At 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, Derek Wolfe is tough to miss, but even though most UC football fans can readily recognize the hulking defensive tackle, he is a bit of an enigma off the field because his tragic story has never been told. That is, until now.
To suggest that Wolfe is the product of a broken home would be incorrect. He’s the product of a shattered home.
“I’ve never met my real father,” said Wolfe. “I couldn’t even tell you his name.”
Making matters worse, the NFL bound senior is now estranged from his mother.
“I lived with my mother only when she was married to my stepfather,” Wolfe said. “My mother married him when I was only about three months old, but after they got divorced, I moved out and lived with him.”
But that step-relationship didn’t last either. The nomadic Wolfe explained why.
“My stepfather and I got along well when I was young and even after he got divorced from my mom, but when he got remarried, that’s when everything fell apart.”
The next people to enter Wolfe’s life were the Hoppels.
“My best friend since the sixth grade was Logan Hoppel,” said Wolfe. “His family told me if I ever needed a place to stay, I could stay with them.”
With no other options after splitting from his stepfather, Wolfe accepted the Hoppels generous offer, and that decision played a major role in his eventually becoming a Bearcat.
Adam Hoppel was Logan’s cousin, and Adam was playing football at Cincinnati. When Wolfe started attracting college coaches with scholarship offers, the fact that Adam was already playing for Cincinnati made the Bearcats an attraction option.
“I had a lot of offers,” said Wolfe. “Coach Dantonio was recruiting me to Michigan State, and I was going to go there, but Adam said I could probably play right away if I came here. I thought he was probably right, and Adam said he would keep me out of trouble.”
Adam Hoppel lived up to his word.
“It was great having that support,” Wolfe said. “I now see some of these young guys struggle, and I try to help because I know what it felt like when I was a freshman. I came from a small town and didn’t know what the hell was going on when I got here.”
Fortunately, the Hoppels weren’t the only ones supporting Wolfe. His stepfather’s sisters have remained his aunts even though they are no longer related by marriage.
“My Aunt Lisa and Aunt Peggy come to games,” he said. “They treat me like a son. They make sure if I ever need anything, I have it, but they did so much for me when I was younger, I feel guilty letting them do anything for me now. But I make sure I have tickets for them no matter what.”
Whether they know it or not, Bearcat football fans owe Aunt Lisa a debt of gratitude. Last winter, Wolfe seriously thought about declaring for the NFL draft. He recalled the circumstances.
“I had three dollars to my name. I was sitting there looking at those three dollars thinking that was all I had. I had to pay rent and had some other bills, but my aunt gave me some money and said when I got my scholarship check to pay her back.”
This wasn’t the first time the aunts came to his aid.
“They did a hell of a job raising me. When I was really young, my Aunt Lisa always made sure I had Christmas presents. She pays for my cell phone and also bought me a truck so I could get around and go home.”
The Hoppels pay for Wolfe’s car insurance.
Wolfe hasn’t spoken to his mother for almost three years, and he has good reason since his mother refuses to give him any clues as to who his father was.
“My mom just won’t tell me anything about him. I guarantee he doesn’t even know I exist. I’ve given my mom chances and chances and chances, but she obviously has some issues.”
When the frustration reaches a boiling point, Wolfe tries to channel it into something positive.
“When I start to get really pissed off over what has happened to me over the years, I just go to the weight room. I come over here on Saturday or Sunday nights all the time. I’ll box a little bit, lift weights or jump rope for an hour. That’s my escape.”
But despite all this support, there are days when Wolfe thoughts drift to what could have been.
“When you live with guys that have great families (he lives with Evan Davis and Alex Hoffman), you can get a little jealous, but everyone gets dealt his own hand. You have to play it and do what you can with what you have. God gave me a big, athletic body, and I’m going to do everything I can to make the most of that opportunity.
The Hoppel family runs a rodeo on most weekends, but Wolfe doesn’t need the money bad enough to compete for prize money.
“You ought to see the size of those bulls,” laughed Wolfe. “I went out there to feed them over break, and you can’t just walk through there. Those things are big and scary. No calf roping or steer wrestling for me.”
Because he’s a star player on a BCS football team and most of Cincinnati’s games are televised, Wolfe has become a celebrity in Lisbon, Ohio, but many residents also remember the big kid with little guidance that often spent time after school in detention and almost couldn’t sign his letter-of-intent with UC because Beaver Local was considering a suspension after he was accused of breaking an air vent on a school bus. But Wolfe wants his story to have a happy ending.
“Now when I go home, people say, ‘He might not screw this up after all,’” laughed Wolfe. “Everybody’s just waiting for me to screw this up. They know I had a bad situation so they think I’m going to screw it up.”
With a wisdom born from tough times and understanding mentors, Wolfe summed up his outlook on life.
“I may not have a great mom and dad, but I’ve got a lot of great people looking out for me.”
An oft quoted African proverb states that it takes a village to raise a child, but in this case, it ought to be adjusted to read, “It takes a pack to raise a Wolfe.”