WALLA WALLA — Dean Derby and Drew Bledsoe have a lot in common.
They both played athletics and graduated from Wa-Hi.
The two played collegiately at the top level, followed by successful professional careers.
Each now has a Walla Walla Valley winery.
And, come Friday night, Derby and Bledsoe will be honored by Wa-Hi’s Big Blue Boosters with their Professional Athlete Alumni Award.
Of course, the duo has many things not in common, such as Derby graduating from Wa-Hi some 35 years before Bledsoe.
Or Derby bucking Walla Walla tradition by accepting a scholarship to the University of Washington, while Bledsoe picked the more customary Washington State University.
The pro football deals each signed after being drafted differed by at least three digits.
And their routes to the wine industry also vary greatly. Bledsoe’s Doubleback Winery is a relatively recent venture. Derby’s Spring Valley Vineyard Winery’s origins can be traced back to his wife Shari’s family wheat farm between Walla Walla and Waitsburg, which Shari’s grandfather, Uriah, founded after arriving via covered wagon in 1865.
That farm is where Shari Corkrum was living when she met Derby while in the sixth grade at Sharpstein Elementary. Derby had moved to Walla Walla from Seattle in 1945 ("The first newspaper we saw after moving here was the bombing of Hiroshima," he recalled), and Shari soon had a scrapbook of Dean’s athletic exploits started.
There were many of such exploits.
At Wa-Hi, Derby had a record 99.5-yard touchdown run from scrimmage at Wenatchee on Sept. 19, 1952. No Blue Devil fans saw the play, though, because a polio outbreak didn’t allow anyone but the team to make the trip, Shari remembered.
Derby, a halfback on offense and cornerback on defense through high school and college, was a member of Wa-Hi football teams that didn’t lose a game in three seasons. The Blue Devils were mythical football state champions in 1951 and 1952.
He was a member of the 1952 Wa-Hi basketball team that won the state title.
Derby also teamed with Dave Klicker to lead the Blue Devil track team to the state track championship in the spring of 1953. Derby won the 220-yard dash and was second in the 100-yard, while Klicker won the high hurdles and was runner-up in the low hurdles. The duo was also part of the 440 relay team that placed third.
The scrapbook details Derby’s time at Washington, where he still holds the record for the longest touchdown from scrimmage at Husky Stadium, at 92 yards against Illinois in October, 1956.
But that came after Dean and Shari married following their freshman year at Washington, in the spring of 1954.
"I was not a superstar," Dean said of his Husky career. "I played offense and defense and I was fast."
But it was enough to get him into the East-West Shrine Game at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, playing both ways and kicking the winning field goal for the West in 1957.
That helped him win the University of Washington’s Athlete of the Year honor his senior year, as well as attract the eye of pro football scouts.
"No pro scouts had talked to me before that game," Derby said. "Afterward, six scouts approached me in the locker room."
He was selected with the first pick of the fifth round — the first round of the draft following the bowl games, Derby said — by the Los Angeles Rams. He signed an $8,000 contract, with a $500 bonus. Derby said he’s heard a similar deal in today’s NFL would be around $1 million on both accounts.
"There was a lot of prestige, but not much money, in pro football," Derby said of those days.
But Derby was called back to Walla Walla shortly after being drafted, after Shari’s father, Frederick Corkrum, died. The Rams weren’t too happy when, after returning to Walla Walla and working the family’s summer wheat harvest, Derby showed up for training camp six weeks late and 40 pounds lighter than his draft-day 205 pounds.
They traded him to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Derby left Shari and their two children, and flew to Pittsburgh.
"I showed up 20 minutes before a game at Forbes Field, and coach Buddy Parker said ‘You’re returning punts and kickoffs,’" Derby said.
He was soon starting at cornerback for the Steelers, where he earned All-Pro after leading the league in interceptions in 1959.
Derby’s career took a turn in 1961, when the Minnesota Vikings franchise was formed. Derby, who worked an office job in the offseason, was offered a position in Minnesota, and asked the Steelers for a trade to the Vikings.
"It was probably unbelievably stupid to ask for a trade," Derby said, citing his good relationship with Steelers coach Parker.
Midway through the 1962 season, Derby went down with a knee injury and his pro career was over.
Dean and Shari then teamed up for a successful pension-fund consultation business in Minnesota, where they lived for 38 years.
"It really is a partnership," Dean said of his working with Shari.
All the while, the Corkrum’s Walla Walla farm was maintained from afar. In 1993, low wheat prices led to the Derby’s planting 117 of their 1,000 acres in grapes.
Their son, Devin, was brought in to make the wine, and Spring Valley’s first vintage was produced in 1999.
"We didn’t intend to make wine," Shari said. "It just kind of evolved."
Dean and Shari moved back to the farm in 2001, building a new home on the hill above the farmhouse Shari grew up in. Spring Valley’s wines, as well as vintner Devin, garnered high scores within the industry.
The family history lives on, with photos of Uriah and Katherine Corkrum (Shari’s grandparents), and Frederick and Nina Lee Corkrum (her parents), as well as a photo of Frederick driving mules and one of Dean, Devin and Devin’s son, Simon, on colorful labels.
Devin was killed in a car accident in 2004, and the Derby’s now lease out the winery.
But they still run the wheat-side of the farm, and the winery still produces the same wines.
"And I still do all the irrigation of the grapes," Dean said, "and Shari does the business-side.
"It’s a family business, and we’re glad of it."
Friday night, at halftime of the Wa-Hi boys basketball game against Eisenhower, Dean Derby will join Bledsoe in receiving the Big Blue Booster award. The Professional Athlete Alumni Award, which was presented to Wa-Hi grad Eric O’Flaherty last weekend, includes a framed replica jersey for each inductee. A display case for memorabilia from each inductee is also being constructed.
"I think it’s exciting," Shari said of the honor. "One of our soap boxes is, why don’t we pay attention to tradition? People love tradition, and tradition is good for kids."
Dean and Shari were on hand for one Wa-Hi game when Bledsoe was quarterback, and followed his WSU and NFL career from afar.
Last year, Dean Derby was pointed out to Bledsoe on a Walla Walla street, and Bledsoe introduced himself.
"That was classy, the young guy introducing himself to the old guy," Derby said.
As for the award, "I’m so tickled they’re doing this, that they’re willing to honor people," he said. "You don’t do things like this (Derby’s football career) to get awards. But for them to say, ‘They should get something’ — that’s an award."