Game On: Pat Summitt on the Fight of Her Life
In my case, symptoms began to appear when I was only 57. In fact, the doctors believe early-onset Alzheimer's has a strong genetic predictor, and that it may have been progressing for some years before I was diagnosed. I'd been walking around with a slow-ticking bomb in my brain, and it only became apparent when it began to seriously interfere with my work.
It's hard to pinpoint the day I first noticed something wrong. Over the course of a year, from 2010 to 2011, I began to experience a troubling series of lapses. I had to ask people to remind me of the same things, over and over. I'd ask three times in the space of an hour, "What time is my meeting again?"—and then be late. In the fall of 2010, one of my college teammates and oldest friends was supposed to come up for a Tennessee football game. I must have called her four times and said, "Now when are y'all coming?"
I had always struggled to keep track of my car keys and cell phone, but now I lost them three times a day. At first I thought it was funny, and totally in keeping with my character. I'd always been so hyperfocused on coaching that I didn't even know the weather outside. I'd wear short sleeves in an ice storm. I was a working mother who juggled too many responsibilities and obligations, and it was natural to have moments when I got overwhelmed. I'd never known the date, or the name of my hotel—there have been so many of them, and they all look the same. Reporters would ask me, "Pat, who's going to win the Super Bowl?" I'd say, "Fellas, who's playing?"
That winter, on the eve of a big game, I pulled up to Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena and jumped out to hurry inside to the locker room. Before tip-off, a security guard came in to tell me that my beautiful Mercedes-Benz was idling like a getaway car, exhaust pouring from the tailpipe.
I laughed. It was a case of having too much on my mind; the car had one of those fancy new keyless ignitions, and I had just been in too big of a rush, I thought.
But then I grew confused in the heat of a game. Normally, I would reflexively hold up a hand signal and shout an offensive set to our team, "Horns!" Or a defensive shift, "Charlotte!" But now there were empty moments when I couldn't call up the right term.
I would stare at the court unable to track it all. I'd spent four decades teaching myself to see ten players at once, the whole 94 feet of hardwood. I was accustomed to analyzing patterns and almost instantaneously ordering up attacks and counters; only now I saw an indistinguishable blur, flashes and bursts.
I grew uncertain, and then a little frightened. I began staying in bed until late in the morning. I'd always been a bolter, the first person up, and I'd always gone to work earlier than anyone on my staff. But I began to dread going into the office.
I was late to practice, slipping into the arena while it was already under way. I became increasingly hesitant and withdrawn, to the point that I avoided meeting one-on-one with our players, afraid I might say something wrong.
Finally Mickie DeMoss confronted me. "Pat, what is going on with you?" she demanded.
"I don't know," I said. "I don't know."
"You need to be here," she said. "You need to figure it out, so you can be here for this team."
I thought it must be a reaction to the arthritis medication. I went to see my primary care physician, who suggested that I visit the famed Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for a thorough evaluation. But I decided to wait until after the season was over, because altering any medications might mean the excruciating pain would return.
Spring arrived—and with it a disheartening NCAA tournament loss. We were among the favorites to contend for a national championship with a 34–3 record, but by then I was having trouble concentrating and communicating to our players in the huddles. I had lost my confidence.
A powerful Notre Dame team upset us in the Elite Eight in Dayton, Ohio, 73–59. Our sideline looked like a fire drill with all our assistants jumping in and out giving instructions, trying to stop the bleeding. When the final buzzer sounded, I stood on the sideline for a long moment, wondering if I had coached my last game.
Next: When the full blow finally fell, it was heavy.