Andy Coen looked around the small, hot apartment in Orlando, Florida, before his eyes finally stopped at Derek Knott.
Coen saw Derek sitting there when he walked in. Basketball shorts, no shirt and his trademark wild hair, he sat there playing his left-handed guitar.
As the Lehigh football coach began to speak, Derek looked up at him.
“If you come and play football for me, you’ll be able to buy your mom a house three times bigger than this place.”
That was the first thing Coen ever said to Derek. And Derek was intrigued.
Derek, who graduated from Lehigh last fall in the middle of his fifth year, was a wide receiver for the football team. Two season-ending injuries, three almost-championships and a few forgotten plays later, Derek proudly dons his championship ring from the team’s Patriot League title this past year.
“Me being able to persevere through a five-year struggle and then finally getting a ring with my team, I feel like I can do anything,” Derek said.
Growing up, Derek couldn’t do just anything, though. His area of Orlando was poor. Not the best area, but not the worst area.
There were drugs. There were crimes. There were gangs.
The area had a high concentration of people from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, so most children’s parents didn’t even speak English. It was a culture of poverty.
Derek’s family didn’t have a lot of money. His parents separated when he was 7 years old, but his father lived in the apartment complex a block away.
He was able to stay close with his father, and living in a small apartment with his mother and three siblings, the rest of the family had no choice but to get close too.
Derek’s twin brother, Eric, who shares the trademark wild hair and slept in a bed right next to Derek’s growing up, considers his twin the confident, adventurous one. He said Derek would always want to try new things or visit new places, finding ways to step outside of his comfort zone.
But most of all, he made Eric feel comfortable and safe.
“Whether it was a new summer camp or school or a new area where there’s people, I was always able to look to my side and know that he was going to be there,” Eric said. “At least if I didn’t know anybody, I at least know one person, and that’s going to be my brother.”
In addition to his twin brother, Derek has both an older and a younger sister. Being one of four siblings, if one of them was signed up for an activity, they all had to. It wasn’t even a question.
So at first, they picked sports that required little equipment such as basketball and track.
All he needed was a pair of basketball shoes, and he would show up to the local court hoping someone would have a ball. He and his brother played sports all the time in the neighborhood, even doing things like rollerblading or weight-lifting contests.
Sports and music kept them off the streets. Gangs and drugs weren’t rampant, but they existed in his area. His parents made sure he didn’t even have time to consider those things.
He also gravitated toward music. His father sang and played the guitar and had a deep appreciation for music, which he passed on to his two sons as well.
During Derek’s senior year of high school, his father broke an acoustic guitar. Derek was working at the time, so he used his own money to fix it, and it became his first guitar.
His dad was right-handed and didn’t want Derek “developing bad habits” since he played left-handed, but he did it anyway. He taught himself how to play and now writes his own music, performing occasionally at Lehigh.
He did a small performance once at his fraternity house, Chi Psi. He did another at Alpha Omicron Pi sorority’s talent competition, “Mountain Hunk,” which he went on to win his first time entering.
The football team participated in Adopt-a-Family — an event where every sports team is assigned a family in South Bethlehem and raises money for Christmas presents — and after noticing there was no opportunity for all the families involved to meet the first time he participated his freshman year, he decided it needed a change.
So he wrote and performed a Christmas song.
And each of the past four years, he’s performed in front of everyone participating in Adopt-a-Family, hoping to put a smile on a few extra faces.
His mother, who stressed the importance of school early and often, realized Derek had superior athletic ability when he was in eighth grade. He was still two years away from even stepping onto a football field.
He played basketball and volleyball in middle school, and when he entered high school he ran track as well. At any one time in high school, he was playing three sports.
But despite this focus on participating in sports, he doesn’t even watch them on TV. Instead, he was always focused on school too.
Derek said he never had trouble getting good grades and didn’t understand when others wouldn’t try in school. He didn’t let the mindset of others affect him.
“I just thought it was dumb and wack to get bad grades,” he said. “Like, you’re taking easy classes, and you’re still getting bad grades? I don’t know. So I never fell into that type of pressure.”
For others in Orlando, though, the pressure was easy to fall into.
Derek’s mother, Rizalina Lamb, said she understood why so many families were struggling. She was born in the Philippines and didn’t move to the United States until she was 13.
But she said she learned English early on, which helped her grow up and helped her family succeed.
“They don’t know because their parents are having to work, work, work just so they can have a paycheck,” Lamb said. “And I understand. But they’re forgetting that they need to support their kids and to push them at a young age so they can have the goals and actually get something in life.”
Derek said it was a big change coming to Lehigh and being around students who were from wealthier backgrounds. He said he’d ask people at Lehigh what their parents did and they’d say things like doctor and lawyer. At his high school, the answer was much different — lunch lady, bus driver.
He went to Colonial High School, a large public school with a graduating class of about 800. Lots of people skipped school. Some would get in to fights. Most just didn’t care.
So when Derek started playing football and excelled, his coach made sure he got a scholarship. Derek wanted a way to get out of Orlando.
He got an offer from Florida International University for track, the same school his brother was accepted to. Their plan growing up was to go to the same school.
Then Derek got a full-ride offer from Lehigh.
Telling his brother they would be moving apart was one of the most difficult things Derek had to do. He said they didn’t talk for about a week after Derek got to Lehigh.
But ultimately, Derek went to his brother for help, calling him frequently his first year in Bethlehem.
Eric said learning to live apart reinforced their relationship.
“When times get hard and stressful, not having him there for me, I had to find a different outlet,” Eric said. “But even with that, I’m glad that it did happen because I feel like it strengthened things.”
During Derek’s time at Lehigh, they wouldn’t see each other often, and when they did, it would be at most a few weeks because of Derek’s football schedule. They still remained close.
“The first couple games (without my family) was sad,” he said. “This was the first time I don’t have any family in the stands.”
Eric, his mother and his oldest sister saw him play in last year’s game against Bucknell University as the Mountain Hawks clinched a Patriot League Championship at home. And unlike most games, Derek got the chance to cherish the moment with his family after the game.
But he never would’ve gotten that championship, that moment, that ring, had he not reluctantly joined his high school football team sophomore year.
A year after he started playing he began to receive letters from Lehigh. But the spontaneous, musically inclined “DKnott” wasn’t giving Lehigh a second thought. They would go right in the trash.
He thought Lehigh was a Division III school. In fact, he knew little about college football and the recruiting process.
When Derek first started playing football his sophomore year, he didn’t even know athletic scholarships to college existed. Neither did his mother.
Like most things in his life, football came natural to him. He scored a touchdown his first high school game. He was the star.
When he arrived at Goodman Stadium, he wasn’t the star anymore, but he got his chance early on. After fumbling the opening kickoff in Lehigh’s first game his freshman year, he figured he wouldn’t play at all on offense.
But then-starting wide receiver Sergio Fernandez-Soto was pulled in the middle of the first quarter, and Derek got his chance. On his first offensive play of his Lehigh career, the call was for him to get the ball.
If Derek was nervous, he didn’t tell anyone, even with now-NFL wide receiver Ryan Spadola in the huddle with him. Derek stood on the left side of the field by the Lehigh sideline for the play, caught the pass and ran it 19 yards to the end zone.
He stood in the end zone in shock, screaming in excitement. It would be his lone offensive highlight all year.
Halfway through his sophomore year, he broke his collarbone against Columbia University. Season over.
Two games into his junior year against University of New Hampshire, he tore up his knee. Season over.
His senior year, the team was one play away from earning a share of the Patriot League Championship, but fell short to Colgate University. He decided to medical redshirt and came back for a fifth year and one more shot at the title.
It was a breakout year, as he recorded 60 catches for 767 yards and three touchdowns, and the team won its first league title in five years.
Derek would be the jokester on the team, always dancing around and raising the morale. He radiated positivity.
“He’s never really had a bad day in his life,” Coen said. “A lot of people can’t be that way, but he’s awesome. I wish he could stay with us.”
Junior wide receiver Gatlin Casey, who is also from Florida, said Derek would help him with his own homesickness and adapt to being in a new area. After being homesick his first couple years at Lehigh, Derek had more than enough experience dealing with that.
“Football takes you away from (a bad day), and he makes you happier when you’re at football practice when you probably don’t want to be there,” Casey said. “He makes it a little bit more enjoyable.”
And after Derek’s football career began eight years ago, it might not be over just yet.
He’s in the application process to the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom for his master’s degree in sustainability. And they have an American football team with no cap to eligibility.
In the meantime, he’s working in Bethlehem for a medical equipment sales company. He majored in journalism, but his whole life he’s been open to different opportunities, and he plans to keep it that way.
Maybe he’ll do something with sustainability. Maybe he’ll end up overseas. Or maybe he’ll even get on America’s Got Talent, a long-time goal of his.
When he finally walks at graduation May 22, the Lehigh chapter of his life will close. He doesn’t know for sure which chapter will be next, but with what he’s already accomplished, he’s not afraid.
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