Former football player found niche in teaching;
The pro wide receiver made learning fun for at-risk kids.;
''Faz'' Faison

By ROBIN HINCH, The Orange County Register

Thursday, July 1, 2004 - Derrick Faison's students knew he had died. Word traveled fast after the popular 36-year-old teacher of at-risk high school kids collapsed Sunday on an Irvine basketball court. Still, a day later, they were all sitting in his classroom. They knew he wouldn't be there, but they needed to be together to assess their loss.

Faz (pronounced "faze"), as he was known to friends, had that effect on all the kids he worked with. They loved him, they worked hard for him and as a result, they came to believe in themselves and in each other.

Faz was a teacher who showed kids they mattered -- and that they could succeed. He was playing basketball with friends when he died unexpectedly of unknown causes. He had no known health problems, according to family and friends.

His death came as a surprise because Faz was, in fact, a professional athlete, having played wide receiver for the Los Angeles Rams, San Diego Chargers and San Francisco 49ers.

The Lake City, S.C. native played basketball, baseball and football for Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he graduated with a degree in business management.

He then headed out to California to try out for the Rams, where he was given a two-year contract as a free agent. He played for the team in 1990 and 1991, then switched to play for the Chargers. After being dropped from the Chargers, he played for the 49ers. He married his wife, Regina, a financial adviser, in 1994.

She says that until she laid eyes on Faz, she didn't think too highly of athletes, but Faz differed from her stereotyped ideas. He was smart, gentle and down to earth.

Playing pro ball was a dream come true for Faz, but like so many things in life, it was bittersweet. It was hard work, often painful, and more than disappointing when told, ``Sorry, we're not renewing your contract.''

But Faz didn't let it get him down. He said the hardships made him a better, stronger person. When the 49ers dropped him, he got a job at Tustin High School as a campus guard and walk-on coach for the girls basketball team. Soon, he was given an emergency teaching credential to teach a summer-school health class.

He did so well that he was asked to work in the Orange County Department of Education's ACCESS (Alternative Community Correctional Education Schools and Services) program, which offers classes to students who have been incarcerated or are at risk of failing or dropping out of school.

At the same time, he began classes at National University, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in education, plus a multiple-subject teaching credential. Faz had found his niche. No more tumbling in heaps on football fields, eating dirt and nursing aching muscles.

In the classroom, he was making a difference.

His positive, outgoing nature and gigantic, reassuring smile put kids at ease and created an instant bond with them. He made lesson plans fun and had students who had never wanted anything to do with school getting excited about learning for the first time. It was like watching magic in the classroom.

And he had more time to spend with his own boys, Justin, 7, and Jordan, 9. He coached their teams and was delighted to see their interest in sports. He, Regina and their boys were a team of their own, spending all of their off-hours together -- at a park, at Dave and Buster's, a weekend in Vegas or just hanging around their Lake Forest home.

Faz played in two local basketball leagues and had taken up golf, a sport that initially perplexed the sports pro.  But first, he showed up in tennis shoes and had no idea what to do with the club and ended up chasing the ball around the green.

But he was a pro, and he worked hard at learning the game. Within months, he was a formidable opponent -- and quite the fashion plate on the course. But the things he bragged about most were his wife, his boys and his students. He also had one of the best class-attendance records in the ACCESS program.

No one wanted to miss Faz's class. ''He gave us second chances,'' the students said. ''No,'' they added, ''he
gave us as many chances as we needed until we finally succeeded.''  ''You can't replace someone like him,'' said Principal Janice Histon.


Derrick "Faz'' Faison
Born: Aug. 24, 1967, Lake City, S.C.
Died: June 27, 2004, Lake Forest


Copyright 2004 Orange County Register



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