s the only way to stay dogged and resilient.”

In many high school gyms banners are displayed, recognizing former athletes and distinguished accomplishments. Jamestown’s includes career 1,000-point scorers and past championships, including the 2019 District 10 Class 1A crown – the first for the boys’ basketball program.

More poignantly there are the names of David Veverka and Josh McClimans. Darian Keyser will accompany them.

“(Darian) would be very honored. He would be happy,” his mother related. “He would be excited to see his goals (achieved). He was very driven in that. ... He’d be very honored. He was very bothered when David Veverka passed away. (Darian) was just little. But he would be honored to be up on the wall with two people that fought for our country. He would like that.”

“Darian’s legacy will live on in the lives of those who knew and loved him,” Widger reflected. “His life will also serve to inspire those from small schools like Jamestown, who have big dreams of success. His jersey will be hung with those of David Veverka and Josh McClimans, who gave their lives in the service of their country. I’m sure Darian would be proud to be in such esteemed company.”

Some people are criticized for wearing their faith on their sleeve, but Darian Keyser proudly displayed it on his basketball shoes.

“ ... His faith and what he believed in,” Mrs. Keyser recalled. “He wrote the Bible verse on his shoe (Proverbs 3:5-6 – “Trust in the Lord with all my heart and lean on unto thy known understanding. In all your ways knowledge in Him and He will direct my path”). When he got baptized in two-thousand-and-seventeen he told the pastor, ‘I wrote it on my shoe ‘cause I screw up, so I remind myself I’m a child of God and when I screw up I have to do better.’”

Courageously, a tearful Mrs. Keyser continued, “A month before (Darian) passed he had to go to the hospital. He had a horrible headache and we took him to the emergency room and I said, ‘Darian, I don’t want anything to happen to you, I’m just worried.’ And he said, ‘Mom, don’t be ridiculous. If I die, I’ll be in heaven.’ And that was the only thing that kept us going those first few weeks (after he passed), was thinking, ‘Mom, I’ll be okay.’ So I think a part of his legacy, too, was his faith, and he wasn’t afraid to show it.” 

“We know Darian’s certainly proud,” related his father, Jamestown High Principal Brian Keyser. “The message we want to share is, number one, about his faith, his strong belief in God ... trying to do the right things, living right, playin’ hard, working hard in school – those things, we want to share his message. And especially about the small school. No matter where you’re from, it matters what’s in your heart and what your motivation and desire to achieve are.”

“Darian was also fiercely proud of his school and community. He always loved wearing the purple and gold uniform,” Widger said. “He was loved by so many, and he loved them back in his normally quiet and low-key way. He was voted class president all four years of high school – because as he said, ‘Someone needs to do it.’”

Echoed Mrs. Keyser, “I’m an elementary (school) principal, and we talk about growth mind-set and grit – two huge things. You work hard and you don’t give up and you keep trying. Regardless of where you’re from – little school, big school . ... (Darian) didn’t give up, he persevered and he kept going, and no matter what anyone said he was going to play basketball and that was that. I think from a small school like (Jamestown) the support of his teammates and coaches, he just never gave up. He kept going.”

“Bubs,” as he was known, was born with clubbed feet that required special shoes, orthotics, braces and ultimately corrective surgery.

“The doctors told his parents that the chances were not good that he would ever play competitive sports,” Widger related. “We all know that he defied the odds and became an amazing competitor and player. Years of hard work dribbling, shooting and running helped his coordination, along with playing other sports.” 

“He would want people to talk about his legacy and remember him as somebody who didn’t take any shortcuts, didn’t make any excuses – although he could have had many reasons for not playing or not being competitive, not doing well in school. He had a number of obstacles to overcome,” Brian Keyser said of his son. “But he never looked for any way around his obstacles; he took ‘em head-on.

“And that’s the message he’d want to share: That no matter what your situation is, no matter where you’re from, no matter if you’re athletic or not athletic, struggle in school or don’t struggle in school – don’t give up. There’s something out there for you to do, there’s something for you to be successful at. So I think that’s what he would want everyone to hear.” 

In Jamestown High’s gym, “Keyser’s Corner,” if you will, proudly displays a pair of banners.

“From this point forward, number forty-two will never again be worn again at Jamestown Area High School by a boys’ basketball player,” Widger proudly proclaimed.

“Number forty-two will forever and always be a part of the game and this team and this family. ... forever, jersey number forty-two,” Mrs. Hutchinson concluded.

“Those who enter this gym will always remember the ‘force’ that was Darian Keyser, both in the paint and from outside the arc,” Mrs. Klink observed. “They will remember how fun it was to watch him, and how devastating it could be to guard him. But even more so they should remember that Darian didn’t become that way overnight; he had a passion to become the best version of himself that he could be, both on and off the court. Working hard and excelling in school; working hard at his faith and his faith’s journey. 

“ ... the ideals Darian’s number represent to us are what we said we would do in the days immediately following his passing: To make him proud and to carry on his legacy,” Mrs. Klink continued. “As we honor him, and in our remaining days, let us strive to practice his ideals, giving our all to be the best version we can be. Let Darian’s number forty-two be a constant reminder and inspiration for making the world a better place.”  

“He would be proud,” Mrs. Keyser confided, “but he would be proud of his team, to know that they helped him get there. And his coaches, to whom he was very thankful – his coaches. He was a tough ‘coach’ on (younger brother) Cam. We always said he’d end up being a coach ‘cause he was hard on Cam; he wanted Cam to get better and work hard and do his best.

“ ... So he did a lot of great things, but he was a kid and made mistakes. But he always wanted to be better. ... He knew he screwed up at times, but he just kept sharing it with so many different people. ... And he wrote that in his journal for his career class, that he wanted to be a man of God. So I think he met that goal,” Mrs. Keyser said.

In October of 1972, stricken with diabetes, Jackie Robinson died at age 53. In retrospect, the stress he endured as the first Black to play in Major League Baseball’s modern era certainly exacerbated any pre-existing condition that adversely affects the heart.

In February of 1990, former Loyola University-Marymount All-American Hank Gathers collapsed on a basketball court. He was 23 years-old and bound for the NBA; however, that night he died from cardiomyopathy, a heart-muscle disorder.

Darian’s mother said her son’s diagnosis was “ ... hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.” For an competitive athlete, the only option to live an otherwise normal life would be to call it a day. However Mrs. Keyser said of her son,

“It would’ve killed him had he known he had that (heart condition) and wasn’t able to play. He would’ve said, ‘I want to play. If something happens, I would want to play, doing something that I loved.’”

Jackie Robinson ... Hank Gathers ... Darian Keyser.

What cost them their lives was their greatest strength as athletes and human beings – they were all heart.

ED FARRELL is assistant sports editor for The Herald. E-mail him at efarrell@sharonherald.com.

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