DENNIS “Den Den” Hutchinson was a folk hero to us in high school — an insanely talented footballer who would have been a superstar had he been born in Brazil.
“You must be a Labourite playing for Tivoli,” were the last words he heard before the explosion. So incredulous, he didn’t realise it was his gifted body that the bullet had entered. He remembered lying on a gurney in the hospital for hours, bleeding away. Waiting for help. Waiting to die.
The glory of just leading Tivoli to their first Manning Cup triumph as a precocious 16-year-old was gone. He was not political. He was just a kid going to high school for an education and wanting to play football. Just like me.
But he wasn’t just like me. Political violence and other artificial divisions, perceptions and labels that still exist in Jamaica today separated us, dictating that we should not be friends no matter how many times our paths crossed. There was “uptown” vs “downtown”; “Labourite” vs “Socialist”. It was Real Mona or Campion vs Boys’ Town or Tivoli High. Any of those labels could get you killed back then, as it nearly did him. Seared in my mind is that gruesome, full-page political ad in the newspaper depicting him lying wounded on the ground. But he survived, left Tivoli, and took refuge at Clarendon College where his star rose to mythical proportions.
Our lives intersected in college in the remote hills of West Virginia. He had used his talent to earn a football scholarship to Alderson Broaddus College (AB). I was at West Virginia Wesleyan College (WVWC), rival schools a few minutes apart. Here, far from home and away from the labels that separate, we were simply Jamaicans. No uptown or downtown. No PNP or JLP. No Campion. No Tivoli. No Mona. No Boys’ Town.
Though intense college rivals, the common enemy was the “unfriendly” environment of Ku Klux Klan rallies and racism, confederate flags adorning almost every store or truck that drove by — whether in his town of Philippi or fifteen minutes away in Buckhannon where we resided. It was a culture shock for us all, and our “Jamaicaness” bonded us forever.
I had seven other Jamaicans with me at WVWC. Martin Woodstock, Roger Gordon-Martin, Norman Pennycooke, Ritchie Stephenson, Leslie Farr, David Morrison and Stephen Payne. All gifted footballers. Add to the mix Ambassador Courtenay Rattray and our numbers gave me comfort when we dared to venture out. Den Den had Michael “Zun” Clarke. Much to both coaches’ chagrin, before and after fiercely contested games we would get together. Just yardies hanging out and glad to be with yardies. Other teammates resented how close the Jamaicans (and an “adopted” Trini named Stewie) were. But we didn’t care. It was us against everybody. We even arranged Jamaica versus rest-of-the-world matches, trouncing the “white guys”, mainly the English and Americans. The “boat” and drinks afterwards were extra special. I don’t remember who would cook the curry chicken (goat being unavailable), but after the constant pain of bland American cafeteria food, it always seemed a sumptuous feast.
Den Den was the star. Our coach thought we went to watch AB games to get insight on our big conference rivals. Nope. We went to watch Den Den play. He was amazing. Fast, skillfull, strong, brave. He scored goals almost at will. He took AB all the way to the US National Championship final. I remember so many moments of his magic indelibly etched in my mind. The goal to win the Manning Cup in 1976. The “roly-poly” against a hapless Cuban defender that made his knees buckle at the National Stadium. The outrageous “salad” against a JC defender (who shall remain nameless as he is also my friend) who sprinted thirty yards to deliver the fiercest sliding tackle he could on a player he thought hadn’t seen him and appeared helplessly trapped by the corner flag. The massive African player he disgraced with a sequenced salad, “air pile”, salad, who was so enraged he abandoned the game and started chasing Den Den around the field to inflict bodily harm, the wide grin on Den Den’s face only serving to further enrage. That will always be my favourite. And the goals, including the mystery one that knocked us out in the conference finals one year that none of us saw. Apparently he had cleverly flicked it from our goalkeeper’s control when he wasn’t looking. No one who watched schoolboy football in the seventies will not have a story of the incredible things they witnessed Den Den do.
But I also remember the quieter times. The food and beer as much as we could afford, which wasn’t much back then, but it was enough to last through the countless stories and jokes he regaled. Of course, the morbid details of that fateful attack was on repeat request to satisfy our curious, sheltered selves. He would show us the bullet entry and exit wounds and recount what life in the inner city was like, how he ended up at Tivoli which nearly cost him his life. He told us of all the challenges and his thoughts and dreams which lead him to college. Away from home, as Jamaicans we all found everything in common that united us, the culture, the music, the sense of humour.
Back home in Jamaica, despite us all going our separate ways and careers, he always kept in touch. In that regard, he was a much better friend than I. I didn’t even know he was ailing these last few months. For over forty years he was my friend and a silent hero. A vibrant, everlasting memory of my youth and growing up in Jamaica in the seventies. He was one of Jamaica’s most gifted athletes and should have been a star. None of us can truly fathom what it must have been like to be targeted by assassins, left for dead, but rise again to pursue a dream. His story, courage and heroics should not just be forgotten.
Farewell ‘Den Den’. Thanks for the memories and the inspiration.
Editor’s note: Chris Dehring is the former WICB chief marketing executive and CEO of ICC CWC 2007. With over 30 years in the business of sports, he has negotiated multimillion-dollar TV and sports rights deals across the world, including the English Premier League, WICB and ICC events, and led the Caribbean’s hosting of Cricket World Cup in 2007. In 2001 he conceptualised and launched Sportsmax, the region’s first 24/7 sports channel, now broadcast in 26 countries, and was an integral founder of the famous ‘Mound’ party stand. He represented Jamaica in both football and cricket at the under-19 level, representing Real Mona and Kingston Cricket Club in the Major League and Senior Cup, respectively.