CHESTERTOWN — Darryl Deaton had a larger than life personality, on and off the basketball court where he led the junior varsity program at alma mater Kent County High School for the past nine years.
He was generous in giving of his time and his knowledge.
He was witty and hilariously entertaining, and he always seemed to be smiling.
He was a big guy — considerably heavier than his playing weight of 195 pounds as the nose guard on the Trojans’ 6-3 football team of 1980 — and he had a strong voice, ideal for player introductions at home football and basketball games.
He was unmistakable and unforgettable.
Just ask anyone who knew him.
“He was a good guy to be around,” coaching colleague, teammate and lifelong friend Jim “Buck” Kennard said of Deaton, who died Sept. 5 at his home in Washington Park.
Deaton, 57, had not been feeling well for a couple of days prior to his death, according to family.
There will be two visitations for Deaton at the Bennie Smith Funeral Home in Chestertown: 3 to 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 18 and 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 19. Due to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines related to COVID-19, attendance for the homecoming service at 11 a.m. Saturday is limited.
But as part of the funeral procession to Janes United Methodist Church Cemetery, near Chestertown, there will be a flower toss at the community park in Washington Park.
As chairman of the Washington Park Association, Deaton played a key role in the expansion and upgrade of the Louisa d’Andelot Carpenter Park, including a new pavilion and resurfaced basketball court.
In a bitter twist of fate, the park was dedicated Sept. 5 just hours before Deaton passed away. He did not attend.
Darryl Deaton was known as “Cleats” to most people, a nickname that originated in the KCHS locker room one day after he took some good-natured ribbing for wearing a pair of football spikes that were too big for him.
His immediate family called him “Perry Mason” in homage to the lead character in the television series by the same name in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
“If we wanted to know something, we’d ask Darryl first. And if he didn’t know the answer, he could find it out,” sister Terra, aka “Mildred,” said.
A few, like Kennard, could get away with calling him “Big Daddy.”
Darryl was the next-to-youngest in a blended family of seven children. The Deatons were among the first families to move into the new Washington Park subdivision, just outside of Chestertown’s town limits at the time, in the mid-1960s.
He attended Chestertown Elementary School on Washington Avenue (the site is now Washington College’s Cromwell Hall), Chestertown Middle School and Kent County High School, graduating in 1981.
Carroll Jackson-Smith, who would eventually become the longtime girls basketball coach at KCHS, was Deaton’s gym teacher in middle school. She described him as “a super athlete,” but said what really stood out was his intelligence.
Friendships came easily to Deaton, according to Jackson-Smith, and he never changed from the kind and caring person she first met as an eighth-grader.
When they became coaching colleagues at the high school, Jackson-Smith said she was impressed with the camaraderie that Deaton developed with all the basketball players, girls and boys.
“He had a gift, always laughing, teasing kids, giving them all little nicknames. ... His personality was really rich. He could tease anybody and they would not get upset,” Jackson-Smith said of Deaton.
“He loved kids, anybody’s kids,” she added. “He spent a lot of time in and out of people’s homes to try to keep kids on the right track. He was genuine and he cared.”
Deaton was a triple-threat athlete at KCHS, lettering in football, basketball and baseball. He also served as a class officer for three years.
While technically John Larrimore was the class president and Deaton was the vice president, Larrimore said “we didn’t split hairs as to who was what. We were both officers and left it at that.”
The Larrimore-Deaton ticket was voted in in their sophomore year, and it stuck. “We never had another election,” Larrimore said in a telephone interview last week.
As you might have guessed, nicknames were big with Deaton, whose tag for Larrimore was “Bucky.”
They were lifelong friends, having met in the first grade.
Deaton was a man of principle.
“He would not take the easy way out. He would take the right way, which wasn’t always to everyone’s satisfaction,” Larrimore said.
Deaton was as good a listener as he was a talker.
“When he asked you ‘How ya doin,’ he wanted to know how you were doing,” Larrimore said.
The last time the two friends saw one another was March 2 at Washington College’s ballpark, as part of a mini-reunion of KCHS alumni who had come to cheer on one of their own, 2018 graduate Tyson Johnson, who would scatter five hits in a 6-3 victory for St. Mary’s baseball team.
Deaton attended Chesapeake College and culinary school, served in the U.S. Navy and had an eclectic work history — including residential counselor for at-risk youth and substitute teacher — that showcased his skill set as a people person.
It was while working in dining services at Washington College that Scott Jones ’89 met Deaton.
As a member of the Shoremen’s basketball team, Jones would referee the intramural games. Deaton played on the dining services team.
Jones said he soon “recognized that ‘Cleats’ was a hoops junkie and he would come to all the games and root us on.”
That was the heyday of Shoremen basketball, a couple of NCAA Division III tournament berths and a third-place finish in 1990.
Jones, who was an assistant coach on that Final Four team of 30 years ago, reached out to the players after learning of Deaton’s death.
“They couldn’t believe it. They said the news was devastating,” Jones said.
In a text message, all-star guard Chris “Squirrel” Brandt said that Deaton “was a great friend and supporter of all of us. He would always sit behind the visitors bench and give them hell. RIP my friend.”
Charles “Tank” Duckett, the starting point guard and only Black member of the 25-6 team, had an especially close relationship with Deaton. Duckett said Deaton looked out for him, even telling him where he could get a haircut and how to “fit in” in Kent County.
Duckett remembered that when Washington won the region final against Western Connecticut, 107-104 in overtime, the first person he saw running onto the court was Deaton. “I jumped into his arms and shouted ‘We’re going to the Final Four,’” Duckett said in a text message.
“We all felt so connected to him,” Jones said. “He was a role model and mentor. Everyone respected him. He taught us to have pride in where we came from and he didn’t care what color your skin was.”
Fast forward 20 some years, in a fortuitous coincidence, Scott Jones’ son Jake would be a freshman in high school the same year that Sobaye Scott, Kennard and Deaton returned to their alma mater to usher in a new era for Kent County basketball.
Scott Jones said he was less concerned about the Xs and Os than he was about the lessons of life that Deaton would impart to his son and teammates.
“I was grateful that Jake had someone he could learn from about how to handle yourself and to treat others,” Jones said in a telephone interview the day after Deaton’s death.
“I knew that I was lucky to have him,” Scott Jones said. “He talked to his players about life, having pride in what you’re doing, giving the maximum effort. I think of him as a uniter.”
Jake Jones was a captain on Deaton’s first team of 2011-12, which finished 8-11, and the second team that went 11-6 after ending the season on a five-game winning streak.
“He was my first introduction to high school basketball,” Jones, now 22 and living in Richmond, Va., said of Deaton. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘This giant of a guy is my coach?’”
Like everyone else, Deaton had a nickname for playmaker Jones — “Little Steve Nash,” for the former NBA all-star.
Jake Jones had greater success on the varsity level in soccer and lacrosse, and would go on to play lacrosse at Randolph-Macon College, but he said junior varsity basketball was his favorite high school sport.
And that was all because of Deaton.
“He always had faith in you and he made you feel so much better about yourself,” Jones said in a telephone interview. “He was a friend and a mentor, and has been a father figure to a lot of kids.
“It was the way he talked to you personally, wanting to know how your day in school was and what was going on in your life.”
Jones said Deaton had a way of making basketball fun.
Most of the time.
Seared in Jones’ memory, however, is the final game he played for Deaton — Feb. 12, 2013 at home against Parkside, a much larger Class 2A school.
The Trojans had such a terrible first half that Deaton took them into a supply closet at intermission, instead of the locker room, to chide them.
“He told us that this would be the last time that we would play as a team for him, that we had been on his first team the year before and that he’d seen us grow up,” Jones recalled of the fiery, but also inspiring, halftime talk. “He told us he wanted us to finish this game like we were playing for him.”
You can guess what happened.
The Trojans rallied for a 53-45 victory, sinking 13 of 14 free throws in the fourth period.
Jones scored nine of his 10 points over the final eight minutes, when he buried a 3-pointer and was a perfect 6-of-6 from the stripe.
He said whenever he thinks of KCHS, he thinks of Deaton.
“After I graduated, we stayed in touch through social media and whenever I would come back to school he would always introduce me to the new players,” Jones said.
“I’m so thankful for knowing him and to have had him in my life. Personally, I’m honored that I got to know him and learn from him.”
Everyone we interviewed for this article echoed that sentiment, including Scott and Harold Somerville, president of the Washington Park Association. Both grew up in Washington Park and looked to Deaton as a big brother and mentor.
As one of the “older guys in the community, he would look after the young pups,” said Scott, who Deaton called “Always classy, Freddie blasty.”
Scott’s nickname growing up was “Blast.”
While Scott was the head coach, he seldom pulled rank on Deaton.
“If I was ever undecided about when to call a time-out or to make a substitution or run a play, Darryl was the first person I would ask,” Scott said. “He knew the game well and literally carried the rule book in his back pocket. I read the rule book, but he knew it, almost like he was quoting the Bible.”
Basketball was more than the game of basketball for Deaton, said Scott, and that’s what he admired most about his colleague. “He instilled in our players that through this basketball journey you will always have a friend, a big brother.”
Deaton may have done his best coaching in the 2019-20 season. Losing a handful of players, including three starters, after report cards were issued the first week of February and another to injury, Deaton kept the team together. He dressed no more than seven players, and as few as five, the rest of the way, but they won their last two games to finish 7-10.
“They stuck it out and I’m really proud of them,” Deaton told the Kent County News after the Feb. 20 finale. The last two games, they were determined that they were not going to lose.”
He added: “They bought in to what we were trying to teach them. They worked hard. And I couldn’t have asked for better kids.”
Deaton already had indicated that he intended to return for a 10th year as coach.
He will be difficult to replace, said Kent’s longtime athletic director Kevin Taylor.
“I’ll miss him terribly, Taylor, a 1985 KCHS graduate, said. “In his heart, everything he did was for the kids.”