I don’t know a single person who doesn’t like University of Tennessee women’s coach Pat Summitt. Media, athletes, coaches — okay, Geno Auriemma might not like her — every single person outside of Storrs, Connecticut likes Pat Summitt. Many love her. You can make the argument, and I will right now, that she is the greatest living coach American sports has ever known. What’s more, you can even argue that she’s a truly transcendent figure in the world of sports, a bridge from a time when women’s sports weren’t much more than intramural games to a time when millions watch women play soccer on a summer weekend.
Pat Summitt didn’t cause all of this by herself, but she was there at the beginning. That’s what transcendent sports figures offer, a pathway from a time and place that later, squinting back across the ensuing decades, seems an impossible and improbable beginning.
Did Pat Summitt really make $250 a month as the head coach of UT’s women at the age of 22?
Did she really have some players older than her on the first team?
Did she really drive a van to away games and did her team sleep in an opposing team’s gym in sleeping bags?
Yes and yes.
The story of Pat Summitt’s coaching past reads like reverse Chuck Norris Internet-mythologizing. No, Pat Summitt can’t divide by zero, but that is the number of times a player spent four years with her Lady Vol team and didn’t graduate.
Eight national titles later, with an unbelievable career record of, and this isn’t a misprint, 1,071-199, Summitt’s team had graduated from sleeping bags. And she also managed to turn into a pretty damn good mom, too. At least if you read what might be the best piece of short-form American sportswriting to come out in 2011. Read this piece by Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post right now.
All of this explains why it seemed like the cruelest blow of all for the Tennessee athletic program — a program already amidst the most disastrous three year stretch in Vol history — when news broke that Summitt had the beginning stages of dementia, Alzheimer’s type. At only 59 years old, Summitt told Sally Jenkins that she hoped to coach for three more seasons. Summitt even confessed that at times last season she hadn’t been able to recall the exact plays that she wanted to run.
It was all too mortal for a woman who’d seemed indestructible her entire career.
And it hit close to home for an awful lot of us who have lost relatives with Alzheimer’s. It’s a crippling, cruel and debilitating disease that enacts a toll on the afflicted and all who surround the person.
One of my grandfathers, my namesake, a much better Clay Travis than me, died with Alzheimers. It crushed the family, left everyone forever dividing my grandfather’s life into two distinct spheres — the before and the after.
Most of my life came after my grandfather had been diagnosed. He died when I was nine years old and I always felt like I’d never quite gotten to know the man I was named after. Alzheimer’s makes the mind even more mysterious than it already is. Occasionally, as a child, my grandfather could tell stories with crystal clear clarity about when he was five or six years old living in rural Kentucky. Faces long since forgotten, stories cast aside on many a Southern road over generations, the time he rode to South Dakota on a train during the Depression because there was no work anywhere in the South, when his grandfather handed him a gun and told him to kill a rattlesnake in the front yard, his last day of school in the eighth grade, the time he lost his favorite blue marble.
By the times these stories ended he’d address me as someone from long ago, a child’s face that came swimming up to him from the deep mists of a long ago life, a ghostly reflection of the past brought to the future.
Deep down I think we all have one disease we fear getting the most. Especially if, as is the case with Alzheimer’s, there’s a genetic predisposition to the disease. Those who have seen a loved one slide away into dementia can’t ever forget the wandering eyes, the stories with no end, the moments when decades collapse into the present.
It’s why my dad writes everything down on his calendar, why dates and times and birthdays are his obsession, the ticking genetic time bomb that could or could not make the past prelude to his future.
Once, in a moment of clarity, my grandfather suddenly looked upon me, his namesake grandson at the age of seven, and as if seeing me for the first time remarked.
“Your name is Clay Travis too.”
“Yes,” I said, “it is.”
“One day you name your son Clay too, and he’ll be good.”
So I have and so he is.
I like to think that in that moment my grandfather’s time travel carried him not deep into his own past, but so far into the future that he saw what was to come.
I like to think that Pat Summitt will be able to do that one day too. That Alzheimer’s carries a moment’s gift amidst its decay.
I don’t think Pat Summitt is going to beat Alzheimer’s. I’m not that optimistic.
But I do think Pat Summitt’s going to do what she’s always done her whole life — coach the rest of us up until we’re able to beat Alzheimer’s.
One day that’s going to be her final, and most lasting, victory. I’m sure of it.