JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Derek Hatcher dreamed of playing professional football.
He was well on his way to being a real contender. He earned the starting quarterback position at Ridgeview High School several years ago and helped lead the team to win the 2008 district championship. He became one of Clay County’s all-time leading passers.
"He had a special talent and football was his talent, but he also had a great personality," Derek's mother, Debbie Rizer, said. "He was so funny."
Debbie warned her son about the dangers of drugs, but when he left to play college football, he became addicted to pain medication.
“Derek had access to pain pills everywhere," Debbie said. "It was all over the football field.”
That addiction led him to try recreational drugs. He became hooked on cocaine after attending a college fraternity party.
Derek said his college buddies assured him when they offered him drugs, “It won’t kill ya. It won’t hurt ya."
They were wrong.
Derek later told students he was mentoring that he had no idea "one line" would turn into four years of a nightmare.
He was kicked out of college for drug use and returned to Jacksonville, depressed and defeated. His dreams of ever playing professional football were gone.
“He came home and got worse because he found that drugs in Jacksonville were cheaper than they were in North Carolina,” his mother said.
Derek eventually was arrested and served six months in jail.
He used the experience to try to help others and started speaking to student-athletes, including football players at Ridgeview High School, to warn them about the danger. He visited juvenile inmates, too.
“He actually had a job and then he got back into college, and he was offered to play football again to finish his last semester of college," Debbie said. “He came home for Valentine’s Day weekend. We went out to eat with my mother. He was so funny and so excited to be back in college.”
Debbie said that visit was the last time she saw her son alive.
She said he went to a party at the South Florida college he was attending and "must have relapsed." The drug he took was laced with fentanyl, Debbie said.
Derek died. He was 24 years old.
Pain to purpose
Debbie said she couldn't believe it when she got the call from the college about Derek's overdose.
She said her depression over the loss of her son became so intense that she bought a gun and intended to kill herself. But she didn't.
She said her son’s story is too important, and she has dedicated the last two years to warning parents.
“Parents cannot bury their head in the sand and cannot be naive," Debbie said. "Know that it could happen to your child too. ... I thought my son was perfect and this happened to him."
Debbie has created the Derek Hatcher Foundation to spread the message about opioid addiction.
Spot the signs
Dr. Marcus De Carvalho, a psychiatrist who treated Derek and helped him get into rehab when he was kicked out of college, said he sees teens like Derek all the time in his practice.
“What I see on a day-to-day basis, young kids who come from great homes with parents who have sacrificed everything, in order for them to play their sports, and then they go off into this world of college and were not prepared for the pressures of being alone, athletics, sports,” De Carvalho said.
He said he tells families to start a dialogue with their children about drugs at the youngest age possible in terms that they can understand.
"Insert yourselves in their lives as parents," De Carvalho said. "When they’re away at college, show up unexpectedly.”
He said 17- and 18-year-olds starting college have underdeveloped frontal lobes, which means their rational thinking "is not there yet."
As founder of the Center for Healthy Mind and Wellbeing, De Carvalho treats patients with opioid addictions and patients with depression. He said parents should understand that just a small amount of an opioid can lead to an addiction problem.
"We don’t believe that we are going to die taking one pill, but that is the reality," De Carvalho said. "One pill with fentanyl -- (which is) a hundred times more powerful than morphine -- will kill you.”