Perhaps you've heard the story before: A young black male grows up poor in a rough neighborhood in Baltimore. He uses basketball as his path out -- starring locally in high school before going on to play college basketball.
It's a good story and all, but it's one you've heard before, right? Well, what if I told you this time the protagonist doesn't end up in the NBA or coaching back home in Baltimore, but instead he ends up sliding across the infield grass with his team and kissing the trophy after winning … the Daytona 500?
You definitely haven't heard this story before.
Derrell Edwards is a Baltimore native and former Dunbar basketball player whose hoops career took him to High Point University. Now, he's a jackman and rear tire carrier for Austin Dillon's No. 3 car team on NASCAR's top circuit, and he helped the crew win the Daytona 500 Feb. 18.
"I can't even write it out this way if I tried," Edwards said in a
Glenn Clark Radio
interview Feb. 21. "It's unbelievable, man. I was just always that different kid, honestly. From little growing up, I was just bouncing the ball through the neighborhoods, actually the projects to be real with you. And just being different, man. I always made connections, man. Growing up, I got wiser and wiser. Coming out of Baltimore in general, you tend to got to grow up quick. That aspect in coming from Baltimore has really helped me to get to where I am today."
After winning a state basketball title with the Poets in 2010, Edwards began his college career at South Plains College, a junior college in Texas. While at South Plains, he won an NJCAA national championship before transferring to Division I High Point to continue his basketball career. While at High Point, he found himself at a crossroads regarding his basketball future.
"I'm playing ball, and I kind of felt like I hit a wall at High Point University because I was known as a really great shooter on the basketball court coming out of Baltimore," Edwards said. "… A bunch of those shots I used to make just weren't falling for me anymore."
Going through his struggles on the basketball court, Edwards began attending church. He fell back on that ability he had to make connections in order to find a new path in life.
"I met a guy named Richard Payne, who was the chaplain at the time for Richard Childress Racing," Edwards said. "He would talk to another guy on my team named Corey Law, who is now with the Harlem Globetrotters, he would pull him to the side and [say] like, 'Hey man, you're a big, strong guy. You need to come check out pit crewing at Richard Childress Racing."
Law wasn't interested in a future in motorsports. Edwards was willing to listen. He weighed the possibility of a future playing basketball overseas versus pursuing an opportunity in stock car racing. He took Payne up on a visit to the RCR facility and came away impressed. The only issue was that he was a total neophyte when it came to the sport.
"The only thing I knew about race cars was probably looking at a Cheerios box when I was a young kid eating cereal," Edwards said.
After the Panthers made a run to the NIT his senior year, Edwards took an internship with RCR.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Derrell Edwards
"I would go up after class and work day in and day out," Edwards said. "Cleaning tires, mopping the gym floor, I was basically a janitor for those two months, but it all paid off.
"It definitely was foreign to me, I can tell you that. It was a whole other ballgame. I looked crazy trying to jack up a car when I first ever touched a jack. I didn't know how to hold it, I didn't know what it did ... being a profound athlete and good at a lot of stuff all through my life, this just one thing I was like 'Whoa, I don't know how I'm going to become really, really good at this.'
"But like the Baltimore kid I am, I grinded it out. I stuck it out; I drilled; I practiced through lunch. I asked questions. I paid attention. I filmed other guys when they were practicing that were Cup [series] when I was nothing. I filmed those guys, I asked them questions. It even got to the point where some of these guys wouldn't even answer questions. … I had to deal with that, guys basically giving me the runaround."
But despite those obstacles, in just eight years Edwards went from high school basketball player with no knowledge of NASCAR to being part of the team behind one of the sport's most iconic cars (the No. 3 was previously driven by Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Sr.) that won the sport's biggest race. Even more significant, he did it on the same day a black driver (Bubba Wallace) put together an historic second-place finish. Edwards, who became the the first African-American pit crew member to win a Daytona 500, recognized the significance of the day.
"As we know in the world today, there's a lot of things that are going on that just aren't cool as far as racism, and it's hard for blacks to do this and that," Edwards said. "I feel like I'm breaking down barriers. Honestly, that's how I feel. For the young black kid at home and particularly from Baltimore that feels like they can't make it, I want to let them know that they can do it. You don't have to be the norm. You don't have to be what Baltimore is looked at on the outside -- a bunch of animals and stuff like that."
Edwards wouldn't confirm whether he joined Dillon and other crew members in celebrating the win with a ... yes ...
commemorative butt tattoo
. "Maybe" was all he would offer slyly. Perhaps the only person who will ever know will be his fiancée -- on top of winning the Daytona 500 he also recently got engaged.
But with the monumental win now in the rear-view mirror, Edwards has no plans to slow down. He plans to return to Baltimore in the spring and hopes to connect city kids with the sport in a direct manner.
"I'm just different man," Edwards said. "I'm going to keep going and leaving a legacy behind for those kids that are from Baltimore and letting them know that they can make it. They can make it out of there and become something."
For more from Edwards, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Derrell Edwards