By Abigail Hintz, Assistant Sports Information Director
The last cross country meet Ohio Christian University's Drake Dickerson ever competes in will be the NAIA National Cross Country Meet, just one of the many achievements the 23-year-old has under him. Dickerson's success comes with a unique sense of humility and a simple joy found in the freedom of running.
But Dickerson hasn't always felt this way. To gain that freedom, he had to overcome a childhood of trauma that led to a moment of nearly ending his life.
Dickerson was born in Lancaster, Ohio to two crack cocaine addicts, meaning he was addicted at birth. During the first five years of his life, he was fed nothing but sugar water. Most people don't remember much, if anything, about life at such a young age, but the trauma he endured has been seared into his memory.
"Within those five years I saw a lot of things, some things I really don't want to get into that were very graphic," Dickerson said. "I would wake up and see my parents walking around like zombies because they were on drugs at the time."
At the age of five, he was taken out of his birth parents' home by Child Protective Services and placed into the foster care system where he was taken in by a loving, Christian family.
Three years later Dickerson was adopted by a different family, and at first, everything seemed perfect. After all, anything was better than his birth home.
He soon realized that was far from true.
His adoptive family was receiving a monthly check from the government that was meant to be used on him, but they used it on anything but.
"They were very bad people," Dickerson said. "They would lock up the cabinets so I couldn't eat. I was not allowed to do anything unless they told me I could do it. I literally was living in a house that I didn't feel at home in and the only thing they really gave me was a roof over my head, which was better than anything I could've ever asked for. That seemed normal to me because I came from a very bad situation already."
One thing his adoptive family would allow him to do is stay with friends because it meant less work for them. It was then that Dickerson began to truly see how bad his situation was.
"That's when I started to ask questions and push back. They started calling me unruly and saying that I was a bad kid, and that I didn't know what was right – basically manipulating me.
To participate in sports, his adoptive parents forced him to get a job. To manage that on top of his athletic and academic workloads, Dickerson woke up at 6 a.m. every day to go straight from school to cross country or track practice until 6 p.m. He then went straight from practice to work at a gas station until midnight and then walked back to his house. The walk home took him over an hour, leaving him just four hours to get sleep before waking up to do it all again.
"This happened for two or three years of my life, and then my adoptive parents would take all the money out of my bank account."
At this point in his life, Dickerson was only eating fast food from the gas station. He spent four consecutive summers living with friends. He would salvage a little money here and there for survival. He wasn't able to go anywhere unless he walked, biked or got a ride from someone. He didn't break 100 pounds until he was around 15 years old. He faced judgment from teachers who assumed the worst about him when everything they saw was out of his control.
"It was just one day at a time. What am I going to do to be okay today?"
Amidst all of this, Dickerson hit his low point.
He had just turned 16 and was completely worn down, angry and unable to understand why all these things were happening to him and what he had done to deserve them.
"I had written a note, I had a gun to my head," Dickerson said.
"I pulled the trigger and it jammed."
"On that day I heard a voice say, 'No.' That's all I heard was 'No,'" he said through tears. "I dropped the gun and I couldn't believe it. I tore up the note and nobody even knew that it happened until I spoke out on it. But I was ready. I was ready to end my life."
Dickerson believes God intervened for him that day.
"We're only supposed to be able to handle things when God is in our life, and He wasn't. I just did not have God in my life. At that point is when everything turned and things started to get better," he said.
Dickerson found some sources of light in the Lancaster High School cross country and track teams. He became close with many of his teammates and especially coach Jeff Koksal. Though his life was taking too much of a toll on him to allow him to truly enjoy running, Coach K was one of the greatest influences in Dickerson's life.
"Coach K is one of the best people that I could have ever asked to be in my life," Dickerson said. "He would push me; he would show me what not to do and how to be a great person. I found out later that he was making a room for me in his house to let me move in after I turned 18."
Dickerson also became best friends with fellow cross country and track athlete Bryden Moxley. When Dickerson was 17, he and Moxley were out trick-or-treating on Halloween and Dickerson asked if he could stay the night. Moxley's mom said yes, and night after night he kept asking.
Night after night she said yes.
"She never said a word about it, and eventually I just never went home."
Dickerson's adoptive parents ended up moving to Florida without telling him. He hired a lawyer and was emancipated the day before his 18th birthday, setting him free from his adoptive parents.
Living with the Moxleys gave Dickerson the opportunity to learn more about Christianity and what it meant to embrace his faith. He attended church with them and learned what it means to struggle, why God calls His people to struggle and what it is to truly be close to the Lord. During one of those summers, he attended a church camp where he had counselors from Ohio Christian University.
"They were one of the first people I could actually relate with," Dickerson said. "They just made things so clear. One of them prayed over me for the first time. That was the first time anybody had ever prayed over me or for me or anything like that. It was just a different experience."
Up until that point, Dickerson didn't feel as though he wanted to attend a Christian school. But he ended up going on a visit to Ohio Christian where he found a new home.
"It felt like a family," he said. "You could definitely feel the presence of God was here. I ended up signing the next day."
College was a fresh start for Dickerson. A chance to get away from the assumptions so many people had back home. It was where he finally fell in love with running and experienced the freedom it provides.
"It was kind of shocking to find out when I got to Ohio Christian that I fit in so well."
Dickerson has competed for the Trailblazer cross country team and track and field team for five years and is one of the greatest athletes to ever compete at Ohio Christian, holding seven school records in races spanning from the mile to 10,000 meter.
In cross country, Dickerson is a 4-time NAIA National Qualifier and 2-time RSC Runner-Up and was awarded All-RSC First Team three times and All-RSC Second Team two times. In track, he is a 3-time NAIA National Qualifier, 4-time RSC Champion, 10-time All-RSC athlete and the 2021 RSC Indoor Track Athlete of the Year. In December, he will be the first member of his birth family to have a college degree.
Now, heading into his final meet, Dickerson can look back on both all he has accomplished and all he has overcome.
"It's been a really great season, and I'm really happy," Dickerson said. "But it is sad to know that I will never be able to run cross country again as a Trailblazer."
Dickerson will finish his cross country career in Tallahassee, Florida this Friday, Nov. 18 at the NAIA National Cross Country Meet for the fourth time in his career as he attempts to add the elusive title of All-American to his list of accolades. He is planning on coming back this winter and spring to compete in indoor and outdoor track.
When one of his social workers asked an 18-year-old Dickerson what he would change about his life, his answer was one the kid who was ready to end his life would never believe.
"I know my life was hard, but I couldn't see myself being anywhere else than where I am today. If I changed anything then that might not be the case, so I don't think I would change anything no matter how hard it was."
This article was originally published on the Trailblazers website on Wed, Nov. 16, 2022.