SOUTH BEND -- Tough time for a significant injury.
Clay High School’s football team will head into its Class 4-A sectional opener against New Prairie Friday night short-handed.
It won’t be a quarterback, running back, receiver, or linebacker who will be missing.
Given his history as the Colonials’ No. 1 fan during a period more easily measured in decades than years, his absence will be significant.
The 64-year-old Derb — whose given name is Jim Derbin, though few would recognize him by that — was on the Clay sidelines, where he always is, in last Friday night’s game with Elkhart Central. In the first quarter, action from the field continued out of bounds. Two players were sliding full-speed as the play ended.
“It was like when (former Notre Dame coach) Charlie Weis got hurt against Michigan (in 2008),” said Clay athletic director Joe Toth. “As soon as I saw it happen, I knew it wasn’t good.”
The hit Derb caused two broken bones below his knee on his right leg. Recent surgery has everything stabilized. Derb said after he leaves the hospital, the plan is for him to be in a rehab facility for a couple months.
“I hate it,” Derb said from his hospital bed. “I don’t like this at all. They say I’m going to be just fine.”
Not only will the football season end, but basketball will begin without him.
Derb has been on the football sidelines at Clay for more than 30 years. He said he has had some close calls, but had never been hit.
Hard to imagine a Clay athletic event without Derb leading the cheers — and cheering up the players.
“There’s a photo in a (Clay) yearbook from ‘81 or ‘82 that shows Derb sitting next to (former Clay quarterback and NFL Super Bowl champion coach) Jon Gruden on the bench after Gruden was hurt,” said former Clay athletic director Greg Humnicky. “The student body loves him. The kids think the world of him.”
Toth recalled a story that Humnicky told.
“Greg said that (former Clay basketball coach) Tom DeBaets was kind of surprised when Derb followed the team into the locker room,” said Toth, describing DeBaets’ first real introduction to the legend. “Greg said he told Tom, ‘It’s OK. He was here before us; he’ll be here after us.’
“Those aren’t our sidelines. Those are Derb’s sidelines.”
Humnicky was right. He and DeBaets are both retired, but Derb keeps plugging along.
“Same thing happened to me,” said Clay football coach Joe Szajko. “My first game at Clay, we’re playing Washington at School Field. We walk in the locker room before the game, and there’s Derb doing chants and getting the guys all jazzed up. (The assistants) looked over at me. I said, ‘It’s OK.’”
“He’s an amazing, inspirational person,” Clay defensive lineman Kenden Bellechant said of Derb.
“He’s always good for a play,” Szajko said. “If a play works, he’ll say he called it. At the start of every season, he wants to know when the coaches shirts come in. We always make sure we have one for him.”
Humnicky, who grew up with Derb (“When we played together at Leeper Park, we used to call him Yogi Berra because he was short and squatty,” Humnicky said), hasn’t been surprised about the impact Derb has had over the years.
“Heck, he got on the floor for the (state championship basketball game) in ‘94,” Humnicky said. “He’s that much of a fixture.
“He’s even started singing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ in the fifth-inning stretch at baseball games.” Humnicky said. “The fans love him.”
“He’s, like, a part of it,” said Szajko. “All the kids understand him. He’s just a fan of Clay. Derb is (pause) Derb.”
Won’t be the same without him Friday night