Malone recalled with a smile. “The teacher asked me, ‘Have you actually met Coach (Urban) Meyer? Has he told you, you’re going to be a part of the team?’
“I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve already been there for a visit.’
“The teacher was surprised, but she said, ‘Well, OK then.’”
Malone understood the teacher’s doubt. He had encountered a lot of non-believers back then.
His dad, Derrick Malone Sr. – a coach, teacher and preacher in Dayton – had been skeptical, as well. So had other relatives and friends.
“They just couldn’t fathom it,” Malone said.
After all, he had played just one year of high school football at Thurgood Marshall. He hadn’t been the star of the team and had not received any football offers from other colleges.
“Derrick came home one day and said, ‘Dad, Ohio State’s recruiting me,’” Derrick Sr. remembered. “Well, I started laughing. I was like, ‘No, you must be smokin’ dope, Dude! Ohio State is not recruiting you. Recruiting you for what?’
“He said, ‘Football’ and I said, ‘Man, you ain’t even an All-City player! How you getting recruited by them? C’mon, Man! They’re after four and five-star guys.’”
But as it turned out, his son had met an Ohio State assistant coach when his Thurgood Marshall basketball team had played in the Final Four of the Division II state tournament in Columbus his junior year.
He had told the coach he was coming to OSU on an academic scholarship and wanted to be a football walk-on. And his enthusiasm and confidence had made an impression.
When another preferred walk-on decided to go elsewhere, the spot was offered to Malone, who had been the captain of his high school team, was a real student of the game and, by the way, was 6-foot-5 and nearly 250 pounds.
“Next thing we’re going over there and filling out the paperwork,” Derrick Sr. said.
Yet, even then, some family members didn’t believe, Malone said:
“I came for my visit at the spring game and, as we left, my uncle said, ‘Yeah, but it still doesn’t guarantee you’ll be on the team. You’re gonna have to try out and fight your way onto the roster . You’ve got to be prepared that they might cut you.’
“I was like, ‘No, I already talked to the coach. I don’t have to try out. I’m already on the team. I’m a preferred walk-on.’”
Malone recounted these stories the other morning as he sat in the athletes’ dining area on the second floor of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center at OSU. Several of his Buckeye teammates at a nearby table had acknowledged him with warmth when they first had come in.
He is now a fifth-year senior tight end and someone who has fully- embraced the lofty platform that can come when you are a Buckeyes football player.
Still a walk-on – partly because he remains on academic scholarship – Malone has a resume replete with accomplishments and recognition.
He’ll head to the fifth bowl game in his college career when the Bucks travel to the Fiesta Bowl for a December 28th match up with Clemson in the college playoffs.
He’s gotten in several home games this season – as he did in years past – but his biggest contributions have been made off the field.
He’s one of the principle members of RAS – Redefining Athletic Standards – an organization that supports black male student athletes on campus and helps give them a voice and define them beyond their involvement in sports.
The organization is spreading to other college campuses and not long ago Malone said he spoke to nearly 300 black athletes at the University of Texas.
Over the summer he represented Ohio State on trip to China with Athletes in Action. On campus he’s involved in the team’s Wednesday night bible studies.
“He’s a preacher,” said his dad, who is the teen pastor at Omega Baptist Church in Dayton. “He gave his first sermon at 17.”
Malone is one of the prime players the Buckeyes send to area schools to talk to students and, if you watch closely after games at Ohio Stadium, you’ll see he’s the one Buckeye who stays long after most other players have left. He stands outside the locker room area and signs autographs for the clamoring fans – especially the kids – who congregate just beyond the fence.
“One time when we were finally walking back over to the Woody after more than an hour of him signing autographs, I asked him why he does all that,” said Derrick Sr. “He said, ‘Dad, these kids probably will never be that close to another Ohio State player in their lives. They’ll never forget it, so I owe them that. They’ve come a long way and they support us through everything.’
“That’s the kind of kid he is. And other people see it, too. I had Derrick’s jersey on at a game and one of the Redcoats (stadium aides) came up and asked, ‘Are you Derrick Malone’s father?’
“I said, ‘Aaaah…yes…what’s the problem?’
“He said, ‘Your son is a great kid. He’s the most respectable kid in the program. He speaks to every Redcoat every time he comes into the stadium.’”
In using his position as a platform, Malone positively represents the often-disparaged Dayton Public Schools system, just as he honors his dad, who raised him after his 35-year-old mom – Kristel Malone – died in his arms nine years ago.
Derrick Sr. stressed education, something that lifted him from homeless as a youngster to degrees at Sinclair and Wright State and finally a master’s degree at the University of Dayton.
The lessons have paid off for his son, as well. He’ll graduate from OSU in a semester and hopes to enter dental school.
He said the dental school admissions dean asked him why he wanted to be a dentist and he said part of his answer “took the scientific approach.”
He said he talked about endorphins being released when you smile: “It’s a hormone that makes you happy and correlates to your overall well-being. That enhances your life expectancy.
“If an individual is able to smile more and feel comfortable about themselves, they’ll have a greater sense of well-being. As a dentist, I think I could give people good smiles and, in the process, make a positive impact in my community.”
Then again, he’s already doing all that without using a dental chair and wearing a white lab coat.
Lessons from mom and dad
Derrick Sr. said he was on his own by age 11 and bounced around homes until he got through high school. He went to the Navy and then began working his way through area colleges.
He taught history for several years at Colonel White high school and has since volunteered at Thurgood Marshall. He coached golf, cross country and track, and has become a community activist.
Last February he was named one of the area’s top 10 African-American Males by Priority Inc., the non-profit organization whose mission is to improve and strengthen the opportunities for African-Americans in Montgomery County.
He met Derrick’s mother at Wright State. But by the time Derrick was in middle school, they had separated.
“I don’t want to get into all that personal stuff,” Derrick Sr. said of his wife’s death. “It’s just she made some bad choices over the years. She passed away in Derrick’s arms.
“It was just three weeks before he started school his freshman year. Talk about some intestinal fortitude, he showed it. God pulled him up by the bootstraps.”
Malone said he got “tenacity” and “resiliency” from his mom and he learned some of those same lessons – and much more – from his dad.
“My father instilled discipline, responsibility and accountability,” he said. “Basically, he was a beacon of light for me. An example. He’s somebody I’Il always look up to.”
But until his son’s final year of high school, Derrick Sr. didn’t want him playing football. He considered his son to be more of a basketball player and track athlete.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m not letting my kid go out there and be a dummy bag at practice,’” he said.
Earl White, then the football coach at Thurgood, tried to convince him otherwise and Maurice Douglass, then the Trotwood Madison coach and a friend, let young Derrick study the Rams’ playbook, an offer he took to heart.
Finally, Derrick Sr. said Mike McCray – the former Ohio State star who has been a longtime coach and administrator in the Dayton area and whose son starred at Michigan and played in the pros – gave him some advice:
“He said ‘In order to see if your son is really going to grow, you have to back off him.’ I respect McCray – he did well with his son – so that’s what I did.”
And his son blossomed, too. He was a leader on the football team and in the classroom, where he had a 4.3 grade point average and graduated number three in his class.
Over a Meadowdale, Malones’s best friend, Ke’Von Huguely, a compact 5-foot-8 powerhouse of a football player, was also the valedictorian of his class. He got an academic scholarship to OSU and at Malone’s urging, applied for – and became – a football walk-on. as well.
The two became roommates and remain so today, although Huguely graduated early and went into law enforcement. He’s now an Ohio state trooper.
“These two are great poster children for the Dayton Public Schools,” Derrick Sr. said. “You always hear the negatives, but what two better representatives could you have than them? Theirs are the stories you never hear.”
Malone said beating the odds came down to two things:
“No matter what the situation is, no matter how it looks or how long the odds are, if you just believe and then you put the work in that’s required, you can make it. Anybody can.
“If you do that, your dream absolutely is achievable.”
While a considerable number of walk-ons eventually give up their football dreams – deciding the hard work and sacrifices outweigh the rewards – Malone said he never thought of quitting.
He admitted at times he wrestled with “some tough situations, some of them psychological, because I wasn’t in the position I wanted to be in.”
He said he questioned whether he wanted to come back for a fifth season this year or just get on with life after football.
“You only have so long where you can wear the jersey and I figured this gave me one more year, one more opportunity, to inspire people,” he said.
He nodded toward his teammates at the next table:
“I have a platform with other athletes through RAS. And I go out to schools here and back in Dayton. I think there are people there who look up to me.
“And now there’s this amazing opportunity to play for a national championship. I wouldn’t have had that if I hadn’t come back.”
He said his five years as a walk-on “definitely” have been worth it.
“If I had to use one word for my experiences here, it would be ‘grateful,’” Malone said.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to impact other people and grateful for the lessons I’ve learned, whether it’s getting through adversity or just managing my time. And I’m grateful for the relationships I’ve built, the camaraderie and the brotherhood.”
“And I’ll tell you, there’s nothing like running out of the tunnel into the stadium. That never gets old.”
His dad said this adventure all began with his son’s embrace of academics. If he weren’t on an academic scholarship, he might not have gotten the opportunity he did from the football program:
“He wasn’t a liability. He didn’t cost them anything. He was coming here already.
“And I think this underscores a saying everybody in West Dayton needs to know: ‘He or she who rejects education, embraces poverty.’
“We live by that in our house. And look where academics got my son. It got him in the door of the football program and then he took it from there.
“That helmet has taken him from the inner city to the inner circle. I’m so proud of what he’s done.”
And yet, with a laugh, Derrick Sr. admitted to one disappointment with his son:
“He refuses to put Jr. on the back of his jersey. He told me, ‘I’ve never been Malone Jr. before, so why be one now? ‘
“But this was my opportunity, Man. Malone Jr. – I never had my name anywhere. This was my one chance and this guy’s like, ‘You’re not livin’ through me!’”
On the flip side though, Derrick Sr., is about to give recognition to his son.
“If you look in my house now, there’s not one picture of Derrick Malone Jr. with an Ohio State uniform,” his dad said. “The reason is, I didn’t want anything in my house that would remind me of him quitting.
“You’d think by now, after five years, he would have quit. But that would go against what we believe.
“We have a saying in our house: ‘A quitting seed produces a quitting tree and your kids will eat from it.’ If you quit, you’re going to eat from that tree the rest of your life.
“But there’s no quit in him. And so the pictures of him in his Ohio State uniform are going up soon. I can’t wait to put them up. It will be an honor for me to put those pictures up.”
And that now sounds like the words of a true believer.