While going through Lee University to become a teacher, Derrick Vestal's initial path was like that of most men looking to enter the profession.
But, the former McMinn County High School starting quarterback soon realized something.
"Whenever I was in college, at first, I was thinking, 'I want to be an English teacher,'" Vestal said. "And then it hit me: 'There's so many high school male teachers,' and then, 'Where can I make the biggest impact?' It was clear to go to elementary school."
And that was the start of Vestal, now 31, making his way to become the only male public school pre-kindergarten teacher in the state of Tennessee.
This past school year was Vestal's first full year as a Pre-K teacher at City Park School, where he had finished his first student teaching assignment while still a student at Lee. He had also taught third graders as a student teacher at North City School.
"I fell in love with that age group," said Vestal, who served the year before as Niota Elementary School's reading specialist. "And (City Park Principal) Mrs. (Kristine) Walden offered me a job in Pre-K and I jumped all over it, and I loved it. It's the best experience I could ever ask for."
Naturally, Vestal had to brush aside a few naysayers when he decided to teach at the elementary school level. He also considered it a responsibility to become a positive male figure for young children.
"It's a female-dominated field, and it's a more nurturing environment," Vestal said. "But, you can bring a different dynamic, and a lot of times there are no male figures that are positive influences in these young people's lives. And it's kind of odd seeing a bald-headed man with a beard walk into a classroom with 5- and 6-year-olds. And it was a little odd at first, but now the parents, they know why I'm there. I'm not there for any hidden agenda or anything like that."
Those naysayers also tried to tell Vestal that teaching elementary school would never mesh with his other primary responsibility as a football coach at his alma mater, McMinn County High School. Vestal served as the offensive coordinator last season, in which the Cherokees finished with a 7-4 record and a playoff berth, and was a coach of various positions since coming on staff there in 2009.
And while high schoolers may require a bit more "tough love" at times, Vestal aims to be the same person on the field that he is in the classroom with Pre-K students.
"I try to have a balance because I don't want to be one person here and one person there," Vestal said. "I try to be the same person. And I don't have the soft-natured tone in my voice. So the little kids, they get that gravelly voice. But the high school kids, they get a little bit louder than the little kids do. But still, you've got to let them all know that you love them, whether they're 5 or if they're 25."
It's worked out for Vestal so far both as a coach and as a teacher. He was asked to speak at the student teacher banquet recently at Lee, where he graduated in 2012. Vestal's Pre-K class this past year finished with a large percentage of children reading above a kindergarten level.
And as for football, he has received "Offensive Assistant of the Year" accolades.
But Vestal's life of service extends beyond even the classroom and the football field. He is an active member of Clearwater Baptist Church, where he serves as a College/Career Sunday school teacher, Upward Basketball coach and referee, Vacation Bible School leader, and is a member of the missions team. Vestal has also participated in the American Cancer Society's McMinn County Relay For Life.
"Wherever I'm called to be, that's where I want to be," Vestal said.
And the last few months, Vestal also developed the community-wide "Adopt a Cherokee" program that helped completely fund the football team's participation in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) camp in Cookeville last week.
It was an idea he started developing after a football clinic in at Dublin, Georgia, in January.
"We wanted to go to the FCA camp, but we had no idea how we were going to pay for it," Vestal said. "But we knew our team needed to go. And I thought about it and got prayerful about it. And our community is awesome, and whenever our community jumps onboard with something - we had every single player sponsored. And then the Ocoee FCA helped us out, too, and it was amazing. It was an outpouring of help, and we didn't have to dip into our surplus funds. We were able to do that, and the Lord just blessed us the whole time."
Vestal had exchanged ideas with McMinn Head Coach Bo Cagle, then wrote up drafts of letters with his mother-in-law to local churches encouraging help sponsoring the football players.
"We came up with one draft and then sent it to Coach (Cagle), and he was like, 'Let's do it, let's jump all over it,'" Vestal said. "And each coach took it to their local church and it just rained down on us from there."
Vestal said it was a longer road than usual to get to where he is now. After graduating from McMinn in 2004, he headed to Maryville College to play football, but suffered an injury that ended his playing career. He transferred to Cleveland State for a year, then went to Lee and graduated in 2012.
In the meantime, Vestal became an assistant on McMinn's football staff in 2009, also while working at Citizens National Bank (now Simmons Bank) and Capital Bank in Athens.
But Vestal wanted to become a teacher, unsatisfied with working in the banking business, and returned to Lee soon after.
"I was not happy doing what I did, so my wife said, 'Let's do it now,'" Vestal said. "'If you don't do it now, you're never going to do it.' So I went back and got my teaching license, and then went from there."
And so far, it's going well.