COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It is basketball practice at Ohio State, and Derek Upp is the fastest-moving Buckeye. He zips here with a cup of water, there with a towel, somewhere else on another duty.
Earlier, he had been to class, and then driven his Dodge Grand Caravan to Schottenstein Center to help haul out the equipment for practice. It’s a busy day in the life of a student-manager, just like all the other guys.Well, not quite like all the other guys. Did we mention Derek Upp is a quadriplegic in a wheel chair? From the day he was born, with a congenital condition that robbed him of the full use of every limb, fate tried to tell him he couldn’t. He has spent his first 23 years determined to prove that he can.
There was the T-ball when he was young. The bike races and wheel-chair basketball later. And for the past two seasons, the manager’s job with Ohio State. None of it has been easy. Not a second of it. But whatever took his limbs never took his passion.
“I’ve always been in love with sports, and I’m very competitive,” he was saying before practice began. “It always just felt like I was more independent in sports. I felt more like everyone else, and not a person in a wheel chair.”
His is one of Ohio State basketball’s most stirring tales of victory, even if never seen in a box score or Big Ten standings. He can use his left arm some, his right arm less, his legs not at all. At practice he races around in his Formula I wheel chair. At home games, he is there under the east basket, often keeping stats, ready to zoom to the huddle during timeouts on the ramp the university has for him.
Meanwhile, so many wonder at the resilience of his spirit.
Take David Egelhoff, the director of basketball operations at Ohio State, who oversees the managers.
“When you think there’s something hard in your life, whether it’s snow on your car or the little things in life that are difficult, when you see a guy like Derek, who has trouble getting up every day, it makes you put things in perspective,” he said. “It’s not easy for him to get to practice. It’s not easy for him to get to class. But that’s what he wants to do because he wants to be a part of something.
“I think he inspires the players, that there’s more than just putting the ball in the basket. There’s more to life than that.”
Or Curt and Cheryl Upp. The father and mother who have been on the journey through the good times and bad in Lancaster, 30 miles southeast of Columbus.
It was Cheryl who said of her son’s managing at Ohio State, “It’s not exactly what he wants to do. What he wants to do is be out there on the court playing. This is the next best thing. He’s competitive enough to be able to look on the good side of things with what he’s got ahead of him, and move on.”
And it was Curt who said, “I know it is very hard for him sometimes, but he perseveres. We’ve had pastors tell us that he’s not only making people with disabilities think, he’s making people of faith think. He’s giving everybody reason to believe there’s more to life.”It has been such a demanding road, from the day in 1990 when a little baby was born with so many trials ahead of him. “Doctors told us he was one in a thousand,” Curt said. “This just doesn’t happen. But it was congenital. It happened. And for the first six or nine months, you had doctors not giving out optimism at all of surviving.
“He had seven pretty bad years the first part of life.”
But he survived, through spine fusions and hip fusions and so much else. If the limbs couldn’t work right, the heart certainly could. It would not take long for a love of sports to become a motivating force in his life, even though neither parent was a particularly avid fan.
Curt remembers the T-ball years, when his son “would come home after the game and still be rehearsing everything in his head.”
Cheryl remembers the day she heard her son intensely following a game on TV, and walked into the room expecting to find a real football game. Instead, it was an Adam Sandler movie, The Waterboy.
And it was Cheryl who mentioned that her son’s fervor for sports was good for another reason. “I think any anger he’s probably got over his situation comes out in that way. I don’t know if he recognizes that, but I would guess that’s probably true.”
Curt said Cheryl is the eternal optimist. Cheryl said she figures she has to be that way when she sees Derek’s will to fight.
“I think I’ve had more anger sometimes than him because he’s never known anything different,” she said. “Some of the things I miss for him, I know what they could have been, but he doesn’t. So he’s had a little easier level of being accepting.”
With a mother’s instinct to protect, when Derek was old enough to be in youth football, she made sure to find out all the times and places the teams would be practicing and playing. Then she never drove with her son to that side of Lancaster. “I didn’t want him to know. I felt that sadness and disappointment for him, but he didn’t.”
Somewhere along those years, Derek and Curt were able to attend a Buckeyes basketball practice. Head coach Thad Matta and his staff told them that if Derek ever attended Ohio State and would like to be a part of the program, there’d be a spot.
After two years studying at Ohio University at Lancaster, he decided to transfer to Ohio State. And now here he is, majoring in sports industry, and loving every second with the Buckeyes. A special van with hand controls has allowed him to drive.Yet there is still peril, and ghastly luck. Last summer, in a race on his hand bike, he missed a turn and hit a wall, breaking his right arm. Then the Mirsa infection set in. Then pneumonia. He was sick for months and had to miss much of the fall term at Ohio State. More hardships, more challenges.
“It brought back a lot of very nervous and bad things in your mind,” Curt said. “The main thing he was worried about was losing his position [as manager]. They all told Derek that’s not going to happen.”
Said Egelhoff, “He’s not going to let any of his disabilities stop him from doing what he wants to do, that’s obvious.”
But will he ever be able to get back on the bike? “I’m praying,” Derek said.
In two years or so, he’ll get his diploma. Whose voice would not waver at the mention of it? His mother’s certainly did. “It’ll be a big dream for him,” Cheryl said. "I just cry thinking about it.”
Cheryl lost her mother and Derek a grandmother last year. His grandfather, Russell Woodard, wants badly to be around to see Derek graduate. “I think in a way it gave his grandpa the reason to live,” Curt said.
So he’s inspired Buckeyes and pastors and family. And maybe most of all, other kids with disabilities, who often contact him.
“I believe Derek’s purpose in life is to help people with disabilities,” Curt said.
“People see me sometimes and they’re like, 'I didn’t know you could do that,' ’’ Derek said. “If you can put your mind to it, you can do it.”
So in the end, his message is about power. The power of a young man’s will to carry on, and the power of being part of a team. “No. 1, great gratitude,” Curt said of his feelings toward Ohio State.
In the end, Derek Upp is the unbeaten Buckeye.