When Brandon Derrick enters a room, people notice.
“All my life I’ve been a little stronger and bigger than other kids,” says the 6’3” 320 lb. powerlifter.
Brandon is a freshman at McKendree University, where competes for their Powerlifting Team. He has an ear-to-ear smile, carries himself with confidence, and says he could not be more grateful for the opportunities in his life.
He was not always this optimistic.
Brandon grew up in Waukegan, Illinois and says that early on his family was “always down on money, moving from house to house,” and at times, “moving in with other members of the family” until they could find something more stable.
There was uncertainty in his life. There was fear.
But there was always a strong sense of family. Brandon says that he has always felt loved by his family and that his mom “was always the hero, working 2 or 3 jobs at a time, pushing herself to the limit to make sure we were okay.”
Through situational uncertainty, family was the infrastructure which pulled him through.
After school, Brandon’s primary charge was taking care of his two younger brothers. He would often bypass his own interests – including friends, video games, and other high school pursuits – to walk his brothers down to Burger King for dinner, make sure they got to baseball practice, or generally ensure their safety.
He says it never bothered him much, it was just the life he was leading. He was prioritizing his family. It is that strong appreciation for family bonds that has kept Brandon’s passion for powerlifting alive.
His mom saw his strength and regularly urged him to select a strength or fitness option for his P.E. class. He did, and says he has always appreciated his time in the weight room, claiming “the weights gave [him] release.”
But it was Greg Moisio, the powerlifting coach at Waukegan High School, who changed Brandon’s relationship to the sport.
From his first days as part of the Waukegan Bulldog Powerlifting Team, Brandon says that “Moisio was like an uncle, a family member, checking in to be sure I was feeling okay,” and generally treating the young athlete like one of his own.
“He’s my guy,” said Moisio, a 30 year veteran of WHS and lifelong educator. The smile on Moisio’s face while talking about Brandon tells the whole story.
Empowerment through Competition
Brandon’s first competition was an Illinois High School Powerlifting Association (IHSPLA) regional invite at Warren High School. Almost 60 lifters came together, representing 5 different schools, and the energy in the room was palpable.
Brandon admits that he was nervous.
“But as soon as I got up under the weight, people started cheering,” he says, and admits feeling “surprisingly supported – people supporting each other even from other teams, you don’t usually see that [in other sports].”
Brandon experimented with other sports throughout high school. As a wrestler, he was too big to participate in competitions (he weight 320 at the time and would have had to cut down to 285lbs for a shot at competition). Still, Brandon would travel to the meets with his team, just to support. But it wasn’t the same.
He tried football as well. That didn’t work out. “In those sports it felt like the other team is always talking trash or trying to get you mad or off your game,” he says, and “in IHSPLA meets it was different.”
The IHSPLA is fueled by the Good Athlete Project, a nonprofit organization focused on maximizing the potential of athletics as education. For that reason, the organization is governed by 4 core tenets: Character, Culture, Equity, and Service. In an atmosphere that supported community enhancement, Brandon thrived.
His Waukegan teammates and coaches immediately became part of that culture. They lived it, led by Coach Moisio, who “introduced me to his children and wife, and made me feel like part of the family. They’d cheer for me and come hug me after a big lift. It was amazing.”
It’s a bond built in the weight room. “I’d do anything for Mo,” says Brandon and, in a completely separate interview, Coach Mo said, “I’d do anything for that kid.”
The bond that kept Brandon competing in powerlifting led to empowerment in a variety of ways. He says he became more confident. “I would always be nervous about tests and presenting, always wanted to be better – powerlifting helped me, gave me confidence, gave me a feeling of pride and all of a sudden I wasn’t nervous about that stuff anymore.”
He says it taught him strong work ethic as well, giving him the motivation to “be better and push myself harder,” which he has been able to transfer to other areas of his life, like school.
Moisio confirmed that once Brandon saw some success in powerlifting, he “became a hard worker,” and credits the young man with staying humble through it all. “As big and strong as he is, he is still a gentle, humble giant.”
Brandon was empowered with a sense of community, support, confidence, and work ethic. He also added some well-deserved hardware to his trophy shelf.
Brandon took 1st place in his weight class in consecutive years competing at the IHSPLA Blue Devil Regional, and each year went on to win the IHSPLA Individual State Championship for the 308+ Division. He set a few state records along the way, and his performance and leadership senior year was good enough to earn the Bulldogs a 2nd place team finish in the Boys Division. His teammates in the Girls Division took 1st place. Their IHSPLA State Championship earned them recognition from the Mayor’s Office of Waukegan, which Brandon confirms “was amazing.”
That is not where it ended. That success drew the attention of a few schools, including Missouri Valley, Texas A&M University, and a few others colleges who were interested in adding Brandon’s strength to their roster. Though many were interested, it was Coach Guillermo Blanco at McKendree University that ultimately offered Brandon a scholarship and landed one of the strongest lifters in IHSPLA history.
The young man’s life was changed – improved – through sport. That is powerful.
“Without powerlifting I probably don’t end up in college,” says Brandon in a moment of reflection.
He, his family, Coach Moisio, and Coach Blanco are all happy he did. In his first collegiate meet, a local meet hosted by USA Powerlifting, Brandon once again took home 1st place in his division.
The medal is nice. It was hard-earned and well-deserved.
But the true value of Brandon’s story goes well beyond strength. The young man who missed homework assignments because he was taking care of his brothers while his mom worked multiple jobs, who was not sure where he would sleep some nights, much less graduate and head off to college… that young man has just finished his first term at a four-year university. Brandon is majoring in Entrepreneurship and says he is more excited to learn than he can ever remember.
Brandon’s story is not over. He and the McKendree University Powerlifting Team are working hard and they have big goals.
His story is not typical, and certainly not guaranteed. Powerlifting as a sport does not necessarily empower its participants. Brandon was fortunate to be surrounded by a supportive family, dedicated coaches, and a powerlifting organization that highlighted the best the sport has to offer.
Coaches, create cultures which turn powerlifting into the sort of education that lasts a lifetime.
Athletes, Brandon recommends that you, “stay focused on your goals, never stray from your path, understand that you are worthy but you should push past that – nothing wrong with where you are now, but keep going.”
Nothing wrong with where you are now, but keep going. Solid advice from one of the strongest young athletes in the state, who recognizes that strength on its own is not enough.
Like the motto of the IHSPLA, why not aim for Character, Culture, Equity, and Service? Why not go beyond?