Legendary coach ready to fight Alzheimer’s

Tyler+and+Pat+Summit+are+in+unchartered+territory.+Now+the+enemy+is+Alzheimer%E2%80%99s%2C+but+the+Summits+are+not+fazed.++Photo+courtesy+of+The+Univerity+of+Tennessee+Media+Relations
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Legendary coach ready to fight Alzheimer’s

Tyler and Pat Summit are in unchartered territory. Now the enemy is Alzheimer’s, but the Summits are not fazed.  Photo courtesy of The Univerity of Tennessee Media Relations

Tyler and Pat Summit are in unchartered territory. Now the enemy is Alzheimer’s, but the Summits are not fazed. Photo courtesy of The Univerity of Tennessee Media Relations

Tyler and Pat Summit are in unchartered territory. Now the enemy is Alzheimer’s, but the Summits are not fazed. Photo courtesy of The Univerity of Tennessee Media Relations

Tyler and Pat Summit are in unchartered territory. Now the enemy is Alzheimer’s, but the Summits are not fazed. Photo courtesy of The Univerity of Tennessee Media Relations

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Perhaps it is some coincidence that the coach with the most wins in NCAA Division 1 history is named Summitt. After all, where else would 1,037 career wins, eight national championships and 29 Southeastern Conference championships leave you but on top?

Tyler and Pat Summit are in unchartered territory. Now the enemy is Alzheimer’s, but the Summits are not fazed. Photo courtesy of The Univerity of Tennessee Media Relations

When The Sporting News ranked its top-100 coaches in sporting history in 2009, only one woman made the top 50: Pat Summitt. And she sat higher than the likes of Knight, La Russa and Belichick.

Talking about the University of Tennessee’s Head Women’s Basketball Coach is talking about the very best.

Much has been written about Summitt over the last 37 years — the consummate warrior on the court and, for women across America, the pioneer for women’s athletics.

This story, however, is not about Tennessee’s wonder woman. This is about Patricia Sue Head Summitt — known as Trish by family members — from Cheatham County, Tenn. On Aug. 23, it was Trish who told the world that she was suffering from early on-set Alzheimer’s disease, an abnormal degenerative disorder that attacks the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, resulting in loss of memory, thinking and language skills and behavioral changes.

Suddenly, Coach Summitt has become a new kind of warrior, fighting a new kind of battle. But Trish, 57, won’t be alone – the acclaimed coach has another title, perhaps her most important, at such a time – Mom. And so, for this story of Summitt’s courage and vigor, only one person, her 20-year-old son Tyler, can do it justice.

Tyler Summitt, a walk-on for Summitt’s counter-part, Cuonzo Martin, at Tennessee said his mother could be best described as “determined and motivated,” and though a war looms against dementia, his mother is ready to give it her all — as usual.

Anger has been replaced by acceptance; what was once refusal is now public acceptance.

“She realizes what’s in front of her,” Tyler said. “Last year, when the symptoms started, we didn’t know what was going on. We called it the ‘invisible opponent.’ But now, she’s determined to beat it.”

Tyler says his mother would lose personal items multiple times a day, forget when practice was or forget in-game adjustments. The ever-blazing Summitt was not herself. Her son was scared, and it took time to find out what was wrong. A visit to the renowned Mayo Clinic confirmed the dementia diagnosis.

And that was just the beginning.

Then came the moment of reckoning when, a few weeks ago, Summitt, with her son by her side, informed the chancellor, Jimmy Cheek, and athletic director at Tennessee that she had a mental disability. Per her contract, even after all the accolades, the wins and the lives changed, she could have been dismissed immediately.

“When we went into the meeting with UT, we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Tyler said. “We went into that meeting realizing that they could end her career right then and there. We had to accept that, before we went in there.

“Even though she didn’t want to retire, we had to think about that, financially, emotionally. That prepared us for this, taking this week-by-week, knowing there will be good days and bad days. It’s really more comfortable because we came to terms with what she’s dealing with and who’s supporting her.”

She needn’t worry about her job – Cheek responded by saying to Summitt, “You are now and will always be our coach.”

Support, like letters, phone calls, Tweets and Facebook messages, for the Summitts is coming from all walks of life – her assistant coaches of 20 years, former players, Volunteer Nation and the November-to-April foes.

“It’s incredible, the lives she has changed,” Tyler said of the coach. “You know, the biggest thing she does is instill values in them that will carry them in life. What she’s done for women in sport, as a whole, is incredible.”

But regardless of what coach Summitt has faced on the court, nothing could have prepared her for this. How can one possibly be prepared to accept that their mind is betraying them, that the enemy is no longer “them” but “you?”

Finally, all of America will get to see the Pat Summitt that Tyler Summitt has seen his whole life – an incredibly strong, loving and giving woman.

Coach Summitt will no longer stand behind an iron curtain of competitive fierceness. Forced by circumstances and by her own admission, the new Coach Summitt will be vulnerable. The game has changed for her; whether or not it changes the coach is yet to be seen.

“Everybody thinks of Coach Summit, and they think of this fierce competitor screaming at the referees and players … all go, no quit, no sympathy,” Tyler said.

“People saw a side of that with this announcement, when she was at home. You otherwise wouldn’t see that she has two yellow Labrador retrievers (Sally-Sue and Sadie), or her humorous side.  Like, when she was a cheerleader at our men’s game versus Florida two years back, leading the crowd in singing [the school theme] ‘Rocky Top.’

“There are definitely two different people, whether it’s the coach or the mother authority figure.”

Now, though, Coach Summitt and Trish Summitt will become one, and her stalwart son will help guider her through this melancholy journey.  After all, it was Coach Summitt, who was determined to have her son born in Tennessee; and although her water had broken, she hopped on a charter jet to make sure Tyler was not delivered in Pennsylvania.

And it is Trish Summitt who will need, and find, her son by her side.

Until Tyler went to high school, he never fully grasped his mother’s celebrity status. And he says that during his parents’ divorce in 2007, his mother was always there for him. And now, it’s Tyler’s turn.

“She’s my best friend,” he says about his mother. “We’ve been through a lot … we had to go through [the divorce] alone, but we found a way to make it. She’s prepared me to deal with something like this. It’s like giving back to her.”

And with this new challenge, the coach who has given so much to women in athletics can now lend a face, a voice and a fighting spirit to the 5 million other Americans who also wage a daily war against a faceless disease.

Regardless of how trying the times ahead may be, the Summitts, Tyler says, will always turn to God for guidance and support.

“We really gave control to God,” he said. “We haven’t missed a church service all summer — a first. From where I’m standing right now, things work out for the best. There’s no question, there’s something divine at work.

“God always has a plan.”