Derek Akal, 22, grew up in the famed coalfields of Harlan County, Kentucky. He’s a bit over six feet tall, he’s black, and he has an athlete’s build. Neat curls of black hair rise off the top of his head, and on his chin, he keeps a closely-trimmed mustache and goatee.
I first interviewed Derek in October 2016. At that time, he said he was trying to become a Kentucky state trooper, but also making plans to move to Texas to work on an oil rig.
By November, Derek still had one plan to find work near home, and another plan to move West, but both plans had changed. Now, he was following a lead on a lineman job that would have him climbing utility poles and making plans to move to California after his birthday, in March.
Plans Through the Whole Alphabet
For Derek, changing plans is part of the plan. When I asked Derek what would be the first thing he'd want people to hear from him in this story, this is what he told me:
“It’s okay if you want to stay. It’s also okay if you want to leave. But if you’re going to leave, then make sure you always have more than three plans. Plan A, plan B, plan C— you’ve got to have through the whole alphabet!”
Derek has had a lots of ideas about what he could do at home, and he’s told me he would stay home if his mom or grandma asked him to, but the plans Derek has gotten most excited about all involve him moving somewhere far away.
“That’s where I might have a future. I know I’m young, but I’m ready to get out there and do a lot.”
Plan A: Football Dreams
Derek was raised primarily by his granddad, his grandma and his mom.
“Because his father wasn't around. His grandfather was his father,” said his mother, Katina Akal.
When Derek was a junior in high school, his granddad passed away.
His grandma and his mom said they noticed that Derek became more withdrawn. He started to focus more intensely on a goal his granddad had pushed him toward— excelling at sports to hopefully earn a college scholarship.
You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive
His senior year, after a summer dedicated to working out, Derek became a football star. “I got defensive player of the year. I got four district championships, and I got three regional championships. You know, I dedicated all that [to] my granddad.”
Harlan County High School's football field is called Coal Miner's Memorial Stadium. It has huge metal bleachers on two sides, and a giant modern scoreboard behind the end zone. It’s in a beautiful spot, a patch of flat land that was blasted out of the wooded hillsides that surround it.
When Derek and I visited in November, the leaves were at their most colorful. A gym class was playing flag football, and the sound of gunshots told us someone was out hunting nearby.
Derek started to get nostalgic, remembering how he used to feel back when he played here as a Harlan County Black Bear. He told me about times his blood and tears fell onto the turf. He told me about walking onto the field before games, in front of a roaring crowd that would sing along to the country hit “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.”
In the deep dark hills of Eastern Kentucky
That’s the place where I trace my bloodline
And it’s there I read on a hillside gravestone
You’ll never leave Harlan alive
“I'm not a big fan of country music,"Derek said, "but you know it got me pumped up like crazy. I love it.”
The last game of the season, Derek got hurt. Some of his teammates had the opponent's running back held up, so Derek charged in to help make the tackle.
“As soon as I hit him, my head cocked all the way back, and I felt the back of my head touch my back. I broke my neck— I broke my C1 and my C2... If I hadn’t gotten hurt I'd be playing for a bowl game right now with a D1 college."
Going Away to College
Derek was in a neck brace for four months, but he was still getting college scholarships to play more football. He accepted a scholarship to attend the University of the Cumberlands, in Williamsburg Kentucky. It’s only two hours from Derek’s home in Harlan County, but the college draws students from all across the country.
There, Derek sometimes felt like an outsider. In Williamsburg, he stood out for the way he talked— for his Harlan county accent.
Many of his classmates were surprised that someone who looks like him, a clean-cut and fashionably dressed black man, could be from rural Kentucky.
“They’d be like, ‘oh where [are] you from?
And I’d say, 'Two hours away in the mountains.'
And first thing, they be like, ‘You serious? You don’t even look like you're from Kentucky! You look like you're from Georgia or Florida or New York City, city places like that.’
I'm sitting here like, ‘No man, I'm from Harlan County Kentucky!’”
That wasn’t the only discomfort Derek felt with being a young black man in Williamsburg. Derek said his feelings about the town soured after he and a friend had their car searched by police twice in one week.
“We gave [the police] the license and everything, and he was like, ‘oh, I thought you guys had stuff on y’all.’ I can’t read minds, but seeing a couple of black guys together, I feel like we got profiled right there.”
Things on the football field weren’t going great either. Two games into the season, Derek's neck started bother him again. He became afraid that playing more football could make his spinal injury become more severe. "I didn't want to play no more," Derek said, "because, you know, I want to be able to walk.”
Derek was homesick, and he didn't want to get deeper in student debt, so he decided to drop out and move back home.
Derek’s mom says that when he got home, he was afraid that she and his grandma would be disappointed in him, but she understood where he was coming from. " "I said,‘look, college is not for everybody. Do what you feel like you want to do.’”
“Go do something,” his grandma urged him. She said, she worries there aren’t jobs in Lynch; she would like him to get out if it means he can find work. “Go get yourself a job. I don't want him to stick around here, walking these streets.”
Derek’s mother agrees. “I’d rather for him to go find work and be a productive member of society. I'd rather him do that than stay here and be miserable, because I can see it already. I want him to go somewhere that he can be happy.”
Derek's mommas, as he calls them, instilled in him a drive to get out of Appalachia and find opportunity elsewhere. “I got it in my head that I can make it out, and be something for myself, by myself.”
Derek’s not the first person in his family to have that thought. In the next chapter of Derek Akal’s Struggle to Stay, we’re going to hear more about how the hunt for better work and a better life has affected Derek’s family and community for generations.
This story was produced by WMMT in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and the Ohio Valley ReSource, which is made possible with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Music in the audio version of this story was provided by Marisa Anderson. We’ll hear the next part of Derek Akal’s Struggle to Stay story next week, here on Inside Appalachia.