For Derek Upp, it’s a “dream come true” to be a part of the men’s basketball team.
Upp was born a C6-C7 incomplete quadriplegic; he can’t feel anything from the waist down. But unlike complete quadriplegics, he has full use of his left arm and can raise his right one. He’s known nothing else since he was born.
Upp sees it as a reason to work harder. As a student manager for the men’s basketball team, he does it all – from rebounding balls to traveling with the team to keeping stats throughout the games.
When Upp was seven years old, he started out in tee ball in Pleasantville, a small central Ohio village. Then he moved on to bowling in nearby Lancaster. He’s been a fan of IndyCar Racing since he was five years old, and eventually, he moved to wheelchair basketball and football – where he discovered the competitive drive that has helped him succeed at Ohio State.
“It’s basically me competing as an able-bodied [athlete] – except that I’m in a wheelchair,” Upp says.
Destined to be a Buckeye
Hailing from Lancaster, Ohio, Upp earned his associate degree from Ohio University-Lancaster in electronic media.
At Ohio State, he’s majoring in sport industry. But, his story as a Buckeye started earlier – in 2004, when Matta took the helm as head basketball coach. While Thad Matta coached practice, Upp would sit on the sidelines and watch with Hank – his assistance dog, a Golden Retriever/Labrador hybrid.
“He knew all of the guys,” Matta says. “At that point, he kind of became part of the program. I think that was something that he always aspired to do, and obviously he does a great job for us.”
The Ohio State experience
Upp notices features around campus that other students might not – like curb cuts and elevators – things that make navigating campus in a wheelchair a little more manageable.
“It is great knowing that [people] are able to help you anywhere you go,” he says. “The professors have been helpful in making accommodations for what I need through Disability Services.”
Since he came to Ohio State, Upp has built a support system throughout the university—from Coach Matta to staffers who help him navigate things like housing and transportation.
Upp usually drives his own van, but when harsh winter weather strikes, he calls on CABS; with a phone call, Upp says, he can get the help he needs to move about campus.
Toni Greenslade-Smith, director of Student Life Housing Administration at Ohio State, helped Upp find the best place to live on campus. She has stayed in contact with his family since then, giving them a point of contact for any questions and maintenance needs.
“As I work with students, I strive to make sure that what we do will help them be successful,” she says.
A part of the basketball family
Upp has become well-known among Buckeye basketball faithful: At the home games, you’ll find fans tapping him on the arm, giving him fist bumps and flashing friendly and familiar smiles as he makes his way on and off the court.
“There’s not one job Derek doesn’t do – from getting ready in practice to rebounding to whenever I need the board to draw something up in practice, he’s right there with it, to grabbing towels,” Matta says. “Anything that needs done, Derek does.”
His contributions don’t stop on the court. Matta says Upp inspires players, coaches and fans with his relentlessness and determination.
“If you ever think you’re having a rough go at it, and you look over there and see a guy in a wheelchair who’s doing everything he can physically, possibly do on a daily basis – it serves as an inspiration.”
Throughout Upp’s time at Ohio State, he’s learned how to be a leader, and he knows he wants to continue to raise awareness for disabilities and inspire others.
He has his sights set on a wheelchair basketball game once the season is finished – players versus managers. He plans to rent wheelchairs from the RPAC and let the able-bodied athletes get a sense of what it’s like to play wheelchair sports.
For him, it’s a way to show kids with disabilities of all ages that they can play sports – just as his role with Ohio State’s basketball team has showed him.
“It’s great to show kids with disabilities that there’s stuff to do out there,” Upp says.
“It is a dream come true, to be a part of a team and being part of this organization, and not worry about your disability.”