A voice, a community, and a life saved

Chris Derrick's heart stopped while he was speaking at a banquet celebrating Penncrest High's state lacrosse title. (Michael S. Wirtz/Staff Photographer)

For a generation of kids who grew up in Media, Chris Derrick's voice was the first they usually heard when they walked into the Media Youth Center. Before tryouts for the hoops league each year, Derrick would show the younger boys and girls the proper technique for shooting a basketball. He always seemed to know all their names.

That's why when Penncrest High won the PIAA state boys' lacrosse title last month, Derrick was the link for many people in the community. They may not have known any Penncrest players, but they sure knew the assistant coach with the wavy hair and the knowing way about him, the guy who still knew their names if they encountered him walking down State Street.

Sure, people like Derrick are a gift to the community, but as Derrick will tell you, any debt is more than repaid.

In a sense, sports saved Derrick's life.

"It almost trivializes it to compare it to athletics," he said of what happened to him last month, but he can't help it. He could have been home alone when he dropped to the ground. Instead, he was out celebrating what he calls the highlight of a 36-year coaching career.

Derrick was standing up at Penncrest's year-end lacrosse banquet, all eyes on him as he spoke about the great intoxicant that winning is. But, he pointed out, like any intoxicant, it can make you delusional.

Penncrest's head coach, Wayne Matsinger, understands that, he said. Matsinger has the touch and the perspective, Derrick told the group, always understanding that it isn't about him, that sports are about the players, and this year Penncrest had some special ones.

Every year at this banquet, Derrick recites a poem about the team. This year, it was an epic, he said.

"I never got to the poem," he said.

In his brain, the lights in the place were dimming a little.

"I even said, 'Who's playing with the lights?' " Derrick said.

That's the last thing he remembers before he dropped.

The father of one of Penncrest's players is a paramedic. Derrick later was told that the man, Joe Montgomery, flipped his keys to his son and told him to get the defibrillator in his car. Derrick found out later that his heart had indeed stopped and the defibrillation brought him back.

A lot of people are trained to work a defibrillator, Derrick said. He has been trained himself. But he knows he caught a break having a professional there.

"I can go out in the backyard and make a jump shot," Derrick said. "But what they did - it's like making a jump shot in the last minute of an NBA playoff game with a guy draped all over you."

He also can't help but think that the whole team was there, players and their families.

"How bad would [memories of] their state title have been if I'd keeled over and died?" Derrick said.

Once he was brought back - "Did you see Lucifer?" a friend later quipped - Derrick grumbled that he just wanted to go home. He assumed he had just fainted. It wasn't until the next day that doctors convinced him that his heart had stopped and he needed a quadruple bypass.

"I had never been in an ambulance in my life; I was in three in two days," Derrick said, recalling that he celebrated his 59th birthday at Jefferson University Hospital.

"I said to the surgeon, 'Are you LeBron? I don't want the role players,' " Derrick said.

A father of four, Derrick got his first paid coaching job in 1978 with the Springton Lake Middle School baseball team in Penncrest's Rose Tree Media School District. "5-3-1," he said, remembering the team's record.

After that, he moved out to the middle of the state, coaching freshman football and the varsity basketball team at Manheim Central. He didn't know much football, but the team won a lot. Basketball was his sport. "I coached my butt off and lost," he said.

Moving back home, Derrick did a successful stint as girls' varsity basketball coach at Penncrest and was at the Youth Center from 1990 to 2010. His sons were playing lacrosse at Penncrest when the junior varsity didn't have a coach. Derrick filled the void, eventually moving to varsity assistant.

"It's kind of like basketball with weapons," he said of lacrosse.

Derrick isn't looking for any heroic treatment of his story. "I know I can be a little quirky, and can be difficult if I want to be," he said.

A good coach scouts his opponent, he said, so he can't help but go online and read up on his own medical status. It has scared him enough that he has tried not to dwell on alternate scenarios.

"It is with great pleasure that I can provide my own update tonight," Derrick wrote in an e-mail to Penncrest players and families soon after his surgery. "I feel completely inadequate to craft the sentences to thank all of you. . . . On June 10th, members of the Penncrest Lacrosse family saved my life."

At the banquet, held at the Lamb Tavern in Springfield, someone had gone into the restaurant and asked whether there was a doctor in the place. One was eating dinner.

When he came to, Derrick looked up and said, "Ernie, what are you doing here?"

Ernie explained that he was there to help him. The doc knew Derrick and - even seconds after his heart had been restarted - Derrick knew the doc's name. Ernie's kids had played hoops at the Youth Center, too.