Kent Dean grew up just a few blocks from the high school football stadium in Derby and started having big dreams about playing there one day.
“My father (Frank) died seven years ago,” Dean, now 49, said. “But my mother (Betty) is still alive and in the same house two blocks from the field.”
And she, like Kent himself, is torn. Their beloved Derby Panthers are playing in the Class 6A championship Saturday in Topeka against Shawnee Mission East. And as circumstances would have it, Dean’s son and Betty’s grandson, Alec, is a receiver for the Lancers, who are playing in their first state title game.
“I almost feel like I have to wear a Derby green undershirt and a light blue pullover,” Dean said. “You feel a little twisted. I talked to my mom on the phone and everybody knows how much Grandma bleeds green. She’s coming up for the game and I could hear the tension in her voice as she talks about it.”
It was 31 years ago that Dean was named to The Eagle’s Top 11 team after a standout senior season that ended, like his junior season, with a loss to Wichita East in the state semifinals. Dean was a game-breaking receiver for the Panthers whose size and speed made him difficult to contain.
He was so good that Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer visited Derby numerous times to try and get Dean to sign on the dotted line. Oklahoma State wanted him, too.
And so did Kansas State. Remember, this was in the pre-Bill Snyder days. Which is to say the Wildcats were not what they have become. Not even close.
K-State did, however, play in the Independence Bowl in 1982 under Jim Dickey. Things were pointing up, or at least that was the perception.
But it was an illusion. In Dean’s four seasons at K-State, the Wildcats were 9-34-3. He caught 12 passes during his first three seasons before finally breaking through with a decent senior season in 1987, when he led K-State with 38 catches and 481 receiving yards.
It all led to a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys in 1988, but Dean didn’t make the team. It was a bruise to his ego, but nothing like the bumps and bruises that have left him in a bad way.
Dean has neck and back issues that caused him to have to leave his job and go on disability. It hurts when he … well, it just hurts. Almost always.
He worked in sales in the Kansas City area for years and eventually owned a couple of companies. But he had to give it all up because getting out of bed became his biggest challenge of the day.
And he blames football, at least partially, for his ills. So much so that he and his wife, Cherie, won’t allow their 6-year-old son, Daniel, to play. And he’s encouraged Alec not to pursue college football.
“My injuries have made a major differences in what we feed to our kids,” Dean said. “Alec is getting to the point where he can make his own decisions and it’s his life. But when they’re six, you make the decision for them.”
Alec, a junior, has caught five touchdowns for Shawnee Mission East this season. His father makes it to every game, despite the discomfort.
“I look like I’m normal,” Dean said. “But on the inside, it’s far from normal. I try to stay medication-free as much as I can, but I live with constant discomfort and a lot of pain.”
Dean started experiencing the pain many years ago. His father also had cervical problems and both of Dean’s sons, even Daniel, have experienced neck and back pain.
Kent Dean’s problems haven’t been limited to his pain. He also had an issue with alcohol that led to a failed marriage. But now, he says, he’s a changed man. He even goes by a different name — K. Andrew Dean — as a way to signal a new beginning.
“Alcohol became my downfall,” Dean said. “It started when I was in high school, really. You always hear the joke among several of my good friends who are Christians and they say, ‘Wow, did you find Jesus?’ Well, I wasn’t really looking but Jesus found me. My life became different and who I am today isn’t who I was back then.”
He’s Andrew to his wife and friends in the Kansas City area. But to those who know Dean from his days in Derby and at Kansas State, he’s still Kent, the fun-loving guy who probably should have gone to Oklahoma.
“I’ve dealt with that question for years,” Dean said. “Why did I go to Kansas State? But that’s a decision I made at the time and you can’t look back. You can only look forward. For me, that’s my story.”
Looking forward — at least when it comes to Saturday’s 6A championship game — isn’t always easy, either. Dean still has high regard for his time in Derby, where he’s still a well-known name to long-time Panthers football fans.
Many of his old friends will be at the game, cheering for Derby. He’s been jostling with them on Facebook for the past week.
“Derby has so much tradition in football and Shawnee Mission East literally has none,” Dean said. “They’ve been a doormat for decades. I’ve said all along this season how funny it would be if this matchup came along.”
Dean remembers the words of his father as he was considering whether to attend Kansas State or Oklahoma. His dad told him, “You’ve got to remember tradition and you can’t beat tradition. It always wins out.”
His dad was definitely right about Oklahoma vs. Kansas State in those days. But today, even though his Derby roots are deep, Dean will be rooting for the former doormat. He wants his kid to win the state championship that eluded him.