Wiedmer: Van der Merwe giving Ausin Peay classical leadership

Wiedmer: Van der Merwe giving Ausin Peay classical leadership

September 13th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Derek van der Merwe wasn't looking to alter his life dramatically when he picked up the Oct. 1, 1990, edition of Sports Illustrated in a doctor's office waiting room.

"I was a 300-pound concert violinist from South Africa," he said. "Classical music was going to be my life."

But as he waited in that office, reading every word of a lengthy article about Notre Dame defensive lineman Chris Zorich, he suddenly wanted what Zorich had. He wanted to play college football, even though he'd never experienced so much as a single down of the sport on an organized level.

"That article," van der Merwe recalled 23 years later from his athletic director's office at Austin Peay State University, "opened up my mind to another way of life."

Even knowing it's as true as the sun rising in the East, it's still hard to believe the journey van der Merwe has traveled.

That article convinced him to go out for his high school team in rural Michigan, where he played in the squad's final five games his senior year. He then walked on at Central Michigan as a defensive lineman (Zorich, remember) but wound up on the offensive side of the ball, eventually helping the Chippewas win the 1994 Mid-American Conference title before being elected a senior co-captain the following year.

"I was very fortunate to play for a Hall of Fame coach in Herb Deromedi who saw something in me," van der Merwe said.

But guys apparently come from nowhere every day at Central Michigan. Just look at this year's No. 1 NFL draft pick -- Eric Fisher, whom new Tennessee coach Butch Jones signed at CMU after watching him in a basketball game.

In fact, Jones and van der Merwe became so close during Jones' coaching days with the Chippewas (van der Merwe was in athletic administration by then) that the UT coach said of the APSU AD after the Vols' rout of the Governors two weeks ago, "He's one of my best friends. I wouldn't be where I am without him."

Said van der Merwe of Jones: "Our children were in the same day care together. Our wives are close. Butch is just special. He understands all the nuances of program development. He's as concerned about the guy at the end of the bench, the guys who aren't playing, as the starters. The education and character development of every player in his program is so important to him."

Van der Merwe is the ultimate odd man in. Who else in college athletics would admit not only to having violinists Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman on his iPod, but also Neil Diamond ("Coming to America," perhaps)? What other Division I AD was in Rome's Saint Peter's Square the day Pope John Paul II was shot in 1981? Or could speak from painful experience about the horrors of apartheid because he lived through it?

"When we were in South Africa, 80 percent of the country was black, yet the whites controlled the government," he said. "You learn from that that we all have a responsibility to make everyone feel welcome and equal. Diversity of ideas is what makes us strong."

He calls them his "Forrest Gump" moments, those times when he was unexpectedly present for historically important events. The first was that attempted assassination of the first non-Italian pope in more than 400 years. The second was when he and his brother returned to South Africa for the 1995 Rugby World Cup as Nelson Mandela was attempting to bring a divided country together through sports.

"Watching the Springboks (the South African team) win the Rugby World Cup was a great lesson to me about the potential power of sports," he said. "That World Cup brought an entire country together."

It is refreshing to report that while sports pays van der Merwe's mortgage and feeds and clothes his family, it has not completely replaced his former world.

"I still have a passion for classical music," he said on the eve of Austin Peay traveling to UT-Chattanooga for Saturday evening's game against the Mocs. "I go to Messiah concerts. I love chamber music. I don't play the violin anymore, but I'll watch Perlman any chance I get."

Yet there also is no denying he has at least an equal passion for sports.

"A few years ago, Coach Deromedi was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in New York CIty," van der Merwe recalled. "It was at the Waldorf Astoria. And who's there but Chris Zorich. I went up to him and told him how he'd changed my life."

It is easy to question how positive those changes are for many young men these days, especially near the close of a week in which there have been charges of gross misconduct within the Oklahoma State football program and potential problems for Alabama, Tennessee and others regarding sports agents. Major college football may continue to entertain, but how much does it really shape lives for the better?

"I often share the story of the 1995 Rugby World Cup when I talk to athletes," van der Merwe said. "I tell them that they're leaders, that they can make a difference. And if they choose to ignore that, they're missing out on a chance to have a positive impact on so many lives."

Now that's string music every college football fan can appreciate.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com