As the Pat Summitt news trickled out Tuesday, my work phone blew up.
"This is devastating. My husband and I just love the Lady Vols."
"I can't believe this about Coach Summitt. She's the one thing about Tennessee that I love."
"This is simply heartbreaking."
And these were just the Alabama fans.
For a glimpse at just how much Summitt means to sports and what her name means among its fans, you need not look further than that. We all wanted to claim some grief with the bombshell news that Summitt, 59, had been diagnosed with early onset dementia because we all are hurting. In all honesty, we're probably all mourning for a woman who doesn't want to be mourned but cheered on and rallied behind during this difficult time. But Summitt has meant -- and still means -- so much to so many and is so respected by everybody that just the thought of witnessing her career end prematurely because of health reasons is unfathomable.
At least according to Pat, we aren't losing her from the game just yet -- she stated she still plans to coach this year and to fight this battle moving forward. Anybody who has known her can attest to the fact that there aren't any opponents from which she backs down.
I had the privilege of covering Summitt and the Lady Vols for nearly three years. Never once in that time did she belittle me, blow off a question or shy away from anything asked. She always answered with dignity and clarity, and I appreciate her very much for that and respect her even more.
After I left and only encountered her a couple of times a year when the teams I covered played against The Mighty Lady Vols, she treated me like I was important even though I wasn't. No matter the story I was writing, I could always call her and get an authoritative voice. No matter what she was doing, she'd always call me back, always answer my questions and always produce thought-provoking, insightful answers. Even during the many times when I'm sure I asked dumb questions. I always hung up the phone with way too much information to use and a wealth of knowledge that had me much better equipped to write whatever I was writing.
Her basketball acumen is matched only by the life-application she infuses in every response. For every slump, there's a lesson to teach. For every high point, there's encouragement to keep perspective. For every story of the past, there is something learned to pass on. To think some of that keen knowledge may gradually be lost, that's the real devastation in the news. To know that the possibility exists that one day she may not remember all the lives she has touched is difficult to comprehend, though her real legacy is that others won't forget.
Even those of us who haven't been mentored by her have been taught something, even if it's just how to carry yourself through unprecedented success -- with class and dignity.
That's how Pat will fight this battle, too, I'm sure. To say "Pat Summitt isn't scared of anything!" well, that just wouldn't be accurate. She's human, no matter how invincible she may sometimes seem. She's flesh and blood, though that steely stare sometimes seems born of steel itself. Dementia is a scary word, fraught with grim visions of what's to come and precious little hope. To suggest Summitt will fight this and is already fighting it is true, but to hold out hope that she'll beat it simply isn't fair. Life isn't fair.
I don't know how much longer Summitt will coach, and she may not know, either. Perhaps the best thing we can all take from this awful news is to watch how she handles herself over the course of the rest of her career and appreciate how she deals with an obstacle that probably can't be overcome. Like always, I'm sure she'll teach us all the way it's supposed to be done.
I'll finish my thoughts with a story about Pat that I've shared on more than one occasion with those whom I love who have asked just what it was like to cover an iconic figure like UT's venerable women's basketball coach.
I had long moved away from covering the Lady Vols and was a sports writer in Chattanooga when I learned of her father's death. I knew how close she was to him, and I wanted to let her know that I was sorry, even if she had probably forgotten my name and face over the years. Waiting a couple of days after getting the news, I decided to call her cell phone, thinking I'd leave a message of condolences on her voice mail.
As the phone began ringing, somebody near informed me it was the day of the funeral. [I've never been known for my timing...] Before I could hang up the call, Coach Summitt answered. I immediately told her who I was , apologized for my poor timing and informed her I just wanted to offer my quick sympathies.
I could tell she'd obviously been in mourning, yet she sat there on the day of her Daddy's funeral and talked to me for several minutes. She told me a couple of quick stories about the man and how much he'd be missed, but she said his legacy lived on and how proud she was that he got to see all she had accomplished and how proud he was of her. She noted how that helped her during this difficult time. All through the call, she also thanked me multiple times for thinking about her and her family. I'm still not even sure she knew who I was when I hung up the phone, but that didn't matter to her, and it didn't matter to me.
At a time when she probably felt her weakest, she was still remarkably strong and a remarkable person. At a time when she could have struggled to let the world in, she embraced the fact that people cared. She handled that situation with more dignity and grace than anybody could have.
I expect we'll see the same now.