For nearly four decades, the University of Tennessee's head coach Pat Summitt has kept the Lady Vol basketball program among the nation's elite. Today, she faces a new battle off the court and thousands of fans are on the sidelines cheering on this woman who has put her life story on the front pages.
Summitt, already the all-time winningest coach in NCAA basketball history, recently received a stunning diagnoses from her doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
At age 59, the diagnosis was the early onset of dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
Dementia is a loss of brain function that occurs with certain diseases. It affects memory, thinking, language, judgment, and behavior.
Her doctors at the Mayo Clinic say the patient can be confused and unable to remember people and names. Other symptoms include changes in personality and social behavior. However, some causes of dementia are treatable and even reversible.
After months of erratic behavior, the usually strong-willed Tennessee women’s basketball coach was scared and began asking herself “What’s wrong with me?”
She confessed to not being as confident on the court and second guessing some of her decisions she made during the games.
“There were some mornings I would wake up and think I don’t even want to go in,” she said.
Since the diagnoses this summer, several amazing things have happened.
First, Summitt’s story has spread across the country – not with a tone of impending doom – but one of hope, strength, faith and large doses of courage.
Even people who are not basketball fans are catching the “Summitt fever.”
She has moved past the fear, anger and denial into a more “Summitt-like” attitude and the nation is now fascinated with her story.
Summitt said her main goal now is to remain transparent and "without even the smallest hint of secrecy."
The head coach also has rheumatoid arthritis and doctors first considered whether or not the medication was causing her mental issues. She underwent a series of tests at the clinic including a spinal tap to rule out the possibility.
"I feel better just knowing what I’m dealing with,” she said in a statement this week.
Summitt said she wants to fight the illness with all she's got and is involving medication and mental activities, such as reading and doing puzzles at night before going to sleep. She’s also taken a hopeful stance about her future.
“I plan to continue to be your coach,” Summitt said.
“Obviously, I realize I may have some limitations with this condition since there will be some good days and some bad days.”
Summitt said she will have to rely on her support coaching staff more than ever in the coming season.
“We have always collaborated on every facet of Lady Vol basketball; and now you will see Holly Warlick, Dean Lockwood and Mickie DeMoss taking on more responsibility as their duties will change significantly,” she said.
“I love being your coach. “I will continue coaching at the University of Tennessee as long as the good Lord is willing.”
Her can-do spirit is catching national attention as a new "We've Got Your Back, Pat" campaign is now being publicized on Facebook and Twitter.
Fans from across the country, including those who are not basketball fans, are posting hundreds of messages in support of Summitt.
Friday turned into a day to wear anything orange is support of the Lady Vol’s team and Summitt’s fight to stay mentally healthy.
Ricci Hellman posted a message of hope on the Facebook support page writing, “Coach Summitt: Your integrity and humility teach us all. We all support you and keep you in our prayers.”
Another post from Becki Hynson said “Pat, we support you, we support your staff and we support the Lady Vols! Don't worry, we got your back!”
Dr. Mark A. Sutton, a medical consult for Focus on the Family, said everyone has the power to overcome bad news by breaking the cycle of despair.
“Believe it or not, it is within your power to do so,” he said.
“Perseverance. After faith, it's the strongest weapon we have with which to fight an illness. It helps us break a deadly cycle of which we may not even be aware. And breaking that cycle produces some positive side effects: new, powerful habits that actually act as our allies.”
Throughout the years, Summitt has reached numerous goals and worn many hats at the University of Tennessee as a student, an educator and a coach.
She'll be the first to tell you that her success is due to the players who have represented Lady Vol basketball since she came on board as the head coach as a 22-year-old in 1974.
And today, it is still safe to say that she is an educator and role model to her players and those who hear her story.
The nation will continue to watch the ever-changing game of the most successful women's basketball coach in the nation.
“And as far as I’m concerned it’s not going to keep me from living my life,” Summitt said.
“It is not going to keep me from coaching."
To send a message of encouragement to Pat Summitt visit here.