Derek Lokey: Upgrading rings
The time on the clock read eight seconds. Derek Lokey stood in between his defensive line coaches Mike Tolleson and Oscar Giles still firmly focused on the action on the field. As the seconds ticked away, one-by-one getting closer to the elusive National Championship, reality started to set in for the defensive tackle from Denton, Texas.
"We are National Champions," is all he could think. His body numb, he was barely able to celebrate. Along with his time as a state champion, this was the greatest moment in Lokey's life. He had achieved the ultimate as a college football player.
After taking a knee and praying, Lokey ran to the area of the stands where his family and girlfriend were sitting. He knew where those seats were because he ran to the same spot the previous year following Texas' win over Michigan. After snapping a few photos and exchanging hugs, Lokey hunted for his fellow defensive tackles Rod Wright, now of the Miami Dolphins, and current line mate Frank Okam.
Next, he hugged and cheered with as many people on the field as he could before making his way to the tiny Rose Bowl locker room. The area was jam-packed, so Lokey stood just outside the doorway, but he was close enough to hear the message from head coach Mack Brown.
"Men, we're going to enjoy this," coach Brown stated. "But, don't let this be the best moment of your life."
What? This is an amazing moment Lokey thought. What could be better than wearing that National Championship ring for the rest of your life?
It would only take Lokey 18 months to realize exactly what coach Brown was talking about.
On July 14 of this past summer, Lokey's National Championship ring was bumped from his left hand to his right in deference to the wedding band given to him by his bride, the former Charlie Strickland.
"Getting married was way more important than the National Championship," said Lokey. "It was such a joyous occasion to make our lives together permanent. I hate to sound cliché, but she really does complete me, and I feel so fortunate to have been able to find that at such a young age."
But, their relationship may not have ever taken place if Lokey hadn't made one key decision that led to their introduction.
"We were at a soccer game," explained Lokey. "My high school's boys team was playing after the girls team that Charlie played on. I never went to soccer games, but my coach and dad were going to this one, so I just decided to go with them."
Luckily, he made the right call.
Lokey spent most of Denton Ryan's game chatting with friends, which is the exact same thing Charlie was doing, just one row in front of him. The two had never met before and it remains a mystery as to who actually initiated their first conversation.
"I was talking to a friend, probably about Texas, because I was already committed to come play here," Lokey recalled. "All of a sudden this girl in front of me with an OU hat butted into the conversation. I had no idea who she was and only talked to her for a couple of minutes, but that was our first interaction."
The new Mrs. Lokey sees the first encounter just a little bit differently.
"I was talking to some of my friends about mini vanilla wafers and Derek just butted right in on the conversation," explained Charlie. "He was talking about how his mother loved them. I found out later that she had never even eaten them before."
Regardless of who initiated what and despite the fact that Charlie was planning on going to Oklahoma, the two began to see more of each other. Charlie, who is a year older than Derek, decided OU wasn't the best fit for her and she wanted to continue to pursue her dream of attending The University of Texas. So, she spent her freshman year at North Texas and then transferred in to UT in 2004, the same year Derek hit the 40 Acres as a freshman.
That is when their relationship began to blossom.
"From day one here at UT, we've been together," Charlie explained. "We've been able to experience all the highs and lows that college and football bring and I think that really helped our relationship grow into what it is today."
For Derek and Charlie, one of the biggest highs was Texas winning the National Championship.
"I got to watch Derek prepare for the season, prepare for that game and then win the National Championship," Charlie added. "I think that is why it was so exciting because he got to see the results of that hard work and I was so proud to see him achieve that."
The high from the National Championship continued on through most of 2006. Just prior to the start of fall camp, Lokey had teammates Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley decorate a friend's Austin-area apartment, complete with Charlie's favorite assortment of cookies, in preparation for his proposal. It worked like a charm as Lokey would enter his junior season as an engaged man. He used the recent engagement to propel him through the early part of the 2006 season. He was having the best year of his career and was starting to gain some national recognition for his play along the defensive line.
Entering UT's game against Nebraska, he had already notched 20 tackles, three TFL and a half sack, while leading one of the best run-stopping defenses in the country.
"The game at Nebraska was so much fun," explained Lokey. "The crowd was into it, it was so cold and the game was really important. On top of that, I was probably having the best game of my career. I was in the zone."
Lokey had posted four tackles, including a sack, in just under a half of football, but that is when disaster struck. After a short running play, one that saw Lokey assist on the tackle, the pile fell on his leg awkwardly.
"I just laid there for a second and thought to myself, get up and get off the field," remembered Lokey. "I didn't want the training staff to have to come and check me out and break up the momentum. We were playing really well on defense at that time and I just wanted to keep that momentum going."
Even so, the trainers made their way on to the field. After a brief conversation, Lokey hopped up and walked off the field under his own power.
"I wasn't sure what was going on," explained Lokey. "But, after sitting on the bench for a few minutes, I tried to stand up and I could tell that something wasn't right."
Still toughing it out, Lokey headed back to the training room to have some X-rays taken. Unfortunately, they revealed the exact thing Lokey had feared. There was a fracture in his right leg. His season was over.
Oddly, Charlie was unable to make the trip to Nebraska. She had attended almost every one of Derek's games since they started dating, scraping together enough money to make the road trips, while enjoying the home games in her regular seat at DKR-Memorial Stadium.
At the time, Lokey didn't think much of it, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. She was able to meet Derek at the football facilities when the Longhorns returned from Lincoln, which she wouldn't have been able to do had she attended the game.
"She was able to pick me up and get me home," said Lokey. "I was lucky to have her not only right when we got home, but during the whole experience. She really took care of me."
It was a time when Lokey experienced a lot of ups and downs. He was given a timeframe of six to eight weeks before he would be able to walk. There was the frustration of not being with his teammates, not being able to help the team and the process of rehabilitation that takes its toll not just physically, but mentally, as well. It was a time when Lokey relied on Charlie for moral support and to handle a lot of the daily activities that are taken for granted.
"Charlie was there for me the entire time, doing whatever she could to help make things easier for me," Lokey added. "She was so busy, working and taking 21 hours to finish up her degree, but she always had time for me. She'd cook me dinner and do a lot of the other things I needed help with. I can't thank her enough for all she did for me."
For Charlie, it was just a matter of doing what anyone would do for their boyfriend.
"I just tried to be there for him and provide him whatever he needed," explained Charlie. "I wanted to make everything comfortable for him. If he wanted to talk about it, we'd talk. If he wanted dinner, I'd cook something for him. It taught me how to be flexible."
That flexibility has turned out to be a key component of their relationship. As Lokey battled his way back, he continued to add things to his plate that would make him even busier during the spring and summer of the next year.
He determined with fellow defensive tackle Frank Okam that they would both achieve 4.0 GPAs during the spring semester, which they did. He would again be battling through the rigors of spring practice. On top of that, he was going to be preparing to take the LSAT in the summer, along with doing a 400-hour internship.
Even so, the July 14th date for their wedding was fast approaching and Charlie would again show her flexibility.
"I had so many things going on that we basically realized if this was going to happen, Charlie would have to take the lead," said Lokey. "That is exactly what she did. She took it and ran with it. She did all the planning and got everything set."
"Putting together a wedding is such an emotional process," said Charlie. "I was able to see him go through an emotional thing like winning a National Championship, so I kind of had the same feelings when I was working on the wedding.
"In the same way that I watched him prepare for that season and the Rose Bowl, he was doing the same thing with the wedding. He watched as I planned all the details and gave his opinion on things. I think that is why he treasures the wedding day because he got to see all those things come together, the same way I watched it all come together for that National Championship team."
And once the day came, it was everything the pair thought it would be. In the presence of fellow Longhorns McCoy, Shipley and Tully Janszen, who served as groomsmen, and Miller and Okam, who served as two of the largest ushers in wedding history, Charlie and Derek exchanged their vows, complete with 'The Eyes of Texas' as a recessional.
"You don't have many moments that change you as a person," explained Lokey, "but getting married is definitely one of them. It was such an unbelievable day. It hit me that we were starting a brand new life together and it quickly replaced all my other accomplishments as the happiest day of my life."
And the happiness hasn't diminished since July 14th. Whether they are sharing some quiet time with their dog Maverick or having a quick exchange in between workouts when Charlie brings a snack for the defensive tackle's room, the pair is cherishing their time together.
"Derek is such a great person," says Charlie. "He is so humble, but very determined and I can see that in the way that he treats me. He's got so much going on, but I never feel short-changed. It's hard being the wife of a football player, but I've been doing it for a while now, so I'm getting used to it."
Lokey knows it can be tough at times, but instead of it being a distraction, he has used it as motivation.
"Some people think that having a girlfriend, or in my case a wife, can be a distraction," explained Lokey, "but that is definitely not the case with Charlie. She's always been so understanding. If anything, her support has been one of the keys to my success."
It's a success that Charlie feels Derek doesn't quite understand.
"I don't think Derek realizes how good of a player he is," said Charlie. "At first, I didn't understand what he was trying to do. I thought if he didn't have a sack on every play that something was wrong. But, I've learned about assignments and what Derek is trying to accomplish on the field, so now I'm starting to see why other people think he is such a good player.
"I watch all the football shows and when they talk about other defensive tackles, I always think they should be talking about Derek because I think he is the best, obviously. But, when coach Brown made those comments about how important Derek was to the team, I thought that was such a great thing and I hope Derek can realize that he is one of the best players because it seems like a lot of other people think he is."
It's been that kind of unconditional support and all of the other things that Charlie does, from teaching language arts to sixth graders during the day to cooking up her specialty of fried pork chops, mashed potatoes and green beans in the evening, that lets Lokey know he's found a partner for the rest of his life.
"I've got to be honest, I'm not the easiest person to be around," Lokey says with a smile. "My mother tells me all the time that I'm lucky I found her because she's the only one that will put up with me. I definitely got the better end of this deal."
Which takes him back to the locker room at the Rose Bowl and the words coach Brown spoke on that night. What didn't make sense at the time now seems very clear and prophetic.
"Don't let this be the best moment of your life."
Just look at Lokey's left hand now. That's all the explanation you'll need.