If not for his amazing recovery from a car accident as a young man, Derek Whittaker might not be here for his induction into the Saugerties Sports Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2017.
“As a star athlete at the Saugerties High School in the early 1980s, my goal was to be an athletic trainer after graduation from Cortland State, where I was known as a very serious student to my studies,” wrote Whittaker in an e-mail interview. “I then hoped to eventually become a licensed New York State physical therapist. I had it all: popularity, athleticism, a healthy body and a bright future.”
Then, on a dark summer night on June 10, 1986, his life was changed instantly. “I had an automobile collision which threw me head-first out of my open-topped dune buggy, leaving me balancing the border of life and death. Thank God a distant following car and a nearby neighbor saw and heard this accident and alerted the local emergency medical squad.”
Whittaker remained in the hospital in grave condition for weeks with head trauma. He was in a comatose state for six months.
“It seemed like life held nothing for me, but I refused to allow that to happen,” Whittaker wrote. “I went out-of-state for rehabilitation. The doctors said I’d never be able to communicate with others. Within weeks of coming out of a coma, I was talking to close family and friends that came to visit day in and day out. They said I’d be wheel-chair-bound for life, but within a year I was walking. Over time, I was projected not to regain normal function of any specific area. I, with the help of my loyal family and God, defied being disabled.”
A Saugerties High School Class of 1983 alumnus, Whittaker grew up the youngest sibling in a sports-oriented environment. His brothers Al and Dave and his sister Bobbi Lynn all played sports in Saugerties, and his father played sports in Kingston and Saugerties and was a coach in the Saugerties Babe Ruth League.
Whittaker attended Grant D. Morse Elementary School, during which time he was already active in local sports. He played for Bob Lehmann’s Braves in Little League (“Mr. Lehmann told my father I was going to be moved right from grasshoppers to the majors.”), and he was coached by Saugerties Sports Hall of Fame member Bob Moser in Babe Ruth League (“[He] taught me a life lesson that I continue to live by today: ‘If action comes towards you, what are you going to do?’”).
Coached by Saugerties Sports HOF member John Dodig, Whittaker won three Saugerties Athletic League (SAA) championships in basketball, He received the Bill Kitso Award playing football in the Kingston Pop Warner League.
A three-sport athlete in high school, Whittaker played JV football, basketball and baseball as a freshman and sophomore, making the jump to varsity in his junior year in all three.
Playing running back, safety and linebacker, Whittaker was named an All-County football player during both varsity seasons. He earned the Mike Bond Award in football during his senior season.
“This was the best day of my life to receive the Mike Bond Award, and I still cherish this moment ‘til this day,” Whittaker wrote. He cited playing against Ellenville legend Walter Moseley, who ended his high-school career in 1982 as the state’s all-time leader in rushing yards, points, touchdowns, and career 100-yard rushing games.
“There were a few games where I stopped Moseley from scoring, leading Saugerties to hard-fought victories,” Whittaker wrote.
He also recalled a memorable moment against another star athlete, Maurice Martin, who played basketball for Liberty High School and eventually spent two seasons in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets. “One game we were at Liberty and needed a stop in a close game,” Whittaker wrote. “Martin grabbed a rebound and raced down the court, with me right behind. As he went up for the layup I got a quick instinct that I was still on the football field from the season before and took him out, landing hard into the wall behind. The crowd went wild, as Martin was seen as a future NBA star and I had just taken him out for a hard foul. After the game we were police escorted through a separate exit so no altercations happened with the fans.”
Whittaker attended Columbia-Greene Community College before moving on to SUNY Cortland. He played basketball and baseball at Columbia-Greene, and continued staying active in local sports with the SAA softball league and Saugerties half-court basketball league.
Whittaker lives in Saugerties, where he enjoys watching his nephews play sports. He’s worked in various hospitality roles at the Northeast Center for Special Care since it opened its doors in March 1999.
“It is in honor to be inducted into the Saugerties Sports Hall of Fame as it is recognition of my athletic accomplishments in the Saugerties athletic environment,” wrote Whittaker. “To be inducted into this distinguished group of individuals is something that I admire because a lot of the members have been some of my biggest fans and role models in my life. I have talked about this honor for many years with close friends and family. I want to thank them for the continued support throughout my life.”
The annual Saugerties Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony and dinner is coming up in two weeks. The event will be held in Saturday, April 8 at Diamond Mills, with doors opening at 5 p.m., a cocktail and meet-and-greet hour from 5:30 to 6:30, and the ceremony beginning immediately after. Tickets, which include some drinks and dinner, are $30 and can be reserved by e-mailing Mike Hasenbalg at email@example.com.