My grandfather passed away my freshman year of high school when I was thirteen years old. It came without warning. My grandmother was cooking his favorite meal, dumplings and biscuits, and went to go get the plate to feed him. She came back, and he was gone. As a family, we all knew that he was sick. Papa had been fighting cancer for at least three or four years before this moment. But he had been recovering just fine. He was active, and walking. Hell, he was working his job as a traveling real estate warranty salesman three days before he passed. But it still happened. My family was entirely gutted at Papa's passing. Tears were wept and hearts were broken. I found myself numb and lost; I had lost my version of Superman in the blink of an eye. All of my extended family found ourselves asking "why?"
I recall this personal story because it is a story that many of us that have followed CMU football are feeling right now, in the depths of our hearts. We've been entirely gutted, and are looking for the answer to our "why?". It is always the sudden passings that affect us the most. It is the passings that seem to be without explanation that are the most difficult to get over. The fact that it was someone as young and full of life and promise as Derrick Nash? Unthinkable.
Many people nationwide will remember Derrick Nash as the honorary captain at the Bahamas Bowl that had a feature on TV during the game shortly before the Chippewas surmounted an unbelievable 34-point near-comeback for the ages (I always like to say that the timing was definitely not coincidental; it was fate). However, he was a lot more than that to those that knew him, or knew his story.
Nash was a fighter even unto the last breath. To the student body of Central Michigan University, he was known as a sparkling personality. Energetic, charming, and positive were words that were often associated in the same breath as Derrick Nash. When he was well enough to move around and interact with his teammates and fellow students, Nash was instantly a center of attention, as he could command a room with his presence alone. A humble man and a hard worker, Nash had one dream: to play college football and get a degree. The fact that cancer took him before he could even realize his dream... there are no words to describe the sound of the heartbreak that sentence makes.
Nash was a star running back out of Carrollton High School, and was a building block for the 2013-14 recruiting class. Coach Dan Enos figured he had the body and athleticism to play defensive back, and redshirted Nash so he could adjust to the new position. It was during spring camps that Nash noticed he was becoming increasingly fatigued after exercise, and that's when doctors came down with the diagnosis of acute lymphobastic leukimia. This sidelined him for the entire 2013 season. To most people, this burden would be too much to bear, and they would break under the pressure.
However, Nash took a different tack. He turned his diagnosis into motivation. Nash continued his workout regimen after his first round of treatment, and had become well enough to participate in the team's Maroon and Gold game in 2014, making some critical plays. It looked like Derrick was finally going to get his moment and earn some playing time, but just before the season started, lymphoma came back. The players wore an orange ribbon on their helmets and the motto "Nash Strong" was adopted in his honor. Many drives were held to find a bone marrow match for Derrick, with the football team often seen in Park Library or outside in the cold winter winds canvassing the campus explaining to students how the treatments would help his fight against lymphoma. Nash had the ability to bring people together in a way that not many people could.
Even with his health failing towards the start of this year, Nash was undeterred in his goal of finally stepping on the turf of Kelly/Shorts Stadium as a member of the Maroon and Gold. He wanted to fight alongside his brothers. He wanted to make his fellow students cheer on their team. He wanted to make his family proud and secure a good future. It killed him to be in treatment, whether in Mt. Pleasant, or Ann Arbor.
That's what made Derrick's trip to Nassau all the more special. Seeing him standing and patrolling the sideline in his number 21 jersey, cheering on his teammates and standing alongside the men that did so much to try and find the help that he needed, whether by signing up potential donors, donating themselves, or even just sending him words of encouragement, was a sight that could bring tears to your eyes, even if you didn't know who he was.
The one moment that I believe defined Derrick's impact in his earthly life is a sunny, beautiful fall day in the middle of October. It was the Homecoming game, and CMU had just trounced Ohio 24-10. There were a lot of loud cheers that day, as there were plenty of exciting moments courtesy of Titus Davis and Thomas Rawls. However, the loudest cheer that day was not during the game; it was afterwards. Derrick Nash, in full sideline gear and recently returned from treatment, climbed up the conductor's stand and raised his arms. The Marching Chippewas responded by raising their instruments into the sky. He pushed his arms down and the band struck the first chord of "The Fighting Chippewa," the school fight song. As he waved his arms with the beat, the East sideline screamed the lyrics back to him... "FIGHT for victory. FIGHT fellows, NEVER yield. We're with you." At the end, the students clapped raucously and the celebration began on the field. A truly beautiful sight that I am sure gave Derrick the strength to persevere against the odds.
Now in the aftermath of this realization, reading Derrick's Twitter timeline takes on a different meaning. It is no longer the various means of motivation for a man that is ill, a man that fights an uphill battle. They are words of triumph, a clarion call that laughs in the face of Death himself. He might have lost the fight, but he won the war. His indomitable spirit and his impact on the CMU community will forever be a part of the Chippewa fabric, and that, my friends, is not something that cancer can take away from us.
Rest in peace, Derrick.
Built me up all the way now I'm just broken, crumbles of dust on the floor; but dust rises
— Derrick Nash (@DerrickNash_) May 17, 2015