Thomas Smith passed away suddenly of an enlarged heart in January 2011. He was a 17-year-old senior in high school from Flushing, Mich. A son, a brother, a friend, a teammate and more, lost. A community, shaken. A family, mourning. But in the midst of grief comes a spark of life. Four years later, one MSU student is paying tribute to his high school friend by biking 6,500 miles across 23 states over the course of 75 days.
Derek Blalock, a senior advertising major, remembers the moment he learned of his friend’s passing. Browsing Facebook, words he didn’t expect to see appeared on his newsfeed, words he didn’t want to believe were true. In fact, he didn’t believe they actually were true to begin with. Then reality hit him; the news of one of his best friends having passed away glared at him on the screen with a piercing, stabbing truth.
Looking back, some of Blalock’s fondest memories with Thomas included hunting for the first time with Thomas and his brother, Jacob, or taking German class in the eighth grade together because he was generally just that fun and laughable to be around.
About a year after Thomas passed, Blalock came up with an idea to honor his friend. This idea would linger in Blalock’s mind for three years and his journey will finally begin this May.
“I felt like my life was going way too fast. In college, it goes so fast, so I wanted to do something before I graduated,” Blalock said.
From Thomas’s unexpected death, sorrow overtook his family, the community and Blalock. But in the midst of sudden trials come inspirations, which can be transformed and made anew. The 1994 film Forrest Gump plays a role in this story as one of them. Inspired by Gump’s own impromptu run across the United States, Blalock grasped the idea and made it his own, mapping out and planning a biking path that would begin in Charleston, S.C., continue to the West Coast and end in Greenville, S.C.
“I wanted to push my limits more,” Blalock said of researching and planning his own route.
Blalock has sought help from the MSU Alumni Association, his networks between the five different states he’s lived in and from his mom, who Blalock credits as the reason he wants to help others and move forward with his journey. A small percentage of proceeds raised before the trip will help fund Blalock along the way. With that, Blalock set a main goal of $25,000 to go toward the Thomas Smith Memorial Foundation, which Thomas’s family initiated after his passing. The foundation funds heart screenings during mandatory health physicals for high school athletes and helps to raise awareness of sudden cardiac arrest in young people. According to Thomas’s mother, Mary Smith, this foundation has been able to administer EKG screenings to 1,500 students so far, finding 18 critical heart ailments. Blalock hopes to receive funds through awareness of the trip. He is also receiving help from his mom, former high school teachers (one who donated his bike) and even a sponsorship from Subway, which already donated gift cards to help fund food for the trek.
“No one ever takes the opportunity to test their limits,” Blalock said. “That’s the reason I was doing this after my senior year, because everyone I know is so stressed about getting a job.”
Blalock remains unnerved by the prospect of the unknown during his journey, viewing it as a prime opportunity both physically and mentally. Inexperienced with biking long distances, Blalock created his own training method, biking about two hours per day indoors as a starting point to gain a taste of the upcoming journey. He plans to bike 100 miles per day during his trek, starting off at 50 miles for the first couple of days until he eases into it.
“The last couple of years I’ve been trying to expand, just do different things to make myself a more diverse individual,” Blalock said of choosing biking. Although long distance biking is something he lacks experience in, Blalock sees it as an opportunity to push himself.
One could compare Blalock’s biking mentality to his view on his own life, diverting off the path of how we’re taught to get an education and get a job, and creating a path of his own.
“Everyone believes that if they don’t have a job right out of college, they’re kind of a failure, which I understand because you’re paying so much for college. You want that instant gratification,” Blalock said. “But at the same time, I don’t believe you should just let your life get into a whirlwind and let it snowball. I think you should take some time to worry about another person’s cause, rather than just yourself.”
Blalock’s words speak as loud as his actions, unequivocally positioned as a biker on a solo mission that he hopes will help make an impact within the larger picture. And he’s motivated by the good-heartedness of his friend.
“It was weird because (Thomas) died of an enlarged heart, but that’s kind of how he lived. He had a huge heart,” Blalock said. “He honestly cared about everyone he knew, and he had big things in front of him.”
Blalock saw this type of genuine candor in his good friend, and he’s looking forward to discovering new people with these qualities on his trek.
“Everyone has a story, and that’s what interests me during the ride as well,” Blalock said. “I’ve been impacted by the kindness of strangers and for the most part, when they see you doing something for people other than yourself, they’re all about it.”
While Blalock’s biking path is a solo project, the entire journey is a shared one, with the underlying factor of what and who he’s biking for.
“I think this is very important because of the number of people these kids could impact in their lifetime,” Blalock said. “Tommy could have impacted hundreds of people. These kids have bright careers and bright futures ahead of them.”
Fueled by the compassionate spirit of his lost friend, the support of his family and his own undeniable ambition, Blalock will be more than ready to take on a journey three years in the making.
“I think of it in this way; I’m not just helping a couple thousand kids keep their lives,” Blalock said. “I’m helping thousands of thousands of people being impacted by those kids as well.”
For more information on the trip, organization or donations, visit bikefortommysheart.com.
Lauren Godlesky is a senior majoring in journalism and specializing in public relations. She spends the majority of her time at The Loft, working firsthand with artists, booking shows and marketing for the concert venue. When she isn’t attending shows or finding new music, she enjoys reading, writing and finding places to hike with her dog.