Kiley Drezek, one of the top high school basketball players in Connecticut, didn’t start on her middle school team. For a long time, she played the sport in the shadow of her older sister Sydnie.
Kiley grew up in a large family, the third of five kids. She is the one who introduced the topic of middle-child syndrome the other day, the belief that the middle child can be overlooked, left with the feeling of always being left out.
“When you have five kids, it can be hard for attention, but my dad made sure he spent time with each and every one of us,” she said. “We each had our own activities with him.”
Craig Drezek adored his four daughters and son. His wife, Jamie, called him a master at making each of them feel like they were his favorite.
“For us, it was basketball and shopping. Me and my dad were big sneakerheads,” said Kiley, a senior guard at Seymour. “Whenever I had an orthodontist appointment or Saturday after games, we’d stop at Dick’s or somewhere and just start picking out shoes.
“And we picked seashells, the little swirly ones. We usually did summer vacations every year and the first time was when I was like 6 at the Outer Banks (N.C.). It continued whenever we were at the shore.”
Boxes of sneakers.
Buckets of shells.
Boxes and buckets of love.
“My dad was all sorts of things,” Kiley said. “He coached me in AAU for a long time and in summer league. He was funny. He was strict sometimes. He brought joy wherever he went. He was 6-foot-6. When he walked into a room, you knew exactly who he was and where he was. He cared so much. He cared more about others than he did about himself.”
Craig Drezek, who died June 3 of COVID-19 at age 49, was an All-State player at Maloney-Meriden and when he left Post he was the school’s all-time leading scorer. He led the nation one year in free-throw shooting. Jamie was an outstanding basketball player at Post, too, conference player of the year as a freshman. Their love story started when Craig eschewed a night out on his 21st birthday to watch Jamie play in a road game.
She was at the free-throw line. Craig entered the gym. Distracted, she hit nothing but backboard.
“It was the most embarrassing thing,” Jamie said. “He had asked me out a few times and I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ He used to tell people, ‘She loved me so much from the start she couldn’t hit the rim on a free throw when I walked into the room.’”
They were engaged within 10 months. Jamie kept a promise to her mom and didn’t get married until after she graduated. They would have celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in July.
This Feb. 5 would have been Craig’s 50th birthday. Kiley’s coach at Seymour, Brian Cleveland, told Jamie it would be zero problem if Kiley wanted the day off. The Drezeks would have none of it. Kiley shaved 15 minutes off her practice. Her younger brother, Caden, shaved 15 minutes off his with the boys team. With a half-hour needed to COVID clean the gym between sessions, there was an hour to join family and close friends at the grave site at Mountain Meadows Cemetery.
“Later, we did Craig’s second favorite thing other than basketball — play cards,” said Jamie, a math interventionist in Shelton. “We celebrated together to get through a rough milestone.”
“Kiley was back at practice at 8 o’clock the next morning,” Cleveland said. “She’s a great kid, coachable, a great student. Basketball-wise she’s probably the best 3-point shooter I’ve ever had. She’ll do anything for the team.”
There was one point that Cleveland wanted to make more than any other. He said he has never seen a player improve so much in the offseason as Kiley Drezek did between her ninth- and 10th-grade seasons.
“How can I put this nicely? She hadn’t been the best kid in her class,” Cleveland said. “She came back a completely different player.”
“The biggest reason was my dad,” Kiley said. “We’d have practice for AAU twice a week and then games. When we didn’t have practice, I’d be shooting and doing drills. He set up something for me in the garage. He bought me a D Man. And for when he couldn’t be there, he got me some gadget where you can pass the ball back to yourself to get shots up.”
“She’d be, ‘Dad, I want to go out and shoot,’” Jamie said. “’Dad, help me with this.’ She’d be in the garage when it was raining. She’s become a phenomenal shooter, but she has worked on all parts of her game.”
That, ultimately, would be Craig’s greatest gift. Dad, teacher, mentor, coach, call it what you want: He knew how to help people and he knew to make the time to help them.
It wouldn’t only be fair, but necessary to call Craig Drezek a beloved administrator. He was an accountant after college for the New York Knicks, but education was his calling. He became a teacher and softball coach at Sacred Heart High in Waterbury and then its principal and president. Craig is one who raised funds to get a court built at the school, which led to great state championship teams. Jamie said the news Thursday that the school is closing would have left him devastated. Craig went on to become principal at Derby, Wamogo and Regional 6 superintendent. The last few years, he was superintendent for Goodwin University Magnet Schools.
Craig had hurt his back and needed surgery last spring. During pre-surgery testing, he was found positive for COVID. Initially he was asymptomatic, but he was back in the hospital within a week and in ICU six days later. Jamie tested positive, and although she wasn’t hospitalized, she was quite sick and isolated for 18 days. Sydnie, Kiley and Caden did not test positive. Alexandra, the oldest, and Colbie, the youngest, did. The Sunday before Craig died, the family finally all tested negative and was able to get out of quarantine to visit Craig the night before he died. Jamie returned the next day to be with her man.
Attendance at the wake on June 11 and funeral services at Holy Rosary Church on June 12 was limited because of COVID. The burial outdoors afterward at Mountain Meadows was open to the public.
“We pulled up,” Jamie said, “and our friends and all of the teams, the basketball teams, the football team (Caden is a quarterback), they lined up on Mountain Road at the cemetery entrance … hundreds of people.”
All with their arms aloft in the shape of a heart.
“It was,” Jamie said, “the most moving thing.”
Unlike many teams last winter, the Seymour girls were able to complete their season in a Class M state quarterfinal loss to Bloomfield. The Wildcats had an 11-game winning streak at one point. With Sydnie playing at Lesley University, Caden at Seymour and Colbie with youth travel team games, Dad and Mom did a lot of juggling. Jamie is head of the Seymour girls’ team boosters so she was at all the home games. After missing a few games, Craig became afraid he’d jinx the streak. So he stayed away and watched the games later with Kiley on Hudl. Early in the season, he was tormented when he missed the Holy Cross game where Kiley hit two buzzer-beaters to force double overtime. Craig watched the game on Hudl four times.
“The last game he came to was one of my best games,” Kiley said. “I had (26 points) against Plainville in states and I’m so glad he was there. It means a lot.”
In August, “60 Minutes” reached out to Jamie. The CBS news program wanted to show that not only lives had been lost, but so many young bereaved families had lost the lives they knew. The Drezeks went to New York for an interview with Scott Pelley in December. When the piece ran on Jan. 31, Pelley pointed out eight Americans had been found with COVID on that date in 2020. The number had reached 26 million with 450,000 deaths a year later.
“COVID didn’t just kill older people,” Jamie said. “And it wasn’t fake.”
Colbie, her youngest, has taken it the hardest. Her mom says she wears her heart on her sleeve. She missed getting up early on Sunday mornings for alone time with her dad. And that’s the emotional part.
Craig provided 80 percent of the family’s income. While there was life insurance, the Connecticut Teachers’ Retirement Board ruled Jamie was not eligible to receive his pension. Two years short.
Chris Drezek, the superintendent of Enfield schools, started a memorial fund in Craig’s name to support the education of his brother’s five children. With the NCAA allowing college seniors an extra year of eligibility, many Division II athletic scholarship possibilities dried up this year. Kiley is looking hard at Division III Regis and Fairleigh Dickinson-Florham Campus. An outstanding student with a 4.75 GPA, she is planning on majoring in education and health studies.
“She only turned 17 in December,” Jamie said. “Going from that skinny kid to a developed athlete is just happening. We have a treadmill and weights in the basement and she’s on them every day. She’s just on the cusp of being the player she can be. I just love the way she plays every game like it’s her last one.”
Jamie says her husband was able to get the best out of Kiley without it turning heated like it might with her. She calls it their special basketball bond. It extended to his AAU players. Craig would text them before and after high school games to offer encouragement and tips. There are kids who still text his phone to thank him and leave notes for him at his gravestone, knowing no response is needed.
“Kiley is missing her dad terribly and not seeing him in the stands or coming home to watch the game together is going to be so hard,” Jamie said. “She’s playing this season for him, to make him proud.”
Seymour opens at St. Paul on Wednesday. The Craig Drezek Memorial Fund to help support his children is at https://fundly.com/craig-drezek-children-education-and-memorial-fund
[email protected]; @jeffjacobs123
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