"Growing up I had a rough life. It wasn't bad; it was just tough sometimes. ... If it wasn't for them, who knows what I'd be doing. ... Coach Chris and Ms. Carrie took me in and became family for me. I have two sets of parents, and that's a real blessing."
- Derrick Lott
Derrick Lott climbed into the passenger's seat of the white Ford F250 pickup truck without hesitation. Before his middle school basketball coach, Chris Myers, offered the lift home, Lott was certain he would have to quit the team because he didn't have transportation.
But one ride became a daily ritual, and soon the 15-minute trip from the gym to Lott's house had laid the foundation for a relationship that went beyond coach and player.
The commute was something the 13-year-old Lott looked forward to each day, and as the friendship grew and the conversations stretched beyond sports, Myers recognized the lanky teenager had more substantial needs than just rides to and from practice.
"Once I really saw the situation and what his home life was like, I realized he was basically raising himself," Myers said recently. "He was bouncing around from house to house and just wasn't getting the support he needed as a kid.
"You can't be around Derrick for more than a few minutes and not fall in love with him. He's always got that big ol' smile and is just such a great kid. I talked with my wife about it, and we knew we needed to do something."
The solution the young couple came up with meant Coach Myers bringing Lott to their house, where he and wife Carrie would help bring direction into the teenager's life. And what had begun as a simple ride home eventually led to a more stable outlook.
"Coach Chris and Ms. Carrie saw something in me early on, and for whatever reason, something told them to help me," said Lott, now a senior defensive tackle for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "Growing up I had a rough life. It wasn't bad; it was just tough sometimes. I never played organized sports in school because my parents were busy and I didn't have any way of getting to practice.
"If it wasn't for them, who knows what I'd be doing. There were guys I grew up with who had the talent to go to college but they didn't make it because they didn't have the guidance. Coach Chris and Ms. Carrie took me in and became family for me. I have two sets of parents, and that's a real blessing."
Lott's parents divorced when he was young, and his mother's career forced her to move quite a bit. By the time he was a high school sophomore Lott had changed residence 21 times. With little stability at home, his grades suffered.
"I've never seen a kid who wanted structure so much," Carrie Myers said. "Stuff that you do with your family and take for granted, he never had experienced, because there just wasn't any consistency in his life. I would ask what he wanted for dinner and he couldn't believe I was asking or that we were going to all sit down and eat together. He'd never had that."
Within the first three semesters of living with the Myers family Lott's grades were showing steady improvement from C's and D's to A's and B's. The everyday routine -- hours spent at the kitchen table being tutored by the Myerses, eating dinner together and watching "Grey's Anatomy."
"It was an adjustment not being able to do what I wanted to do," Lott said. "Before, I would come home and throw my book bag down and go out with friends or just lay around and be lazy because my mom was gone to work a lot.
"I was uncomfortable at first, but once I realized they just wanted to help and that I needed it, it became more natural. I was a kid so I thought some of the family time stuff sounded lame at first, but then it started to feel good to come home and have a routine and spend time together. I really liked it once I started making good grades."
It was also during those first few months that his athletic ability took off. Carrie began having to shop for groceries at Costco to buy food in bulk quantities for Lott, who seemingly grew by the minute. He gained nearly 50 pounds within a year, and by his senior season at North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, Ga., he was rated a four-star prospect by Rivals.com and the nation's No. 42 defensive lineman by ESPNU.
The Myers couple realized just how much of a difference they had made in Lott's life late one Friday night after he had helped North Cobb beat a state-ranked opponent.
"He had played a great game, got a couple of sacks and helped his team win, so we were waiting outside the locker room to celebrate with him," Chris Myers said. "He comes out with his book bag over his shoulder, and instead of talking about the game he's holding a science report up to show us he had made an A. He was all smiles, and the first thing he asked Carrie was if we could put his report up on the fridge to show off."
Although his life was changing for the better, according to Lott, his relationship with the Myers family caused friction with his mother.
"My mom used to ask if I didn't love her or would ask why I didn't want to be with her," Lott said. "I tried to tell her that love for her will never go away for me. The same for my dad. I wanted her to see that Coach Chris and Ms. Carrie weren't trying to take me away from her, they're just trying to help me.
"She was so busy having to work a lot and just couldn't be there all the time. I had to just tell here that it wasn't about saying you'll help me and making it sound good: I had realized I needed somebody who was actually doing it, and that was what Coach Chris did. It took her a while to stop being mad."
'BIG BROTHER' TO BIG PROSPECT
During Lott's senior year of high school, the Myers family again grew by one with the birth of daughter Wesleigh, and he felt an immediate sibling relationship.
The image of the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Lott holding Wesleigh in his massive arms, cooing and rocking the tiny baby, is still a treasured one for Chris and Carrie. When Wesleigh started kindergarten she asked to take Derrick to "Show and Tell" so she could show off her big brother.
"Biologically they're not related at all, but they're truly brother and sister," Carrie said. "She thinks he hung the moon, and Derrick has always been so sweet with her. That's the first thing he asks when he calls or comes back home to visit, he'll say, 'Where's my Wes?'"
Even before his high school career had ended, there was no doubt where Lott would play college football. He was a Georgia boy and had dreamed of wearing the red and black since he was a kid. But after signing with the Bulldogs he was plagued by injuries -- torn ligaments in an ankle as a freshman and a laceration on the back of his leg in a scooter accident -- and began sliding down the defensive line rotation.
That's when he decided a fresh start might be what his career needed and looked to transfer to UTC.
"We do a lot of background work before we bring in players from other programs," said Mocs coach Russ Huesman. "The biggest thing was we had Thomas Brown on the staff, who we had just hired from Georgia, and he said Derrick was a great kid with great character. That endorsement and having [Georgia coach] Mark Richt say he hated to lose the kid was all we needed to know to take him in.
"It was a smooth transition when he came here because of the type person Derrick is. He fit in with the program right away and has become a really good player for us."
After suffering an elbow injury early last season, Lott was granted a rare sixth year of eligibility and is finishing his college career by living up to the high expectations with which he began it. Through UTC's first five games Lott has 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, totaling minus-58 yards in lost yardage for opponents, and has 15 total tackles, five quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery.
"The positive is he's got unlimited potential," Coach Huesman said. "You don't find 300-pounders that can move like him and are as explosive. The negatives, or things he needs to work on to help his pro potential, is that he needs to be more consistent with his effort. If he does that, he could be a second- or third-round NFL draft pick. But to be at that level you've got to be relentless every snap."
According to the website NFL Draft Diamonds, Lott is ranked in the top five among defensive tackles at the FCS level, and NFL Draft Scout has him as the 28th best defensive tackle in a combined list of FBS and FCS prospects.
"This year is like a job interview for me," Lott said. "I'm glad I haven't done anything that would make pro scouts not want me. My goal has always been to get to the NFL. I want to be an All-American here so I can leave my mark and have something to tell my kids about, and I want to prove that I can play at the highest level."
Regardless of whether Lott reaches his dream of playing in the NFL, his options are greater because of his classroom work. He graduated in May, receiving his bachelor's degree in Integrated Studies, to become the first person in his family to earn a college degree.
"The reality Derrick was facing was whether he would even finish high school," Carrie said. "We knew he had so much more in him. So to see him walk the stage and know he earned it, that's one of the proudest moments in our life. He had worked so hard for that, and that's something nobody can take away."
And for Lott being part of a family that helped drive him toward his accomplishments is something that can't be taken away, either.
"For them to still be around and be a part of my life even after Wes was born says how much they care about me," Lott said. "It made me wonder, being a psychology major, if every kid should have someone like Coach Chris and Ms. Carrie. There are a lot of kids who don't have parents that look after them like they should. Every kid needs someone to make sure you're on track, doing what you're supposed to in school and just in life to make sure you can grow up to be a good person.
"I really have to thank Coach Chris and Ms. Carrie for being that for me."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.