It seems like everyone that knows anything about basketball or has lived for any stretch of time in our state has a Pat Summitt story.
That’s a story in itself.
Patricia Sue Head was born in Clarksville and grew up in Henrietta. I entered the world in Tullahoma and was mostly raised in Farmington. She was surrounded by tobacco. Me? Horses and corn.
Our family watched her teams compete on television so often in the 80s and 90s, it felt like Pat was a part of the family. When I returned to the Volunteer State over a decade ago and covered a few Lady Vols games, I just never felt it was my place or the right time to introduce myself and attempt to speak with her.
I mean…it’s Pat Head Summitt. How do you just walk up to a legend and start chatting it up? Every time she was near, something nudged me in the side to at least say hello and tell her I admire her.
Just couldn’t do it. It was like looking into the sun.
When I think about our state, she’s synonymous with some of our best and most recognizable — Johnny Cash, Davy Crockett, Jack Daniel, Dolly Parton, James K. Polk, Elvis Presley...Pat Head Summitt.
See now why I couldn’t bring myself to shake her hand, share my twang and express my respect? It’s as though the pedestal that she’d earned placed her too far from my outstretched hand.
Hearing on Knoxville radio and seeing on our message boards story after story, I realize how regretful it will always be that I didn’t at least attempt to hear Pat direct words just for me. Heck, it’s even hard to just write about her and her passing. (Appreciate my colleagues not turning around in the media center after hearing me sniffle.)
Sitting here in the Beth Lawson Center a couple hundred yards from her statue and across the street from a Thompson-Boling Arena where a banner hangs in her honor and the hardwood bears her name, it feels silly to even try to gather words to describe her or her legacy. Even Sally Jenkins struggled today. It’s like being down five to a Summitt-led Lady Vols squad with no timeouts left and your freshman guard is inbounding a pass against a 1-2-2 press that you hadn’t seen on film from Tennessee all season.
Of all her milestone victories en route to 1,098, one of the benchmarks I saw in person was No. 900. Her ladies rallied from a 14-point deficit to beat Vanderbilt by 12 in Memorial Coliseum in Nashville. Her supporters already had posters with the 900 figure plastered and they cheered her on as she left the baseline bench.
On top of covering some of the key games in the latter stages of her career, I often saw her on Shields-Watkins Field prior to Tennessee football games, showing recruits what gameday on Rocky Top is like in the fall. She didn’t shy away from fans and athletes wanting her to pose for pictures no matter if she had a 6-foot-5 teenager on her hip or not.
Could've eased over and misused my media credential to be a fan for a minute and asked for a picture of Pat with me but nope. Couldn't do it. Better chance of the 12-year-old version of myself asking the homecoming queen to dance.
Humble roots created a humble lady. Covering football recruiting, it’s becoming commonplace for 15-year-old boys to deny us interviews. Pat would’ve given each and every one of them scowls. She made time. She understood we had a job to do just like she did.
Her adjectives read like folklore.
Ambassador. Champion. Coach. Competitor. Cook. Daughter. Fighter. Friend. Legend. Mother. Pioneer. Revolutionary. Trailblazer.
Last July, I lost my Aunt Dixie Parker. In August, my friend and co-worker Randy Moore breathed his last breath. On Sunday, my Aunt Judy Hudson passed. Tuesday morning, I lost what feels like another family member in Pat.
It’s excruciatingly hard to not wish we had another day with our loved ones but that’d be selfish.
Rest easy, Pat, when we're together again, I'm saying hi this time.