By Matt Liebowitz
In a sport where so many of his plays could end up on highlight reels, Michael Dereus’ selflessness, his resistance to reflect on his talent and accomplishments, can seem almost comical.
Dereus, a sophomore wide receiver at Georgetown, was named Patriot League Rookie of the Year his freshman year on the Hoyas. He said he was “unsure” but he “may have been in contention” for a larger, nationwide rookie award, but admitted, “I don’t really remember.”
“Awards are nice,” Dereus, 20, said, “but I just worry about getting better as a person and on the football team.”
This spirit of generosity is something Dereus said he grew up with, and something he carried from a childhood in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, to Another Course to College (ACC), his charter high school, and eventually to Williston, where he entered as a junior, and from where he graduated in 2016.
He credited Williston, especially nightly study hall junior year in Conant and senior year in Ford, with inculcating in him strong, consistent study habits. As far as a strong and consistent character, that goes further back.
“Williston gave me [the chance to] be a great person and great athlete and student,” said Dereus, “but my parents instilled that into me anyway.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Dereus, along with his fellow Georgetown teammates, participate in the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, a nationwide program in which athletes are paired with children with pediatric brain tumors and other cancers in an effort to improve the children’s quality of life.
Dereus visits nearby Georgetown Hospital two to three times a month, or drops by patients’ houses.
“It’s real nice to give back,” he said. “You have a bad day, [or] you don’t feel like the day was as good as you wanted, and then you get to impact someone and see someone deal with their issues and be grateful.” Dereus said he appreciates the chance give emotional and moral support, and to feel like “a shining light for them when they need it.”
Based in Hopewell Junction, NY, Friends of Jaclyn honors Jaclyn Murphy, who, at age nine in 2004, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Murphy was made an honorary member of a college lacrosse team, which then went on to an undefeated season and its first NCAA National Championship in 64 years. The Murphy family created the foundation in 2005, and since its founding, it has helped nearly 730 families. In 2016, Murphy graduated from Marist College.
Dereus said that between Snapchat, phone, email, and text, he is in “everyday” contact with the children he’s paired with through Friends of Jaclyn. He said that with his hectic schedule, the partnership gives him a chance to step out of his routine and “focus on making someone else’s day better.”
That routine, for Dereus, begins early every morning, with a 6 a.m. meeting. The team practices from 8 to 10:30 a.m., and then until 3:15 p.m. Dereus admits, in his characteristically understated way, that he’s “pretty busy.”
Pretty busy means classes on human rights and international relations, cultural anthropology, women and gender studies, biology, and philosophy. Dereus’ focus is government and economics.
Jacob Rivers, Williston’s co-defensive coordinator, watches Dereus’ games “whenever I can,” he said, and the two remain in contact. Rivers coached Dereus during his senior year in football and track.
Rivers said initially he was unsure if Dereus would make the transition, under Rivers’ tutelage, from player to student in Rivers’ senior English class. Dereus had no problem.
“It was seamless,” Rivers said. “He knew when it was time to work.”
Rivers added that although Dereus wasn’t the top academic student in the class, “he worked as hard as anyone, all the time.”
“I talk to Mr. Rivers all the time,” Dereus said. “He gave a lot of good advice coming in to Georgetown,” including “how to attack training camp and come out aggressive, and meet your responsibilities.”
It’s a surprise to no one at Williston that Dereus is meeting responsibilities and surpassing expectations in college, least of all Mark Conroy, Williston’s athletic director and Dereus’ former head football coach.
“He had a great two years here and was a huge part of a very successful two teams,” Conroy said. Conroy’s final year as head coach was Dereus’ senior year. The team lost three games in the entire two years Dereus was at Williston. “He was a big part of that,” Conroy said.
Conroy, laughing, remembered a particular “play” his squad would run with Dereus.
“We’d yell, ‘Mike, go deep!’” Conroy explained. “We had a no-huddle offense; there were so many games where the quarterback would just throw as far he could and Mike would just run under it and score.”
Rivers added an observation from Dereus’ work on the Hoyas.
“There will be guys in zone coverage,” he said, “and he ‘ll be running a simple go route, and he’ll run right past them like he’s driving,”
Along with football, Dereus ran track in the spring. In the spring of 2016 he set the Williston, and the NEPSAC, record in the 100 meters at 10.84 seconds, a record that still stands.
As expected, both Rivers and Conroy praised Dereus character as quickly as they did his raw talent.
“He was a beloved student here, kind, gentle,” Conroy said. “His teachers loved him as much as his coaches. You’d read his [teacher] comments and his teachers would say it’s such a privilege to have him at school.”