It’s not uncommon for De’jon Vanhook to be singing and dancing to R&B or gospel music at 5 a.m. in the morning.
“It just puts me a good mood and sets the tone,” Vanhook said. “I have to attack the day early, and you gotta be in a good mood to do that.”
Vanhook lives in North Long Beach and takes an almost two-hour transit bus ride to Millikan High where he is a senior captain on the football team.
“Obviously my mom would take me to school, but that’s just her teaching me how to be a man and not to depend on anybody else,” Vanhook said. “I just put my earphones in and be jammin’. I know some people on the bus are looking at me weird, but I don’t care. I’m just jammin’.”
Vanhook is a natural athlete whose first love was basketball because of his stepdad’s guidance and coaching. However, late in his freshman year Vanhook’s stepdad disappeared from this life. No call. No texts. Nothing.
Obviously, that changed the way Vanhook felt about a lot of things, especially basketball. After a miserable freshman season, Vanhook’s friends convinced him to try out for the football team. Three years later, he’s the senior captain of the defensive backfield.
Millikan second-year coach Justin Utupo said he isn’t surprised that Vanhook has quickly found success on the gridiron.
“He’s an athlete who always comes ready to work on and off the field,” Utupo said. “He’s eager to learn and handles his responsibilities in a very mature way.”
We caught up with Vanhook this week to talk about his life…
The562: What kind of basketball player were you?
Vanhook: I tried to play like Russell Westbrook. I couldn’t shoot that well but I was really good at driving to the basket as a really aggressive player. And my defense was really good.
The562: How hard was it at home when your stepdad left?
Vanhook: That’s when I realized I’m the man of the house. I had to step up and help take care of the family. Obviously my mom (Lala Aldridge) just wants me to focus on school and football, but I help with my sister Samia a lot. I had to grow up a little early.
The562: Did it affect your schooling?
Vanhook: Yeah, I had a sophomore slump. If I would’ve had my dad around for guidance that would’ve helped, but at the same time I don’t regret what happened. At the end of the day, everything happens for a reason. God has a purpose for everyone, and that was God’s plan. I had to go though that slump so I could rebuild and come back stronger.
The562: So you went from a recently successful Millikan basketball program to a football program that was 1-9 your freshman year. Why?
Vanhook: To be honest, I didn’t really even know about our football team at the time. Coming into high school I was watching your YouTube videos of the Millikan basketball team because I came here to play basketball. I just came to football because I wanted to play. I didn’t care if we weren’t very good.
The562: What position did you go out for?
Vanhook: I wanted to play receiver. I thought it was cool to score touchdowns. But I didn’t get as many reps at receiver. So I played safety for awhile, and then one day (summer before sophomore year) we were doing one-on-one drills and I was locking some stuff up at corner. I was like, ‘oh, this is fun’ so I switched to corner, and from there I just rode the wave.
The562: Did your basketball background help you learn how to play defensive back?
Vanhook: Yes. Basketball is a lot of sliding drills to stay in front of the man. That helped me at corner with my techniques. Also, going up for rebounds helped me, and I was already conditioned when I came to football because we ran a lot in basketball.
The562: Did you just play junior varsity your sophomore year?
Vanhook: At first, but then I moved up to varsity for the Gahr game. I remember they were really big, very fast, and it was just a different environment. I had to get into the mindset of being the aggressor and going to tackle. It was something new, but I ended up liking it.
The562: So putting on the pads and hitting came naturally?
Vanhook: When I first put them on it was very uncomfortable, and I didn’t like it. But I guess as you keep playing and keep hitting you get used to them and don’t even feel like they’re on. It was something I had to learn. It was a lot different than on the basketball court. I had to get into the mindset where I have to be the dog out here. I had to get knocked down a couple of times, but I got the hang of it.
The562: Do you play angry?
Vanhook: No, I play with a chip on my shoulder. I wasn’t that good at first. I was small and no one knew me so I had to make a name for myself. I didn’t have the respect I do now, and I wanted that.
The562: What kind of player would you say you are?
Vanhook: I try to play smart. During the game I’m doing a lot of thinking. If I had a microphone on during that game I would have a lot of people laughing. I’ll just call out the receivers rout before they even run it.
The562: Coach Utupo took over the program for your junior season. What was it like to have a brand new coach again?
Vanhook: Everything changed as soon as he came into the weight room and gave us a speech about his dream for the program. He changed the energy in the weight room and brought in different coaches like my DBs coach Dustin Presley. If it wasn’t for Utupo, we wouldn’t be where we are right now.
The562: Most of the stars on your defense are undersized. Do you guys take pride in that?
Vanhook: We’re the underdogs, and we play bigger than our size. We’re not the biggest, fastest or strongest, but we play like we are. I give big props to our offense too. Everyday we’re pushing each other to get better. We talk trash and get into each others heads at practice, but at the end of the day we still know we’re brothers.
The562: You take AP classes at Millikan, so what is your favorite subject?
Vanhook: English and history. I just like to fill my mind and know everything that formed our world into what it is now.
The562: You are a 16-year old senior who has only been playing football for three years. Are you surprised at your success?
Vanhook: To be honest, I didn’t think I would be at where I am now. I didn’t think I would like the sport that much. I was just playing just to say that I could tell my kids that I played football.