INDIO --The door swings open at the home of Brian DeRoo and the former National Football League player greets me.
“Hi. How you doing?” says DeRoo, a former Redlands High School and University of Redlands star. “How was the drive?”
DeRoo on Sunday will be inducted into the NAIA Hall of Fame for his football and track and field excellence. The ceremony is at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. Brian Billick, the former Redlands High star and Super Bowl XXXV-winning coach, is DeRoo’s presenter.
If DeRoo’s claim to fame is that of a former star college athlete, pro football player, and ex-high school teacher and coach, it’s impressive. But he is so much more.
DeRoo, 65, leads me through his sprawling home with the large swimming pool that he designed in back. Along the way I meet 12-year-old daughter Shianne who is home-schooled and is a level-6 gymnast. She is a twin and soon I meet her counterpart, Nicholas.
Nicholas, who has cerebral palsy, is seated in a backyard contraption and is being swung by his mother, Penny.
Cerebral palsy, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture.
Penny is a special education teacher who DeRoo met while he was teaching at Indio High. We greet each other.
DeRoo and I make small talk, then a hand-carved and painted sign beyond the pool saying, “Jacob’s Orchard” catches my eye.
“Back in 2007, we had a little boy named Jacob and he was with us just two days,” DeRoo said, explaining his first son’s passing. “This is Jacob’s Orchard.”
I pose DeRoo in front of some orange trees and snap photos of the handsome former pro athlete.
“Make him look pretty,” Penny says.
“OK, but I’m not a miracle worker,” I quip.
DeRoo and I sit down next to the pool. A fountain gurgles. He’s wearing a dark green “Cerebral Palsy Awareness” hoodie and we chat.
“I’m fortunate to have Shianne – I can kind of live my athletic life through her gymnastics,” DeRoo says. “With Nicholas, you take what God gives you and you make the best of it. He’s the happiest kid on the planet. He can’t walk or talk or eat on his own, but he is always smiling because he doesn’t have the worries you and I have.”
Indio is home to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, and I ask DeRoo if he’s attended.
“I don’t need to go to Coachella,” he says. “I can hear it from my backyard.”
Yardwork and projects occupy DeRoo when Nicholas does not. He made a feeding chair that ordinarily costs $900 for materials costing $22. Nicholas requires other “modalities” such as the swing, a “stander,” a “gait-trainer,” a wheelchair and a bathing chair.
“When we travel, I take all this stuff with us,” DeRoo says. “I have a trailer and we look like the Beverly Hillbillies.”
The party moves inside where Penny plays Christmas music and a dog named Sunny roams with a rubber ball in his mouth, searching for a playmate.
I want to take a family portrait, but Shianne is missing. When she reappears all spruced up, DeRoo kiddingly says, “Are you ready for the prom?”
Portrait taken, DeRoo leads me to his memento-filled office. There he shows antiquated NFL helmets, a game ball from the Baltimore Colts, his 1974 Redlands High class photo, and a framed Redlands Daily Facts newspaper article written by Obrey Brown.
“As you can see, I need to do some dusting,” DeRoo says. “But it’s fun to reminisce.”
In the days following my visit, I hope to learn more about the DeRoos and the challenge they face. Penny calls – on Christmas Day to be exact – and says among other things, “I could not ask for a better husband and father to our kids.”
I’m reminded of what DeRoo said a few days earlier, after telling what a strict schedule he and Penny maintain to stretch Nicholas’ limbs, keep him fed, keep him clean, keep him engaged, etc.
“He was just meant to be in this family,” DeRoo said. “There’s a lot of kids who can’t walk, talk, see or eat on their own who just lay on the floor. All they do is look at the ceiling and literally the back of their head is flat. But that’s not going to happen on my watch.”
John Murphy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow him on Twitter @PrepDawg2