Game On: Pat Summitt on the Fight of Her Life
After studying the results of my MRI, the neurologist looked grave. He said I was suffering from a form of dementia, probably of the Alzheimer's type, and that I should prepare to retire.
Soon after, specialists at the Mayo Clinic confirmed the diagnosis. I left Mayo in a state of profound denial. "Well, it isn't cancer," I kept saying to Tyler.
I refused to accept it, or any of the advice that went with it. Part of the problem was that I was so highly functional. All my life I'd found that the best way to deal with problems, especially physical ones, was to keep moving. Plunge ahead. "I'm fine," I told Tyler. Once we got home to Knoxville, I would barely discuss it with him. I wouldn't even say the word Alzheimer's. I decided to just go on about my normal business, and for the next several weeks that's what I did.
When the full blow finally fell, it was heavy. I had an appointment with a psychopharmacologist to check my reactions to various medications. Most of my conversations with doctors up to this point had been disturbing. But this one was downright traumatic. He told me that he felt I could no longer work. I should step down immediately, because in his opinion the dementia would progress rapidly. I needed to get myself out of the public eye quickly, he said, or I would "embarrass" myself and ruin my legacy.
As he spoke, I felt my fist clench. It was all I could do not to lunge across the desk and drop him with one punch. Who did he think he was? Even if I had an irreversible brain disease—even if I did—what right did he have to tell me how to cope with it?
"Do you have any idea who you're dealing with?" I said. "You don't know me, and you don't know what I'm capable of."
I emerged from his office in tears. I cried all the way home in the car. As soon as I walked in the door, I climbed into bed. I didn't get up for hours.
I was the resident superhero. Friends, family, and former players had always come to me for comfort and strong advice on how to push through problems.
"You can't say 'can't' to me," I told our players. "Don't ever say that word; I won't accept it."
I was more than the test results on four corners of a piece of paper, I told myself. The brain has an amazing ability to compensate—to transfer tasks. A spinal tap didn't test for leadership, or relationships, or the capacity of my heart.
My "legacy" was not just an image—a cardboard cutout. I was a person of uncompromising substance based on 38 years of unbroken triumph, as personified in 161 players who won whole fistfuls of banners and trophies. Mister Al Alzheimer was about to meet Miss Pat.
Quit? Quit? I was supposed to walk away from a team that was everything I'd ever worked for, that was inseparable from...myself? I might as well walk out of my own body or peel off my own shadow. I'd been named head coach of women's basketball at the University of Tennessee when I was 22 years old. I'd hand-built every aspect of the program and handpicked every person in it. It wasn't just a job; it was my home, my family, and, aside from my son, the deepest love of my life. It wasn't for nothing that my nickname among our players was "Mama Pat." Or, when they were feeling especially flip, just "Your Mama." As in, "How'd Your Mama know where we went last night?"
Quit? Quit? Coaching isn't social work, but it's more than just a game—it's a heartfelt vocation, in which you are powerfully bonded to students. Often, they need you more than they know they need you. It's a job in which you grab kids by the arm and pull them out of their emotional fires, and show them what real self-worth looks like.
You don't walk away from such a calling just to take care of yourself.
Quit? Quit? We keep score in life because it matters. It counts. Too many people opt out and never discover their own abilities, because they fear failure. They don't understand commitment. When you learn to keep fighting in the face of potential failure, it gives you a larger skill set to do what you want in life. It gives you vision. But you can't acquire it if you're afraid.
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