By Kristen Turner, Contributing Writer
A Foundation of Excellence
It is the early 1960s. Palmyra, New Jersey, was like most suburbs. Children were running from house to house and playing in the street. Deron Cherry, former free safety for the Kansas City Chiefs, experienced many opportunities there during his youth. Cherry’s parents, George and Lillian Cherry, had a modest home, but it was always bustling with activity. Five children (Derrick, Deron, Duane, Tracy and George) were taught the priorities of school and church first, then athletics.
“Palmyra was a very close-knit town,” Cherry says. “You know the old saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’? I would go down the street and get into some trouble, get a spanking by someone else’s parent, then when I got home, that parent had called mine and I got another spanking! Everybody watched out for everybody’s kids.”
Cherry’s mom played the piano at church and was a special education teacher. His father taught English, coached high school football, refereed basketball, baseball and softball, and was a junior high school principal. Cherry credits his mom for teaching the family to be self-sufficient. The kids participated in various sports and were at practices or games every day. To run the house efficiently, they all had chores.
“When I was nine years old, I was doing laundry, cooking and cleaning,” Cherry says. “We were all self sufficient. We didn’t want to go to school with dirty clothes.”
ANOTHER INSPIRATION was a special role model that Cherry and children in his neighborhood knew. “Mr. Merle Pratt, the school janitor, was a dream come true for the kids in the neighborhood,” Cherry says. “I tell people this story because if it wasn’t for him, there’s no telling where we would have ended up.”
Cherry explains that he saw a lot of older kids get involved with drugs and alcohol; kids who had every opportunity to make something of themselves. Mr. Pratt talked to kids, encouraged them and kept them busy. He offered kids alternatives that did not go unnoticed by Cherry.
“Mr. Pratt would see us running the street and sometimes getting in trouble,” Cherry says. “He let us go to his house and play pool. Or he would open our school gyms so we could play basketball or something. He had already cleaned them, yet he didn’t mind doing it again. You just never forget people like that; those who sacrificed their time to steer you in the direction of reaching your full potential. Those people have a real influence in your life.” Cherry was blessed with God-given talent. He played football, basketball and baseball. His high school achievements scored him a football scholarship at Rutgers University, where he also played baseball.
“You really take pride in the fact that you have the opportunity to go to school to get an education and hopefully be successful in life,” Cherry says, “Rutgers gave me that opportunity.” Cherry was a Biology major, and planned to be a dentist. His class schedule interfered with his football schedule, and he decided he had to make a change.
“I had afternoon classes or labs and was late for practice every day,” he says, “and the coach was getting mad at me. So one day I looked at him and said, ‘I am here to get an education and unless you can rent me a helicopter, don’t complain about me being late because I have classes and labs and don’t get out of class until 4:20 and there is no way I can get to practice by 5.’ He didn’t say anything about it again.”
Cherry’s baseball credentials were also impressive. His high school team had won a state championship, and during summer break after his freshman year, his team made it to the National Babe Ruth Championship. Scouts wanted to sign him, but Cherry told them he was in college. One particular scout would not give up on him.
After Cherry returned to football training camp, the scout with the Phillies cap showed up every day and sat next to Cherry’s dad. “Finally one day, my coach asked who he was,” Cherry recalls. “I said he was a Phillies scout and wanted to sign me. The coach asked me if I had told him no, and I told him that I had said I would think about it. He reminded me of my football scholarship.”
Cherry knew he wasn’t going to sign the baseball contract. But it was a bargaining chip when his coach asked what it would take for him to tell the scout no. Cherry said he wanted to play with the college team. The coach agreed.
During his senior year, Cherry’s defensive coach, Coach Cottrell, went to the Kansas City Chiefs. On day two of the NFL draft, he called Cherry and asked if he had heard from any teams, which he had. Several teams wanted him as a free agent, but Cottrell asked him not to sign before he talked with him.
The Kansas City Chiefs were looking for a punter. They had already drafted three free safeties. Cherry had punted in college. He jumped on a plane to KC and signed. The Chiefs brought him back for a mini training camp and told him to come back two weeks before the main camp.
He got a letter stating to report two days before camp. He called Cottrell, who told him to call head coach Marv Levy. “I called Levy,” Cherry said, “I asked him to bring me back earlier because I could play safety, cornerback or punter. I told him that one of the guys drafted was real good, but I was just as good as the other two and could play other positions.”
The rosters were held to 45 players then. Cherry got the opportunity to come back and work out at safety and punter. He played safety through preseason and was the last player cut.
“I was living with a friend in South New Jersey,” Cherry recalls. “My mom called and said a player had been injured and the Chiefs were going to have a plane waiting for me at the airport in Philadelphia the next day.” Upon landing, Cherry was taken straight to the GM’s office, where he was told that the player injury wasn’t as serious as they thought, so he didn’t have a deal to sign him. The GM told Cherry that he could stay a couple of weeks.
After a week of going to practices, Cherry was told that if nobody got hurt in the next game, he would be sent home. “The next game,” Cherry reports, “three guys got hurt, and they signed me right away. You don’t have time to adjust. You have to be ready to go, and you have to be ready to play.”
Cherry credits starters Gary Green, Gary Barbaro and Eric Harris for teaching him how to play the game and how to be prepared. Bud Carson, a new defensive coach, brought in a whole new system.
Cherry credits these assets and hard work for his starting position in his second year. “They said I wasn’t big enough, fast enough or strong enough,” Cherry says. “So I worked with a speed coach and got faster. I got in the gym and got stronger. I wasn’t afraid of hard work. On those lonely 100-degree days in July, getting ready for camp, when you can’t find anybody to run with you, you have to do it on your own.”
Cherry was selected to the Pro Bowl six of the 11 years he played, along with numerous extraordinary statistics. He remains a fan favorite and is highly respected by his peers. He loves the Chiefs and Kansas City is still his home. Cherry gives back to KC in countless ways. He was inducted into the KC Ambassadors, a group of former Chiefs players that provide scholarships, and attends many charity events and programs.
Although Cherry did not play with most of its members, he considers them brothers. Cherry receives numerous charity requests, but 25 years ago, he was asked to host a charity golf tournament. Cherry said he wanted to contribute to a charity that would make a long-term difference in lives.
While watching a Channel 5 news story, he saw a piece about a little girl who was going to be placed in a learning disability environment until it was realized that she had a rare eye defect, correctable with glasses “She put the glasses on and she could read,” Cherry remembers, “and a bright smile came on her face. I was thinking how many more kids are sitting in school who have some kind of treatable physical ailment and are being misdiagnosed? You want these kids to have a foundation; an education regardless of their social or economic background. But to do that, they have to be healthy and know what it feels like to be healthy so it won’t interfere with learning.”
Score 1 for Health was created. Today, 13,000 screenings are performed in schools annually. Doctors, dentists, specialists and medical facilities donate their time and services. “It’s amazing how things come full circle,” Cherry says. “It goes back to Mr. Merle Pratt giving us opportunities to build a foundation the right way. What better testament could I make for what he did for me than to do this for these kids?”
Although Cherry is involved in various charities, today you will most likely find him on the soccer field. He and his wife, Hope, have four children: Austin, Isaiah, Isabella and Liliana (after his mother). Cherry’s oldest son, Deron, Jr., just moved back to KC. With regular and competitive leagues, this family is on the move.
Their newest venture is with Gateway Village, a planned 234-acre, year-round soccer complex located in Grandview, Missouri. It will include retail and commercial space, hotels and residential development. It will be a one-of-a-kind development in the United States, with Heartland Soccer as its anchor tenant.
“My wife said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a place where it was just one-stop shopping, where we could go and take our kids to soccer practice and there were restaurants and things to do and we didn’t have to go anywhere?’ ” Cherry says. He also says they hope to have some of the state-of-the-art soccer fields ready by fall. He is excited about this complex being one of the largest artificial turf soccer complexes in the world and some of the safest in the United States.
His family is the reason that he lives, he says. He learned to remain humble following some good advice from his mother. “My mother told me, ‘You ain’t no better than anybody else. There is somebody out there that is better than you. You want to be the kind of person to help folks.’ ” Cherry says.
Lillian Cherry had a profound effect on her son. He has helped — and continues to help — innumerable children and adults. He was a role model while wearing #20. He is a great father and husband. Cherry is the definition of building a foundation of excellence. •