MANATEE -- Rubonia's Derrick Randall, friends say, deserves to be recognized Sunday as one of the great fathers.
But it took a while to get there, they acknowledge.
"He's definitely a role model," said longtime family friend Jeanette Rice. "He's overcome so much."
From a teen "running the streets of Rubonia," as Rice puts it, through bouts of depression and alcohol abuse after he left the U.S. Army, Randall, 36, has turned his life into something admired by many.
The father of Tajei, 17; Robert, 16; Darien, 11; and Kennedi, 8; Randall started his education while his children were still young.
In 2011, he earned an associate's degree in liberal arts from Hillsborough Community College. He then attended Saint Leo University in Pasco County, where he graduated magnum cum laude with a bachelor's degree in social work in 2013.
Randall stayed at Saint Leo and earned a master's degree in clinical social work in May 2014. In September 2014, Randall began class on line at Capella University to earn a doctorate in human behavior.
He is a registered clinical social worker intern at Manatee Children's Services, working in a group home.
Randall is also author of the book, "A Soldier's Thoughts" and co-author with his son, Robert, on "Reflections of the Father."
"I met him right here," Randall's wife, Kiara Randall, said Friday as she sat on the front steps of the closed Rubonia Community Center, where he worked as a teenager. Next to the Rubonia Community Center is a field where Randall staged an event for Rubonia children Saturday.
"I admire his drive," Kiara Randall said of her husband. "I admire his consistency, his humbleness. He does stuff and doesn't care who knows. If it involves kids, it has to be right with him. That's what makes him an awesome dad. He always makes sure his kids or anyone's kids are OK before anything else. He's a family man. If he wasn't I wouldn't have married him."
Derrick and Kiara, childhood sweethearts at Palmetto High School, have been together 23 years and married for nine.
"I'm from Milwaukee, and my mom brought me down here when I was about 14, and all the kids from Rubonia played basketball right here, and he was one of them," Kiara Randall said. "Derrick was one of those young men who, around his friends, acted one way, but I found out he had a heart of gold. No matter what happened in his life, he would always check on me. There was always this connection. But if you would have told me he was the one I was supposed to marry, I would have told you, you were crazy."
Derrick Randall's wife and friends say he was a wild youth.
"Where he is now, I would never have seen it from the young man I knew at 17," Rice said.
Randall graduated from Palmetto High School in 1996 and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1999. He was wounded in combat in 2005 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. His right leg was shattered when his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device. He was awarded a Purple Heart and spent 18 months at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in the Washington, D.C., area undergoing rehabilitation.
"I dealt with mood," Randall said of the three years after he got out of the Army with an honorable retirement. "I started to drink. I tried to drown my feelings. It was really difficult."
One day -- he can't really pinpoint when -- he made a decision.
"I got in this groove and I said to myself: 'I want to live. I want to be a light.' That's when I started on my education with the G.I. Bill."
Randall said his mission now is to be a light for his four children, wife and the youngsters in the Rubonia community, hence his work putting Saturday's Fun Day together.
Randall's mission is to make the word "positive" cool again, he said.
"Positive is my personality," Randall said. "The word is not cool now. I'm trying to make it cool again. My personality is to be an example. I want to give back. I talk to all the kids I pass and I say: 'Hey, buddy, smile.' The biggest thing I can do is share my energy. Kids find it hard to listen to elders, but they do emulate."
Derrick Randall's descriptions of each child speaks volumes. He sees each child in their most positive light, something every father strives to do.
Of his oldest, Tajei, he said: "He has kinship. Look at his eyes. He wants to be everyone's friend. He's a lover at heart."
Of his second oldest, Robert, he said: "Robert is always looking out for someone, to help them."
Of his youngest son, Darien, he said: "My baby boy is assurance. We call him Papa. Papa is confident. He has that confident smile that everything is good."
Of his daughter, Kennedi, he said: "Ah, my baby girl. "My baby girl's smile exudes love. She's my world. My everything. The apple of daddy's eye."
Of his wife, he said: "This is my soulmate. She is my backbone. Everything I am or ever will be is because she supports me and keeps me going in the right direction."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or via Twitter@RichardDymond.