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The Sugar Bowl isn't Strait's ultimate goal

1/3/2004

NEW ORLEANS -- Watch Derrick Strait long enough and you'll see a smile. On the football field, you'll see the innate ability to close gaps, the physical tenacity to hit hard and the mental capacity to always be one step ahead.

What you don't see is the pain.

What you don't see is the hurt of watching your mom cry because she can't pay the electric bill. What you don't see is the childhood struggles of a kid who grew up on welfare; a kid who's family had to sleep in a U-Haul after they were evicted from their apartment.

And should Oklahoma win its eighth national championship Sunday night, the senior All-American will be as happy as anyone. But it won't be the greatest day of his life. That will come later this year, when Strait signs an NFL contract and then puts his Mom in his car and drives her to her new home.

The pain of the past, the struggles of the past, they'll then be firmly buried in the past.

"Nothing will ever compare to that day," said Strait, who's already asked a real estate agent to begin the search. "It will be better than anything that could ever happen to me. That's my mom's life. That's our life. That's something that I've been trying to achieve my whole life. It's more than a football goal. It's a life goal."

To understand Derrick Strait is to understand that these two lives -- the one off the field and the one on it -- truly do go hand in hand. Football provides an escape; it's a medicine that helps numb the personal pain. It's also a way out.

Life, on the other hand, provides all the on-field motivation anybody could ever need. Want to see somebody who's driven, determined and focused? Tell them the ability to get their family off welfare depends on whether or not they make that tackle or intercept that pass. Tell them if they don't pass this class, if they don't ace this test, they won't get on the football field and their mom will continue using food stamps to eat.

"In football, you can always think about something and then go out and do it on the field," Strait said. "It's more mental. In life, you can think about whatever you want, but if you don't have the funds to do it, you've got some restrictions."

Strait's story is not an easy one for him to tell. When he first shared it with the Dallas Morning News in October, his mom wondered why he aired their personal laundry in the newspaper. Straiy told her because it might motivate somebody else. Because it might keep some kid out of trouble and on the right track.

That was him once -- the trouble-making teenager in Austin, Texas. His family was on welfare, making every trip to the grocery store an ongoing struggle of wants and needs. Derrick, his mother and his five brothers and sisters would often sit in the dark because they didn't have electricity. He once ran a wire from a neighbor's apartment so he had a light with which to get dressed.

"It was an ordinary thing," Strait said. "You didn't need lights, really. All you needed was some candles."

Strait helped care for his younger brothers and sisters, but was heading down the wrong path. Until he met middle school coach Rodney Greene. Greene, the man Strait lists as his father in the Oklahoma media guide, recognized the then-6th grader's god-given athletic talent and implored him to stay out of trouble. He told Strait that sports could carry him to college and in turn better his life.

It was too tempting to ignore. So Strait avoided problems, persevered in the classroom and practiced any sport he could, from football and basketball to baseball and track.

"I figured I could at least get an education," Strait said. "And maybe, if I was lucky enough, I could try to make it to the next level. I just saw it as a way to get some money."

It wasn't easy. One summer night before his senior year, the family received an eviction notice. The only money they had was what Strait had earned at a summer job. They put a bunch of belongings in storage, stuffed the rest in the back of a U-Haul, parked the truck in a city park and tried to go to sleep.

"I don't think anybody really got any sleep," Strait said. "If I did, it was for 30 minutes or something like that. That's no comfortable way to try and rest."

The next night, Strait moved in with Greene. His mother, two sisters and three brothers moved in with an aunt. But they never got their belongings out of storage.

Not long ago, with a little money in his pocket, Strait went back to ask about his stuff. He was told there was a limit on how long you could store it. His possessions had been sold.

"Somebody's out there with my letterman's jacket, some of our clothes, my mom's furniture," Strait said.

The hardest part of his childhood, Strait said, was growing older and realizing the emotional pain his mother was going through.

"She did the best job of not hiding it, but of having us not know it was a desperate situation," Strait said. "But it was hard. You don't want to see your mom crying. You'll do whatever it takes."

Despite growing up in the shadows of the University of Texas, Strait, who said he's never even been to UT's Memorial Stadium, signed a letter of intent to play football for Oklahoma in 1999. Things haven't been the same since.

He's started a school-record 53 games for the Sooners and will go down in history as one of the greatest defensive players the school has seen. This year, he won both the Thorpe Award, given to the nation's best defensive back and the Nagurski Award, given to the best overall defensive player.

Nobody in the Sooner locker room garners more respect.

"When he talks, everybody -- and I mean everybody -- stops," defensive tackle Tommie Harris said. "Because you know he's got something important to say.

"And he would give you the shirt off his back. Right off his back. If he was holding a can of soda and you were thirsty, he'd hand it right to you without even blinking."

Just this week, defensive linemen Dan Cody and Dusty Dvoracek were walking the halls of the team hotel when they came across Strait. The tiny cornerback, nearly half their size, cracked a joke, made them laughed and went on his way. Some thirty minutes later, in a break of silence, Dvoracek had a thought.

"He just sits up, looks at me and says, 'Man, I love Derrick Strait,'" Cody said. "'We're going to miss him.' And that's the way everybody feels."

Strait's mother still lives in a tiny apartment back in Austin and younger brother Damien rooms with Derrick off campus. His other brothers and sisters live with his mom or various relatives. But the future now looks brighter than ever. Derrick is a hot NFL prospect and he will graduate in May with a degree in criminology.

As for the last game of his college career Sunday night, mom will be watching from back home in Austin. She doesn't like long car rides and the family didn't have the money to fly her to New Orleans. But you're wrong if you don't think she'll be inside the Superdome. All you have to do is look on Strait's left arm, where the name "Brenda" will be inscribed.

"She's the reason I work so hard," Strait said. "Just to give her some things in life."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.