It’s been more than a year since tragedy struck—when college football player Derek Sheely took a fatal hit during practice at Frostburg State University.
But Derek’s parents Kristen and Ken Sheely, with friends and former teammates at Northwest High School, are keeping Sheely’s memory alive, with hopes his story will teach the next generation of football players to recognize the signs of brain injuries, so that they might not share the same fate.
In honor of Derek, the school held a special dedication ceremony Friday, officially unveiling a white oak tree and plaque near the scoreboard, ahead of the Jaguar’s game against Enstein.
“To honor Derek’s strength, dedication and passion for Northwest football and his Northwest family, we have planted Derek’s Oak facing the stadium so that his presence may always provide protection for all athletes in its shadow,” said Andrew Fields, Northwest’s former offensive coordinator.
The plaque says:
“In Loving Memory of
Derek Thomson Sheely
Class of 2007
Teammate, Brother, Jag Forever”
White oak trees have been known to live for centuries, some as long as 400 years.
“What better place to be than to be overlooking the stadium?” said Ken Sheely, Derek’s father, as Kristen Sheely greeted Derek’s friends and former teammates.
But there’s a deep message that comes with the tree’s deep roots.
Sheely graduated from Northwest in 2007 and was a co-captain on Northwest’s 2006 football team that went 12-1.
But in August 2011, Derek Sheely suffered a head injury during football practice at Frostburg State University. Kristen Sheely said doctors later determined that Derek already had a head injury when he took the fatal hit.
Derek died nearly one week later. He was 22 years old.
“Hopefully for many, many years to come this will not only be a reminder of Derek but hopefully for all the athletes who come to play on this field will think about Derek’s story,” Ken Sheely said.
Since Derek’s passing, his parents founded the Derek Sheely Foundation and have been pressing the state for changes to protect student-athletes. On Friday, the Sheelys arrived at Northwest with informational pamphlets and rubber wristbands that said “prevent brain injury.”
“We’re hoping kids will wear them and if they see one of their friends acting strange this (the wristband) will remind them,” Ken Sheely said.
During the ceremony, Derek’s former teammates, with family and friends, gathered around the tree and plaque. Josh Volpe, who played with Derek at Northwest and at Frostburg, described the moment as bittersweet.
Volpe was there the day Derek collapsed.
“We were just at practice, doing our normal thing,” Volpe said. “I look over and he’s collapsed on the field. That was the last time. It’s still hard to think about.”
Volpe said the tragedy made him reconsider his own mindset about the seriousness of concussions.
“I’ve actually had three concussions, so, just knowing the severity and knowing what can happen, it’s scary,” Volpe said. “Since that happened, I’ve been helping spread the word. I’m a coach now at Frostburg, so we always make sure if you have any signs or symptoms, get off the field and see a trainer right away.”