Derek Blalock was 17 when he lost a good friend to an undetected heart problem. Now 21, he’s trying to do something to save others from the same tragedy.
Blalock, who lives in Sharon with his mother, said he will be leaving Saturday from Charleston on a 6,500-mile bike trip to the West Coast and back.
Blalock is raising donations to fund both his cross-country ride and the Thomas Smith Memorial Foundation, created in memory of his late friend, Tommy. The foundation raises money for free heart screenings for middle and high school students by providing hospitals with mobile cardiac equipment.
Blalock, who grew up in Michigan and graduated from Michigan State University, said his friend Tommy died in January 2011. Tommy arrived at his family’s home in Flushing, Mich., one evening and said he was feeling bad. Soon after, he collapsed in the shower and died of an enlarged heart, Blalock said.
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“He was a very close friend of mine, and it was kind of shocking,” Blalock said. “He was a very outgoing, fun person to be around. And ever since then, I knew that I wanted to do something more to help his family raise money for this.”
Blalock said the foundation was started by Tommy’s parents, Jon and Mary Smith, and has provided $3 million in free heart screenings. The screenings found eight people with undetected heart problems, he said.
“His problem could have been caught by an EKG or a heart screening that should have been done at a school physical, but most schools don’t do that,” Blalock said.
His mother, Julie Blalock, said she’s proud of her son. “I’m a little sad that we had to lose someone to be doing this for, because they are such good friends of our family,” she said.
Julie Blalock said Derek’s first plan was a 9,000-mile ride for 90 days. When she said that might be too ambitious, she and her son adjusted it to create a shorter route.
Blalock said he was inspired in part to do the bike ride by the movie “Forrest Gump,” in which a character played by Tom Hanks is inspired to run back and forth across the country.
He said there are organized bike rides for charity, but he wanted to do his own. “I thought that it would be cool to make my own route and do it for my own charity.”
The ride is scheduled through Aug. 1, with plans to cover an average of 100 miles each day and about 10 days set aside for breaks.
Blalock said he’s been training for the ride over the past year, but has never done such a long ride. His longest ride to date was a four-day, 290-mile trip from East Lansing, Mich. to Indianapolis, he said.
His goal is to raise $25,000 for the Smith foundation, he said. He plans to raise the money by seeking donations on a web site and with special events during ride stops to promote the cause.
The events include visits with local officials, media interviews and events with minor league baseball teams, because Blalock worked for a minor league team for about two years.
Blalock said he will be biking alone, but that his mother and friends and other family members will be following him for much of the way in cars, and he plans to stay with friends along the way.
Julie Blalock said for part of the trip she will be traveling ahead of her son and setting up the events for him. “I think the opportunity is so good to do so much,” she said. “The number of lives he could possibly save with this is unbelievable.”
Blalock said he’s a bit concerned about making it over the Rocky Mountains, but he is confident that he’s in good enough shape to complete the ride.
And he wants to remember Tommy.
“He did have a big heart,” Blalock said. “He was the kind of guy you wanted to be around, because he made everything seem better. I always felt like there was a little more I wanted to do.”
For more information on Derek Blalock’s cross-country bike ride,, a map of the bike route and and opportunity to donate, visit his web site, www.bikefortommysheart.com.