Oh dear god.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Pat Summitt’s doctors are lucky they are still standing. When the first neurologist told her she had symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, she almost dropped him with one punch. When a second one advised her to retire immediately, she said, “Do you have any idea who you’re dealing with?”
Three months ago, Summitt, 59, the blaze-eyed, clench-fisted University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach who has won more games than any other college coach ever, men’s or women’s, visited the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. seeking an explanation for a troubling series of memory lapses over the past year. A woman who was always highly organized had to ask repeatedly what time a team meeting was scheduled for. “She lost her keys three times a day instead of once,” her son Tyler says. She was late to practice. On occasion, she simply stayed in bed.
“Are you having trouble with your memory?” friends began asking, puzzled.
“Sometimes I draw blanks,” Summitt finally admitted.
Her first clue that something was badly wrong came last season, when she drew a blank on what offensive set to call in the heat of a game.
“I just felt something was different,” she says. “And at the time I didn’t know what I was dealing with. Until I went to Mayo, I couldn’t know for sure. But I can remember trying to coach and trying to figure out schemes and whatever and it just wasn’t coming to me, like, I would typically say, ‘We’re gonna do this, and run that.’ And it probably caused me to second-guess.”
Summitt believed her symptoms were the side effects of a powerful medication she was taking for rheumatoid arthritis, an excruciating condition that she has quietly suffered with since 2006. Instead, when Summitt received her test results from the Mayo Clinic at the end of May, they confirmed a shocking worst-case scenario: She showed “mild” but distinct signs of “early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type,” the irreversible brain disease that destroys recall and cognitive abilities over time, and that afflicts an estimated 5 million Americans.
Denial was followed by anger. For the first few weeks, Summitt would barely even discuss the subject. She told her doctors, “You don’t know me. You don’t know what I’m capable of.” Finally, Summitt realized she would have to accept the diagnosis. “I can’t change it,” she says. After a pause, she adds, “But I can try to do something about it.”
Last week Washington D.C. attorney Robert B. Barnett flew to Knoxville to meet with his longtime friend and client, half expecting her to step down after 38 years as Tennessee’s coach. But Summitt told Barnett that she did not believe her symptoms were severe enough yet to warrant retirement, and that she would like to coach at least three more years, if possible. She also decided against a formal statement. Instead, she sat down for an interview with this writer, who co-authored her 1999 autobiography, and the Knoxville News-Sentinel to discuss her illness publicly for the first time.
Full disclosure: It is the measure of Summitt’s large-heartedness that she could call any of a half-dozen people her closest friend. This writer has only one: her. “I would rather drive stakes through my own hands than write this story,” I said.
Last Thursday, Summitt, Barnett, and her 20-year-old son Tyler, who is a junior at the University of Tennessee, met with Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and Athletic Director Joan Cronan to inform them of her condition. Barnett warned Summitt that contractually school administrators had the right to remove her as head coach immediately. Instead, Cheek and Cronan listened to Summitt’s disclosure with tears streaming down their faces.
“You are now and will always be our coach,” Cheek told her. With the blessing of her university, she will continue to work for as long as she is able.
“Life is an unknown and none of us has a crystal ball,” Cronan says. “But I do have a record to go on. I know what Pat stands for: excellence, strength, honesty, and courage.”
To Barnett, Pat’s fight is characteristic; her determination to keep working, and also to act as a spokeswoman for Alzheimer’s, is not incompatible with the values she has always preached as a coach.
“If you go back to her speeches, and her discussions with players through the years, you see several things,” Barnett says. “One is absolute dedication. Two is an unwillingness ever to give up. And three is an absolute commitment to honesty. And in this challenge that she’s facing, she is displaying the exact traits that she’s always taught. . . .Pat is going to run this race to the very end.”
I’m an Ohio State fan through and through, but I’ve always admired the Lady Vols and their tough, pugnacious coach. Pat Summitt is a hell of a coach and human being. Hang in there, Pat.