I doubt many people are unaware of the sad news released last week about the legendary Tennessee Lady Vols basketball coach, Pat Summitt, and her dementia diagnosis. Now, I am not a Tennessee fan by any stretch of the imagination. But I AM a woman who grew up loving sports without many women to admire. Coach Summitt was the exception. In middle and high school when I would watch her coach her teams or see her interviewed, I would somehow feel excited to work harder on my team and in my sport (volleyball--I didn't even play basketball). She is classy, hard-working, tough on her players while simultaneously loving them like a mother, and never too busy to say hello or sign an autograph for a fan.
I know this first hand. Rewind back to the winter of 2003. It was January or February, and I was starting Auburn in August of that same year. No matter, when a friend from church offered me tickets behind the Tennessee bench at the Auburn/Tennesee women's basketball game I sat behind that bench and sang Rocky Top with no regard to my future alma mater. That is the effect this woman has had on my life. As I watched her in person that day, able to listen in on every huddle and hear every piece of coaching, my admiration was cemented. After the game, we waited around, hoping she might come back out from the locker room to do her post-game radio show. When she did, I grabbed my new "Lady Vols basketball" t-shirt I'd been given and stood at Coach Summitt's shoulder. Seeing me out of the corner of her eye, she turned to me and I stammered: "Uhh, Coach Summitt? I think you're AWESOME!! Could you sign my shirt?" She looked at me like I might not have been the first young female athlete enamored with her, smiled, and said "of course, darlin." I don't know if she said anything else, but I just know that she made this former tomboy's day that winter afternoon.
As she embarks on this battle with dementia, I have no doubt that she will handle it as she has the rest of her career--with class, grace, determination, and fortitude. It's odd to say you'll be praying for someone you don't even know, and I realize this can seem like a celebrity obsession, but it's different. Without knowing me, Coach Summitt changed my life. She made it okay for a female to love sports and want to work as hard as possible at them. She made hard work and dedication look fun, and displayed the rewards with humility. Because of that, I doubt I'm the only one who would say to her today, "Thank you, Coach Summitt. We are thinking and praying for you!"