WHEN A football injury leaves you a quadriplegic at the age of 16, you could be forgiven for thinking your life is over.

But not if you were James Derek Bowen. His spinal cord was severed at the sixth vertebra in a high-school football game on Nov. 24, 1966, but Derek, as he was called by family and friends, never gave up on life.

"His disability never stopped him from doing anything he wanted to do," said his brother Oscar Bowen, a retired Philadelphia police officer.

What Derek seemed destined to do was to become an inspiration to other people with disabilities, something he devoted his life to doing as a recreation director and chaplain at the Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, and as a minister in the Pentecostal faith.

"He told people what it's like to be disabled and still be able to do what you have to do," Oscar said.

Derek died Monday. He was 57 and lived in Laverock, Montgomery County, but had grown up and lived most of his life in South Philadelphia.

Derek charmed everyone wherever he went with his good nature and ready smile, going back to his teen years when he was just getting acclimated to life in a wheelchair.

Former Inquirer sports columnist Frank Dolson visited Derek and his family at their home in South Philadelphia at Christmas 1967 and was impressed by his cheerful nature.

"He makes people feel good," Dolson wrote. "Spend an afternoon with him and you feel happy, not sad. And you feel proud of this kid who, in little more than a year, has made a greater comeback than anyone outside the Bowen family thought possible."

In fact, when Derek, known as Jimmie at the time, was being treated at Methodist Hospital, he was told he had to see a psychiatrist because he was so confident he would walk again.

When the shrink told him he wasn't going to walk again, Derek replied, "I've got news for you."

He would never walk again, but the realization didn't seem to devastate him the way it might have most people. He kept smiling.

The Daily News' Joe Clark visited him in the Piersol Rehabilitation Center of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in April 1967.

"Seeing a youngster like Jimmie - who can barely scratch his chin - lying in bed, makes one count his blessings," Clark wrote. "But Jimmie is a determined, optimistic, wonderful young man who wants no tears shed for him."

"That stuff is for the birds," Clark quoted Derek as saying about pity.

Derek was injured while making a tackle in a Thanksgiving Day game between South Philadelphia High School, where he was a defensive back, and Bishop Neumann.

On the opening kickoff, Derek ran down the field and smacked into the ball carrier, hoping to make him fumble. Instead, the runner's knee caught him in the forehead and snapped his head back, breaking his spine.

"I was really ready for that game," he told the Daily News' Joe O'Dowd shortly after his injury. "I felt really great. I was going to make a good showing."

"Not a doctor in the hospital walks by intensive care without stopping in to see 'Smiling Jimmy,' " O'Dowd wrote.

"I'm not bitter toward football," he told Daily News sportswriter Ted Silary in 1991. "I regret having gotten hurt, but I don't regret having played. I don't blame what happened to me on anything or anybody. There was nothing or no one to blame."

"He was beautiful," said brother Oscar. "To watch him run, to watch him tackle. He was a great athlete."

Derek's hero was Leroy Kelly, a Simon Gratz grad who became a star running back for the Cleveland Browns and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Derek wore Kelly's No. 44, and was thrilled when his idol visited him in the hospital.

Derek's faith helped him accept his destiny and his mission. He was ordained a minister at Mount Airy Church of God in Christ in 1991.

He and other associate ministers at the church take turns preaching Sunday sermons. When it was Derek's turn, he talked about his disability and gave encouragement to others in the same situation.

He married his nurse, Janice Cobb, in 1981, and they had two sons.

Derek was born in Philadelphia to Levi and Ellen Bowen. After his injury, he attended the Widener School for Handicapped Children, and in 1968, at his insistence, he graduated with his South Philadelphia High School class.

He attended Temple University, where he majored in therapeutic recreation and leisure studies, and graduated in 1976.

For a time, he worked at Carousel House, run by the city Department of Recreation, helping the blind, physically disabled and mentally handicapped.

He rigged up a van so that he could operate it and went everywhere in it. He drove to family reunions in Delaware and Baltimore.

Derek also is survived by two sons, Jeffrey and Michael; four other brothers, Levi, Ronald, Ira and Eddie; and four sisters, Leronia Bowen, Ivra Jackson, Elyse Conwell and June Evans. He was predeceased by two other sisters, Marion and Ellen.

Services: 11 a.m. Monday at Mount Airy Church of God in Christ, 6400 Ogontz Ave. Friends may call at 9 a.m. Burial will be in Ivy Hill Cemetery. *