‘Never too late’

Published 9:02 pm Friday, January 4, 2013

Suffolk native Derek Strickland, 30, competes in a wheelchair basketball game that helped lead to his receiving a scholarship to play college ball at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania.

Amputee chases his hoop dreams

Suffolk native Derek Strickland has become a star on the basketball court, he has received a college scholarship and he has done it all despite only having one leg.

In January 2005, Strickland was involved in a work accident that led to the amputation of his left leg below the knee. But that hasn’t stopped him from pursuing his boyhood basketball dreams.

Derek Strickland has realized his dream of playing college basketball, even though he had his left leg amputated below the knee back in 2007. Strickland is currently preparing to move to Pennsylvania on a college scholarship to play wheelchair basketball for Edinboro University. He will start this spring.

Strickland, 30, moved out of Suffolk when he was about 16, and he was working for Costco Wholesale in Maryland when he was 23.

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“I was a forklift driver and ended up having an accident,” he said. “It crushed my left foot between the forklift and a steel beam.”

Though the accident was severe, the amputation did not come abruptly.

“Actually, (doctors) tried to save my foot for about two years, with not very much success, obviously,” he said. “And they were also saying that if they were able to save it and get me to a tolerable level of pain, I still wouldn’t be able to run and jump and play and be active anymore.”

After going through two surgeries in the attempt preserve the leg, he made a decision and followed through on it in January 2007.

“I … decided to go ahead and have them amputate it,” he said.

Strickland had a background in basketball from when he lived in the area, playing around Suffolk with friends growing up. He followed this up playing organized ball at Alliance Christian, where he attended high school.

“After the amputation, some of my doctors had talked to me about and told me that at least now I could play basketball,” he said. “It wasn’t able-bodied basketball, but I was eligible to play wheelchair ball.”

“And then one day, we were actually going into a local community center for (a Home Owners’ Association) meeting and I saw a bunch of guys going in the door with basketball chairs — because the wheelchairs we use for basketball are different from the every day chairs — and skipped out on the HOA meeting, went down to watch them play basketball, and that’s how I got started,” he said. “Started practicing with them the next week.”

This was during the 2010-11 season. Strickland began playing the next season for a Division III team in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. He likened Division III to a recreational league.

“In our conference tournament at the end of the (2011-‘12) season, the president of the NWBA was there, and after we had finished playing our games, started talking to me and asking me if I would be interested in playing for a collegiate team,” Strickland said. “And that had always been my dream growing up.”

“We exchanged information, and he contacted some coaches for some of the colleges that have teams, and the next week I started getting e-mails from the colleges,” he said.

Interest came in from Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, the University of Illinois, the University of Alabama and the University of Texas at Arlington.

He ultimately chose Edinboro, where he will major in health and physical education with an emphasis in human performance and a minor in coaching. The minor hints at he would like to do when his playing days are over.

He has big plans before starting a career, though, with his eyes set on the Paralympics.

“Which is mainly why I picked Edinboro, because the coach at Edinboro is currently the head coach for the men’s Paralympic team,” he said. “And there’s a couple of guys in the area that I’m going to be training and working with that are on the Paralympic team. So, I think it’s going to help sort of prepare more for the national team in 2016.”

Strickland has been a significant inspiration to his family, particularly to his wife Jami.

“I’m so very proud of Derek and all the things that he has already accomplished, as well as what he will accomplish in the future,” she wrote in an e-mail. “He is a perfect role model for our 4-year-old son and is teaching him a valuable life lesson — that its never too late to follow your dreams.”

Strickland tried to explain what it means to him to still be able to play basketball, despite his circumstances.

“There’s really not a way to put it into words,” he said. “I go from the point of having my leg crushed and three days later the doctors telling me I’m not going to be able to run and jump again to years down the road fulfilling the dream of being recruited and having the opportunity to still go play basketball for colleges.”