Colleen Derk’s face is a familiar one to many San Antonians: She hosted a local TV home and lifestyle program and a movies and entertainment segment for a local TV network affiliate, among other projects that kept her in the public eye.
While she was recognizable, her husband, Tim, was not — an ironic twist for the couple, considering that his secret alter ego was that of one of San Antonio’s most beloved personalities.
But when Tim suffered a stroke in 2004 at the age of 47, and his identity as the Spurs Coyote was revealed to the public, life — and how to live it — took on a new dimension for Derk.
Today, she’s a fourth-grade teacher and, with her husband, is a crusader for stroke awareness. Acutely aware of how life can change in an instant, she talks candidly about coming full circle; accepting and embracing the unexpected, and how we all, no matter who we are, must spend time in the rooms that fate has prepared for each of us.
“I was a teacher when Tim and I got married,” explains Derk. She left teaching full time but never completely left education. “The Spurs knew that I’d been a teacher, and I worked with them on developing initiatives to reach kids in the community. We developed Coyote Kids and took it into the schools back in the ’90s.”
Her work with the Spurs turned her into a spokesperson, which snowballed into a career in front of the camera and the public eye. She spent several years on the CPS Home and Lifestyle Show and hosted a movies and entertainment segment for the local Fox/WB affiliate. She was invited to emcee or preside over myriad public and social events.
On a parallel timetable, Tim, as the Spurs Coyote, was a celebrity in every sense of the word. When he wasn’t doing back flips on the basketball court and inciting fever pitch in fans at the games, he was making nonstop appearances at everything from grand openings to bar mitzvahs. His boundless energy and charisma were beloved by all. He set a standard for mascots in professional sports that few teams have been able to meet. His human identity was a closely guarded secret, as if to know would somehow diminish the Coyote’s appeal.
Throughout the years, nobody guessed that Derk was sharing the spotlight with her husband. “The coyote was our big, fun family secret,” she explains. It was a secret that their daughter, Mairin, 8, couldn’t keep, but their son, Griffin, 11, relished the excitement of keeping it under wraps.
“Tim was just a working guy,” says Derk. “Mind you, he was a working guy in this exaggerated, outlandish creation!” Tim’s job kept odd hours by a 9- to-5 standard, making it tough to explain exactly what it was he did for a living. “As the kids got older, it was hard to keep the secret from everyone. We had to start telling a few people,” she says.
When Griffin was a toddler, his Mother’s Day Out teacher was concerned about his strange habit of running himself into the doorframe. “He was copying his dad’s pratfalls,” laughs Derk. “I tried to explain it by saying that this was just the way he and his dad play together, but that still didn’t make sense to the teacher.”
As both children entered school, it became necessary to reveal Tim’s secret identity to teachers and a close circle of friends. “They didn’t tell anyone, because it’s like telling people that there’s no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny — knowing would spoil it in a way,” Derk says.
As fun as the secret was, the reality of both Colleen’s and Tim’s jobs made them performers. They both had to wear their game faces on demand, no matter how they felt. “We had to turn ourselves on for work,” she explains. “It’s stressful to switch from being ‘on’ to being ‘real,’ and when you get home, you just want to be real. It can be hard on a marriage — it’s easy to wonder why your partner is on for everyone else, but not for you.”
Both Colleen and Tim agreed that the best way to help their kids understand the unique challenges of their careers was to involve them directly in their work. “They needed to know that our work and being ‘on’ weren’t separate,” she says. The kids were on set with her when she taped her shows, and when the coyote costume came out, Tim was the Coyote, not dad. “I’m not sure that we could have understood each other in that way, if we hadn’t both been performers — to know that it’s not two distinct characters, it’s the same person,” she says.
And so, life went on in this roller coaster fashion for the Derks until February, 2004, when Tim, at age 47, was hospitalized after experiencing dizziness, slurred speech and paralysis. “He’d had symptoms for months, but he kept them to himself,” Derk explains. “When you have a physically demanding job, you have aches and pains. He’s had cracked ribs and bruised kidneys. He even broke his arm once and didn’t know it.” As a wife, Derk says she’d learned not to overreact. Tim didn’t tell anyone about these new aches and pains, but it wasn’t long before she and the kids started to notice that something wasn’t right.
As his family watched his health deteriorate, Tim kept pretending that everything was just fine. The last straw was when Tim fell to the floor one evening at home, his legs paralyzed. The family dog, accustomed to playing on the floor with Tim, approached for the usual roughand- tumble session. While a distraught Colleen was deciding whether to call an ambulance or ask neighbors to help get him to the car for the drive to the hospital, Tim was trying to play with the dog as if nothing was wrong.
As they arrived at the hospital, and the picture of what was happening became clearer, rumors started flying around San Antonio, some even speculating that “the Spurs Coyote” had died. “Our life until now was public, but we still had some privacy, since people didn’t know who Tim was,” Derk says. At the hospital, she and the kids were unprepared for the onslaught of curious onlookers and the rush of reporters and people with cell phones and cameras. “Here was my husband, who had suffered a stroke and might be paralyzed for life, if he survived. It was all too much for us,” she remembers.
LEAP OF FAITH
At the same time this was happening, Derk had just received word that the CPS Home and Lifestyle Show was ending its run. As everything was in a downward spiral, Derk knew immediately what she needed to do for her family. “I wasn’t thinking about the public’s reaction when I decided to come forward and reveal the Coyote’s true identity,” she explains. “I just knew I didn’t want the pressure of keeping the secret any longer — Tim needed to be free so he could focus on healing.” Derk knew instinctively that they would have support, but she never dreamt just how much would come their way.
Of course, once the public knew the truth, love and support came to them in tidal-wave proportions. “Never in a million years did I imagine the extent of the support we received. All I knew was that telling our secret would make things better,” she recalls.
Looking back, Derk says she’s not certain what would have happened if they had hung onto their secret, allowing Tim’s stand-ins to ease into the Coyote’s costume on a permanent basis. “I’m not sure we could have survived,” she says. “Without the support of everyone — the Spurs, our neighbors, the city, all the kids who love the Coyote — we’d not be in as good a place as we are today.”
That support buoyed Derk on the most harrowing days. Instead of breaking down, she would sit at the computer and read the volumes of e-mail and getwell wishes. “It always made me feel so much better; it was uplifting; people were so supportive and positive. It made all the difference,” she says.
Derk also lifted the pressure by choosing to be as forthright with their kids as she possibly could. “I didn’t keep anything from the kids,” she says. “They needed to know what was happening with their dad and that no matter what, it would be OK.” Derk struggled to believe that it would be OK, no matter what the outcome. She goes on to say, “For a while, all we had was hope; we had prayers. We had to find the belief that it would be OK because the kids needed that.”
As Tim began his recovery, the kids were right there, and as a family, they began to create a new normal for themselves. “Mairin would climb on Tim’s rehab equipment,” Derk laughs. “The joy is that children live in the moment. That’s been a saving grace. They’re so resilient and quickly accept a new normal.”
As Tim’s recovery continued, Derk says she began to realize that the gravity of their experience, coupled with their influence in the community, could help others. “What happened to Tim is not unique to us. We all need to know what to look for, what to do,” she says.
The Derks now devote considerable time to raising people’s awareness of stroke and its symptoms. “The more you talk, the fewer secrets there are. What happened to Tim is not uncommon, at any age,” she says. “People need to know that you can have a stroke in your 30s or 40s. We all need to pay attention to warning signs — don’t be so driven that you don’t stop to see a doctor.”
Derk says that one of the hardest things for Tim was that, like a professional athlete suffering a career-ending injury, he was forced to give up the Coyote before he was ready to. “Change happens for all of us,” says Derk. “You have to move through that door, go into the next room. If you keep looking back through the door you just came through, you’ll never be happy where you are today. It doesn’t matter if you’re the Coyote, an accountant or a plumber. We all get older and weaker; we all have to adjust.”
Derk also decided that she needed a change. She desperately missed being in the classroom and decided that, with Tim’s recovery progressing so well, it was time for her to start looking for a teaching job after 15 years out of the classroom. She signed on at the kids’ school as a substitute, but told herself that a full-time job there wasn’t likely — teacher turnover was low, and the few positions that came available were typically offered to teachers already in the district. But serendipity smiled on Derk, and she was offered a fulltime teaching job. This fall, fourth-graders at Woodridge Elementary are greeted by Derk’s smiling face.
Derk is invigorated by the challenges of the classroom. “It’s where my heart was all along,” she says. “I didn’t realize until I was back, just how much I’d missed it.”
Derk says she appreciates the immediacy of the results in the classroom. “When you’re on TV, you’re disconnected from the audience,” she says. “In the classroom, it’s me and the students, and I know right away whether I’m getting through to them. I feel a greater sense of completeness.”