RESOLUTE RUNNER : Vett Weathers Injuries, Illness to Stay the Course at Northridge

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

If Las Vegas was to post a betting line on Derik Vett’s chances of staying healthy this cross-country season, the odds would not be very good.

After all, the Cal State Northridge junior has suffered one or more serious injuries during each of his three track seasons at CSUN. Moreover, he missed three weeks of training in August because of tonsillitis.

After redshirting the 1988 track and cross-country campaigns, Vett appeared ready to snap his injury jinx this season. Until, that is, he sprained his right ankle in training a week before the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. championships at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in May.

Although the ankle healed enough to allow him to run in the 3,000-meter steeplechase (eighth place), the 5,000 (14th) and the 10,000 (eighth) at the CCAA meet, Vett’s performances failed to measure up to previous expectations.


“I would have liked to run better than I did,” said Vett, who is healthy and will run today in the UC Riverside Invitational. “But the fact that I ran in three races was kind of a victory in itself . . . It could have been very easy for me to just call it a season after spraining my ankle.”

Vett’s positive reaction to a negative situation comes from his experience in dealing with much harsher circumstances--life-and-death circumstances.

In 1978, his father Tom was told he had a terminal illness and given three years to live. Two years later, Vett himself almost died after complications resulting from a soccer injury.

Vett, then 13, was knocked unconscious when struck in the face by a ball. He appeared to have suffered only a black eye. Two months later, however, he began to experience severe headaches and and couldn’t hold down his food. Then, he began to lose control of his legs as well as his strength. His weight dropped from 80 to 60 pounds.

“It was pretty scary,” Vett’s mother Emily said. “He was in really bad shape for a while. It looked as though he might die. At first, he couldn’t go to school. Then it got so bad that he had to be carried everywhere, even to the bathroom.”

For two months, Vett’s condition baffled doctors, who ran a battery of tests but couldn’t find anything wrong.

A psychiatrist even suggested that Vett might be taking on his father’s illness, that he was becoming sick in an attempt to rid his father of his disease--primary biliary cirrhosis, a rare illness that afflicts one in 1.4 million men.

Emily Vett didn’t buy that theory, however.

“Our family was too strong for that,” she said. “There was no way my son was crazy.”

After everything else had failed, a friend suggested that the Vetts take Derik to a chiropractor, who immediately diagnosed the problem as a dislocation of the atlas and axis, the top two vertebrae of the spinal cord.

The dislocation was so extreme that it had pinched the vital nerves to his muscles and organs and restricted the flow of blood through his body.

“I was literally shutting down and wasting away,” said Vett.

Having been raised in a religious household, Vett’s belief in God intensified during his ordeal.

“When I was going through the near-death experience, I could taste death on me,” Vett said. “And it was at that point that I really became close with Christ. It was at that point that I asked myself, ‘What am I here for? What’s my purpose?’ . . . That’s something that you usually don’t ask yourself until after you grow up, but in a way, I was forced to grow up then.”

Tom Vett, who has conquered his rare liver disease thus far, sensed a change in his son.

“He was always the most dedicated of the kids,” he said. “But he seemed to become more spiritually oriented after that. He has some ideas about life that are beyond his years.”

Once his vertebrae were realigned, Vett underwent therapy for a year. Then he contemplated playing competitive sports again.

Contact sports were out of the question because of the injury, so he went out for the frosh-soph cross-country team at Granada High in Livermore, Calif. Although he had limited success, Vett enjoyed being in shape and the team camaraderie.

His stay at Granada was short as the Vett family moved to Las Vegas midway through his sophomore season. A year later they moved to Jacksonville, Tex., then came back to the West Coast and settled in Ventura prior to his senior season.

“Life just kind of dictated all the moving,” Vett said. “We weren’t very rich--in fact we were poor--so my parents had to go where there were jobs.”

After the family--he has two brothers and a sister--set down roots again in California, Vett blossomed at Buena High.

He placed eighth in the Southern Section 4-A Division cross-country championships, clocking 15:46 over Mt. San Antonio College’s tough three-mile course. He had run 10 minutes, 47 seconds in the two-mile as a sophomore and 10:18 and 4:37 in the mile as a junior.

The race was a turning point in Vett’s career as he had shocked a lot of people--including himself--when he ran 15:42 in the prelims the previous week.

“That proved that it wasn’t a fluke,” Vett said. “It proved that I could run that fast more than once, that I could run with the good guys.”

He next lowered his personal bests to 4:23 in the 1,600 meters and 9:12 in the 3,200 and won Ventura Country titles in both races. He also won the Channel League championship in the 3,200, placed fourth in the 4-A championships and 16th in the state meet.

Not bad for someone who had preseason goals of 4:35 in the 1,600 and 10:00 in the 3,200.

“That was just a dream season,” Vett said. “Everything just went right. I mean, the Lord was just with me through the entire season.”

His exploits drew the attention of several collegiate coaches, with Vett choosing Northridge over Fresno State, Long Beach State and Cal Lutheran.

“I was leaning toward Long Beach because I really liked the coach,” Vett said. “But then I got some financial aid from Northridge.”

Unable to make a decision, Vett turned to his Lord.

He put a piece of paper representing each of the four schools in a hat, then prayed.

“I asked Him to help me decide,” Vett said. “I told Him that I would go to whichever school I picked out of the hat three times.”

The verdict wasn’t long in coming. Vett drew Northridge the first three picks.

As a Matador freshman, he placed eighth (second on the team) in the NCAA Division II West regional and finished 58th (third man) in the Division II championships, helping Northridge to a 10th-place finish.

He had an injury-marred freshman track season--three sprained ankles--but ran well during his sophomore cross-country campaign, finishing fifth (first man) in the West regional and 55th (third man) at the Division II meet as the Matadors improved to eighth in the team standings.

Vett was forced to redshirt the 1988 track and cross-country seasons, however, as muscle imbalances in his legs caused severe pain in his groin area.

The pain--which was also caused by severe buildup of lactic acid in his muscles--became so intense that Vett had a difficult time walking, let alone running.

He recovered after undergoing deep-muscle massage therapy and not running for five months, training instead on a stationary bicycle.

When the next track season began, Vett hadn’t raced in almost a year, but he was healthy and his main goal was to stay that way.

“I just wanted to be injury-free and run as well as I could,” Vett said. “I wasn’t really worried about places or times.”

He has taken a similar approach to this cross-country season. He wants to run well, but he isn’t obsessed with attaining certain places or running specific times.

“Everything that’s happened to me has taught me that you really shouldn’t worry about things you can’t control,” Vett said, who was the Matadors’ No. 3 runner in last week’s Aztec Invitational in San Diego. “I realize that I can only control myself. I can’t worry about other people, other teams, because I can’t control them.”

Northridge Coach Don Strametz said that Vett’s determination is an inspiration to many of the freshmen on this year’s team. His leadership is also a valuable commodity on a young--no seniors, two juniors--and inexperienced Northridge squad that is ranked 15th in this week’s Division II poll.

“We didn’t really have a leader last year and I think it hurt us,” Strametz said. “But Derik is a veteran. He ran in the Division II meet as a freshman and a sophomore so he knows what it takes to get there.”

Although Vett realizes that there is more to life than running, he plans to make his mark at the national level when the chance arises.

“I’m very pleased with what I’ve achieved here in cross-country,” Vett said. “But I’m not satisfied with the past as much any more. I’m looking more toward the future.

“I want to do more than just make it back to nationals. I don’t want to be just satisfied with getting there. I want to do something once I get there.”

Don’t bet against him.