DENVER — Davarie Armstrong's mom said the only time her son's smile faded was on the football field, when his team was losing. He played the sport since he was 5 years old.
“He had the best laugh. He had the best smile. He was the best athlete. He made being a mom super easy because he was just a good kid in general," his mom said.
Armstrong's cousins said if you went to Denver South High School, you knew who he was.
“Imagine the person you love the most, just gone. You can’t call them, you can’t touch them, you can’t hug them, you can’t physically see them, like their existence was never there. But you know that they were once there," said Ziare Frazier, one of Armstrong's cousins.
Teasing comes with the territory of an older brother, but his little sister said the two always had fun together.
“Just playing football reminds me of him, because he was playing football his entire life. And it’s something that I wanted to do because of him... He was my role model," said Ailaija Shabazz, who is six years younger than Armstrong was.
Armstrong had just turned 17, when he was shot and killed at a party in the Montbello neighborhood in July of 2020. "I’ve never felt my heart be completely broken and shattered. My stomach dropped. I still don’t sleep, since then," said Armstrong's mother, Angel Shabazz.
Angel said this year, the holidays are hitting her particularly hard.
"I was more in shock the first year, because it had just happened. So, I’m taking it and feeling it more this year, really noticing he’s not here. And to see the gun violence rising is just horrific, because that means there’s another parent who’s out there feeling like I’m feeling. That means there’s another parent that is not going to spend time with their kids for the holidays, because they were murdered because of gun violence. It’s just depressing. It doesn’t feel like a holiday spirit," she said.
Across the country, the number of murders last year increased by almost 30% when compared to 2019, according to figures from the FBI. It was the largest single-year increase possibly ever recorded, but still remains below levels seen in the early 1990s. The majority of the homicides were caused by firearms.
Denver Police Department records show there were 95 homicides recorded in 2020, with more than 60 of the murders committed by some kind of gun. So far in 2021, those with the Denver Police Department said there have been 91 murders, and over 70 of them were caused by firearms.
“I worked my butt off trying to prevent my son from being a statistic. And now, he’s a part of that," said Angel.
For Armstrong's family, their son, brother, and cousin will always be more than a number.
“Your child should be just fine doing exactly what they do, without having to be scared for their life, just because they want to go to a party and be a child, and be a teenager, live their life, like they’re supposed to," said his sister, Ailaija.
Armstrong's stepfather, T'chaka King, said the death was preventable.
“I was just blessed, and I had a community, like my grandmother, my grandfather, my aunts, my uncles, to watch over me if I’m doing something wrong. So, that’s what we need to do as a community," said King.
Every member of the family who was interviewed said the solutions to teen gun violence starts at home.
"Teach your kids that there’s so much more that you can do rather than shoot somebody, or just choosing violence in general. You can talk it out, you can hash it out, you can literally ignore it all together, but it starts at home. If your parents aren’t teaching you that, you’re going to go look for it somewhere else. You’re going to look for that validation somewhere else, and then you’re going to get the wrong validation," said Armstrong's cousin, Frazier.
Armstrong's mother said she started a support group for other mothers whose children have been killed by gun violence. She said the group has grown from four mothers to 17.
"Most of them have been through gun violence," said Angel. She said the group is called A Mother's Love.
The family has been working to rename the football field at Denver South High School after Armstrong. They said representatives of the state told them they would revisit the idea two years after Armstrong's death. Now, that should be happening in around half a year.
“Keeping his legacy alive, especially the way he played, and he put his heart and soul on that field, is something that we’re striving for," said his cousin, Frazier.
The family also started the DJ Armstrong Foundation in honor of their loved one.
Editor's note on Monday, Dec. 6 at 12:15 p.m.: The video version of this story said 2021 had already reached the number of Denver homicides recorded for 2020. The Denver Police Department clarified the figures on Monday.