If ever there was a day for Derek Zike to work his magic on the ice, this was it.
His whole family was in Ann Arbor, Mich., to watch him play. So was Yale University. The Ivy League college’s hockey coaches had heard about the spectacular speed and agility of this 16-year-old kid from Fishers.
Derek had a flawless game that January morning in 2009, playing for his Chicago Fury AAA team. And Yale was watching.
He was walking on air as he went to lunch to celebrate with his mom. Inside TGI Friday’s, Derek smiled humbly as Robin Zike beamed at her oldest son.
“ ‘Derek, I’m telling you, you are going to live your dream,’ ” Robin said. “ ‘You are going to play D-I hockey.’ I was so excited. Derek was excited.”
This was, without question, the best day of Derek’s life.
Until later that night.
When it became the worst.
Darkness had fallen outside as Derek played his second game of that magical day, at 10 p.m. It was about halfway in, during a line change with the puck at the other end of the ice. Derek whizzed down toward the corner, tracking an opponent to make a check.
“I was just skating as fast as I could and caught an edge at the hash mark line around the bottom circle in the corner,” Derek said. “By the time I hit the ice and was getting ready to hit the boards, I didn’t have time to really react and protect myself. I just kind of braced, closing my eyes for impact.”
Derek did what looked like a somersault, but didn’t finish it. Instead, that somersault ended with his head and neck rolling under as he crashed into the boards.
“He was crumpled up,” Robin said. “But the coach always said he played with reckless abandon, so we were used to him doing things where he got hurt. Our deal was you pop up.”
Surely, Derek would pop up like he always had, since he started skating at 5. All those times in the past 11 years from youth to travel — crashing into boards and opponents, falling to the ice — Derek always popped right back up.
“But he didn’t move,” Robin said. “He just laid there.”
When Derek opened his eyes, he saw the play heading up the ice. He tried to get up and race back into the play.
That’s when the horror set in.
“I was trying to join them, but my body wouldn’t respond. I couldn’t feel anything below my neck at all,” he said. “I couldn’t even move my arms. I started looking around. I couldn’t feel anything.”
Derek started screaming for the referee. Please come back. Help him. He yelled for anybody to come help him.
This wasn’t good at all. He knew it.
Robin raced down from the stands toward the ice and peered over the glass where Derek was lying. The trainers were pushing on his body. Robin burst into tears.
Every spot they touched, Derek said, “No.” No, he couldn’t feel his arm. No he couldn’t feel his stomach. No he couldn’t feel his feet. No, he couldn’t feel his thigh.
“With every ‘No,’ you’re falling apart,” Robin said.
Robin was desperate to get to Derek, to scoop him up into her arms. They wouldn’t let her on the ice.
When the ambulance came, she climbed inside and, as they headed to the hospital, Robin craned her neck to see her son. As the EMTs worked with Derek, she watched with hope. Maybe she would see his leg move. Or even his toe. Maybe the feeling would start spreading back through his body.
“These guys in the ambulance are like, ‘Maybe it’s just a stinger, Robin. Maybe it’s just a stinger,’ ” she said of an injury that can resemble paralysis with temporary numbness and weakness. “And I’m praying for a stinger. And it wasn’t.”
Derek had destroyed his fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae, a burst fracture. He would stay in the hospital four months before returning to his Fishers home, a junior in high school.
A 17-year-old quadriplegic.
It’s been more than seven years since that nightmare. The tears pour as Robin tells the story. Derek still has a look of sadness in his eyes. His dad, Mike, sits mostly silent, as if he’s listening and grieving all over again.
“He was a great skater right from the start,” Mike said, as the family sat at the dining room table of the Zikes’ Fishers home. “I mean, people would fall down in front of him and he would just jump over them and keep skating.”
Now, Mike gets up at midnight to turn Derek over, since his body can’t move on its own. He changes his catheter.
“It’s taken a toll on us, too,” Mike said.
The kind of sorrow and grief that comes with loss — the loss of a teenage athlete’s dream — doesn’t fade. Time doesn’t make having your dream taken away any easier. No matter how many years pass, Derek isn’t going to play hockey again.
“Well, I mean, we’re always holding out hope,” Derek said. “It’s all a matter of medical breakthroughs pretty much.”
He is paralyzed from his chest down, though he can move his wrists and biceps. His triceps are weak and his fingers don’t have a lot of dexterity. He can still feed himself and type on a computer or cell
And, Derek has proven, he can be a major success. Even after four months in the hospital, he graduated on time with his senior class at Fishers High School in 2010.
He graduated from Miami (Ohio) University in 2014, has finished his master’s degree and is applying to get into Ph.D. programs. His dream is to be a sports psychologist, working in a private practice counseling athletes and sports teams.
“He’s just inspiring for what he does with the limitations he has,” said Judy Mitchell, Derek’s grandma who helps care for him.
But life is different. And, to be perfectly honest, not always in a good way.
At Miami (Ohio), Derek said he felt the darkest; depressed and alone. He had a caregiver to come in and get him ready in the morning. Then he would go to the student health center to get his catheter changed.
“It’s kind of a weird thing to talk about, but there were definitely times when I struggled,” he said. “But I just got through it.”
He still had fun times at college and, of course, still does. He’s been carried on stage at a Third Eye Blind concert. He goes to Lollapalooza every year. Music has been big in helping to get through the bad times.
But there have been occasions, Robin said, when Derek will say: “I have the worst life.”
One winter at Miami, the snow was too deep for the plows to keep up. His wheelchair slid, fell forward and he pulled a muscle out of place. He’s been in the middle of the airport when bolts came loose and busted out of his wheelchair. He’s shown up to hotels that accidentally give away his handicap accessible room.
One time, Mike said, a caregiver microwaved a bowl and sat it on Derek’s chest, a scalding hot bowl that burned Derek badly. Yet, he doesn’t complain.
“He’s had a phenomenal attitude,” Robin said. “He doesn’t get angry. He’s so patient. He has the patience of Job.”
His two younger brothers, Taylor, 23, and Sam, 19, have dubbed Derek handi-capable.
They also like to tease him. Sometimes, Derek will ask Sam to help him out and Sam will joke, “When are you going to stop using (your injury) as an excuse?”
Derek, in reality, has no excuses. He has goals and one of those is keeping his body as healthy as possible. He does weights, boxes and works on standing. He stimulates his leg muscles so they stay strong. He pushes himself around the neighborhood, as much as three miles in his chair.
“You’ve just got to take it one step at a time. You don’t want to get too overwhelmed by things,” he said. “Find out what you can do and just try to do what you can handle.”
That’s included helping coach Sam’s high school hockey team, which is hard to believe. If anyone should hate hockey, it should be Derek, but he holds not one ounce of ill will toward the sport.
“No, no. If I was able to recover, I just would go right back out,” he said.
For now, though, Derek will settle on driving.
He had just started driving when the accident happened. Fresh with a license and thrilled to be behind the wheel, as most 16-year-olds are.
But he hasn’t driven since.
And this is where Derek, who doesn’t ask for much, has a wish. He wants to drive, but he needs a van — a custom-built van that will cost more than $60,000 to accommodate his power wheelchair.
He started a GoFundMe page and has raised about $28,000. He needs much more. Derek wants that van so he can go to school and get his Ph.D. He’s also a young man who wants some privacy and independence.
“I can’t wait,” he said, finally with a smile on his face. “It will be nice to be able to go around wherever I want to.”
And if anyone deserves to be able to move freely, it’s Derek.
So he can live a new dream.
Donate for Derek
If you’d like to help Derek Zike get a van, visit his GoFundMe page or send donations to 8795 Randall Drive, Fishers, IN 46038.