EDWARDSVILLE — Derek Drew is no stranger to obstacles.
Drew, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and pre-law from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in May, has been a track runner for most of his life.
In February, he placed third at the Ohio Valley Conference Indoor Track and Field Championships in the 400-meter dash.
Within a week, doctors diagnosed him with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a slow-moving cancer.
He had a severe stomach ache but exhibited no other symptoms. He went to the doctor and they diagnosed him with cancer in a few days.
“It was a roller coaster,” Drew, who had been experiencing symptoms like stomach illness for almost three years, said. “I still look back on that time and remember that gut feeling that my heart sank. I still barely believe it.”
“It’s a very unique experience,” Scott Block, interim head coach for men’s track and field at SIUE, added. “It’s something that you hope you never had to deal with. I just worried about Derek and what we could do for Derek to make this better.”
When he got his diagnosis, Drew planned to quit track to focus on fighting cancer and graduating. But he changed his mind after talking to his mother and grandmother, who have both beaten cancer and inspired him to continue track.
“I love track,” Drew said. “Track has given me so much. I felt like being able to still compete was literally me giving the finger to cancer and fighting it. It just felt right.”
“It was a very inspirational moment whenever he decided to make that conscious decision,” Block said. “It was a decision to not only survive, but to thrive under this type of adversity.”
Drew began undergoing treatment a few days a month, while training for and competing in his sport.
“He started off kind of slow because he was straight off his treatment, but every meet he kept on improving and getting a little bit better,” Block said. “He would go back and get another round of treatment and it would push him back, but he knew what to expect a little bit more. So he would learn from that and keep pushing and getting better.”
Drew’s training paid off in May. At the Ohio Valley Conference Outdoor Track and Field Championships, he set a personal record of 52.77 seconds while placing first in the 400-meter hurdles. That time earned him a dramatic come-from-behind victory and a spot in the NCAA West Preliminaries.
“It was one of the highest points of my life, to be able to call myself a champion despite so many setbacks,” he said.
“That was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen,” Block said. “Coming from behind and not only winning, but qualifying for the NCAA championships with a cancer diagnosis. Who does that? It’s just incredible. It was such a great, triumphant moment for him.” At the championships, Drew placed 8th in his heat and 41st overall, just days after undergoing a round of treatment. Even though he didn’t win, Drew said he valued the experience.
“To be able to knock out another one of those goals, despite it all, was just a blessing,” he said. “It was overwhelming. I couldn’t be more thankful for how my season ended.”
The Derek Drew Mile
When the SIUE coaching staff found out about Drew’s diagnosis, they decided to help him. They organized the Derek Drew Mile, a 1-mile walk and run fundraiser April 16 at Korte stadium.
“We were in a staff meeting after the diagnosis and we knew we wanted to do something, whether that be a run or some kind of drive,” Block said. “This just seemed like a natural progression.”
Drew said he was touched when he learned what the coaches planned.
“I was blown away by my coaching staff,” he said. “It was really crazy to find out that my coaches really wanted to do this fundraiser for me and help me out.”
The event transpired at noon, just hours before a home meet for the Cougars. This allowed more people to attend, as athletes’ families were in town. There was an expected donation of $10 from participants, who could donate at the gate or via PayPal.
Approximately 1,500 people attended the fundraiser, which raised $4,436, Block said. All that money will be used to help Drew cover medical expenses.
“It just blew me away,” Drew said of the walk. “To see that support is indescribable. I really felt all the love. That’s one of the things this diagnosis has blessed me with. I really see who cares for me and it’s more than I thought. That’s one of the greatest surprises you can ever get.”
Once the money from the fundraiser runs out, Block said the university may hold another event.
“We haven’t had that discussion yet,” he said. “It’d definitely be something I’d like to continue to do, whether it be for Derek or just research or something along those lines. We haven’t decided yet.”
After graduating, Drew took a coaching position at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he plans to get a master of business administration in international business. He said he wants to coach to repay the sport.
“Track has done so much for me since I was a kid,” he said. “It’s blessed me with lifelong friends and relationships and some of the greatest times of my life. I really honestly feel like it saved my life and it still does today. I just feel like I need to give back.”
People who want to help Drew can donate by going to gofundme.com/derekdrew. All donations will go toward medical expenses.
Video at youtu.be/LJyeBxB4oeY