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Sports >  High school sports

Remembering Derek: Family, teammate take opportunity to spread ‘message of hope’ one year after teenage suicide

Derek Curtis was an honor student, a gifted athlete and a trusted teammate. He was a devoted son, grandson and brother.

He should be in the middle of his senior year at Post Falls High School, making plans for graduation, summer vacation and college in the fall. He would definitely have been looking forward to watching his favorite NFL player on its biggest stage in the Super Bowl on Sunday.

Instead, Sunday will mark the one-year anniversary of Derek Curtis taking his own life at age 17. No one understands why. The survivors rarely do, really.

The ‘nicest person’

By all accounts, Derek was enjoying high school – thriving in class, playing football, active, attentive – the kind of kid others seem to gravitate toward.

He wasn’t the most outspoken, but not shy, and respected both by his peers and adults alike. Thoughtful.

He was a young man of faith, dedication and perseverance. His future was filled with seemingly endless possibilities – all of which make his death only that much more heartbreaking and confusing to those he left behind.

“It was a total shock to our family,” said Derek’s mother, Michelle Curtis, on Monday evening. “Derek was surrounded with Jesus, church, family that couldn’t be more supportive – loving, there for each other – memories made constantly. Derek wasn’t a troubled and depressed kid.

“Something took a hold of his heart, that he tried to cope with on his own because he didn’t want to burden us. That’s the type of person he was.

“He didn’t ask for help, but that’s unfortunately a downfall.”

That’s the message she wants to spread.

“So many people said, ‘Derek was the nicest person I ever met.’ ” she said. “He worked harder than anyone else on the field and in the weight room and the classroom. He was full of kindness and gentleness and he was very mature for his age.

“But all of us are susceptible to something that can really trouble us or hurts our heart, and if you try to cope with it on your own it can be destructive. Especially for teenagers, because they haven’t matured enough to know what they can cope with. That’s important, and the message we need to spread. Talk to somebody. Say timeout and talk with somebody.”

Suicide is a difficult thing to talk – and write – about, especially teenage suicide. Yet those difficult discussions can often help loved ones grieve, process and find acceptance – or at least come to terms with what happened.

Perhaps by talking about it, it could lead someone else in need to reach out and find the peace they might need as well.

That was the ultimate goal of Derek’s best friend.

Reaching out

Josiah Shields is an all-league linebacker for the Trojans, who will sign his letter of intent to continue his education and athletic pursuits at College of Idaho on Wednesday.

With the anniversary of Derek’s death approaching, Shields wanted to do something to honor the memory of his best friend. That’s when he got the idea of reaching out to Derek’s favorite player via social media.

Shields wrote a letter to Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady via his Twitter account (@JosiahShields88), tagging both Brady and the NFL, asking, “If anyone can share this to @TomBrady that would mean the world. @NFL”

In it, he attached pictures of Derek and described his best friend and why he was writing.

“I was hoping that you could bless his family in any way that you can,” the letter stated. “Derek was a great competitor and looked up to you in so many ways. He was never the biggest or the strongest guy, but he definitely outworked everyone and put the work in every single day.”

“I’m just hoping that Tom Brady kind of responds in any way for the Curtis family,” Shields said. “They’ve been through so much. I knew Derek was a crazy big Tom Brady fan and they are, too. I just thought it would be really cool, like even if Tom Brady just acknowledges it, that would be really special for them.”

The tweet quickly went viral over the weekend. As of Tuesday evening, the tweet had 12,137 likes, 3,464 retweets and 391 replies, almost all tagging Brady and the league, including the Bucs’ official reporter for ESPN.com.

Brady hasn’t responded yet.

“It’s honestly crazy,” Shields said. “I didn’t really think this many people would see it. I only thought maybe a few hundred. But then when it started getting into the thousands, I thought, ‘OK, this is getting way bigger than I ever thought it could be.’

“Knowing that Derek’s story is being put out there for as many people to see, knowing that it could help someone.”

Shields was going to keep the tweet a surprise for the family until he heard something, but when he realized how much attention it was getting, he told the family on Saturday when it started taking off. He wanted to tell them before they heard from someone else.

“They were just super thankful that I would even think about doing something like that,” he said. “They just kept telling me, ‘Thank you.’ ”

“We were shocked,” Michelle Curtis said. “(Shields) didn’t mention anything about it. I checked my phone on Saturday morning and he had sent us a screenshot of what he sent. I just broke down in tears, because he’s got such a big heart. And he loves us so much. And we love him. And he loved Derek.

“Josiah is doing the uncomfortable. Something very few people would do. I would have never done anything like that – at his age, for sure. It’s very mature of him and it shows what a giant heart he has.”

Michelle expressed while it would “mean a ton to us,” if Brady responds, in this case it really is the thought, and the message, that counts.

“We just kind of realized this has opened an opportunity for us to just start sharing Derek’s story and the message of hope,” she said.

“We need to start being a voice. We have the opportunity, because it’s one of those things that people don’t want to talk about. They don’t want to address it, because it’s uncomfortable.”

Keeping secret

Shields wants to stress that if it can happen to his best friend, it could happen to anyone.

“Derek never really told anyone that he was hurting, so it came as a shock to so many people,” he said. “Knowing that so many people cared, especially seeing the replies to the tweet, even just strangers. There’s always someone who cares about you.”

Through the past year, Shields has made a habit of visiting the Curtis family, something he thinks helps them – and himself. “There’s something about, even though Derek is gone, not being around him, it helps.”

“He checks in on us quite often,” Michelle Curtis said. “We can call on him for anything. He’s at our door within minutes. He just genuinely loves to be with us. And we love his company, for sure.”

A lot of times with teenage suicide you hear afterward “We had no idea.” It’s hard to understand sometimes, especially with a kid so seemingly well-adjusted.

You never really know what is going on in somebody else’s head or heart – sometimes even if they try to express it.

“There isn’t a specific ‘type,’ and that’s what we’ve learned,” Michelle Curtis said. “We didn’t know. Everybody has a way of keeping secret what’s really hurting them.”

“Some people would be like, ‘Oh, did Derek have not many friends, or was he not good in school?’ That wasn’t the case,” Shields said.

“He was excellent in school. He had so many friends around him. Great at sports. Was a leader. He wasn’t very shy. It just comes out of nowhere.”

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