By Ryan Mayer
Today, news broke that Pat Summitt, the former coach for the Tennessee Lady Volunteers basketball program passed away at age 64 of Alzheimer’s. This comes just five years after her diagnosis was announced. The legacy of Summitt is an incredible one to try and sum up, and it extends far beyond just the accomplishments on the basketball court.
Summitt presided as head coach at Tennessee for an incredible 38 years. In that time, she saw the sport of women’s basketball evolve from a game that wasn’t even officially recognized by the NCAA as a sport when she first started into a profitable and popular enterprise that is now watched by millions each year. She was a role model for many young girls who were trying to find their way into the world of sports that has long been male-dominated. All one had to do was go on Twitter to see the wide-ranging impact that Summitt had.
That’s a nationally syndicated sports talk radio host, a former college basketball player, and a current US women’s national team member. And these were just a few of the thousands of thoughts that have been shared by members throughout the sports world. Her impact on women’s sports and the respect that she earned for them with her incredible success with players both on and off the court is unmatched.
However, for me, it was what Summitt did in the face of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis that is the most inspiring. After being diagnosed with the disease at age 59 and having her doctor tell her she should retire she famously said: “Do you have any idea who you’re dealing with?”, showing the same characteristic toughness and determination that defined not only her as a coach, but that flowed through her teams as well. While she did ultimately retire due to the bouts of forgetfulness that accompany this insidious disease, she continued to fight through the creation of the Pat Summitt Foundation, to help more people understand Alzheimer’s and to contribute to research into the disease looking for eventually a potential cure.
Why is this so personal? Well, I watched my grandfather struggle through the same symptoms that come along with Alzheimer’s before he eventually passed away in 2008. Alzheimer’s disease is essentially a death sentence in terms of a diagnosis. It is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States and unlike cancer or other diseases that are considered terminal, there is no cure, no slowing down the disease’s advancements. The memories that a person has made throughout their life slowly fade until they are forgotten by the individual that made them.
I never had the fortune to meet Coach Summitt. There was no professional or personal relationship between the two of us. And yet, because of this disease I understood and identified with the strength that she showed, the strength her family showed, and with her willingness and determination to bring more attention to it. It is a battle that Summitt, as with all Alzeheimer’s patients, eventually lost. However, the Foundation she created, will live on and continue to help the growing number of Alzheimer’s patients in this country.
Coach Summitt was, no, is a legendary figure for so many women who saw someone that stood up and fought to bring an equal level of respect and attention to women’s basketball. That is far more meaningful and impactful than can possibly be stated. The impact she had on me, a young man searching for answers to this disease after losing his grandfather, and the way that I view Alzheimer’s is comparatively a tiny part of her legacy. Yet it is one that means more than I can express. Rest in peace, Coach Summitt, your imprint on this world is immeasurable.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.