One of the last tweets Kendall Bayne ever sent is dated Sept. 28. In it, she writes: Absolutely love getting words of encouragement from my favorite coach.
Mike London sent her the text the way he has sent her countless texts over the last four years. The two first got to know each other in 2011, when London autographed a football for her.
Bayne was suffering through cancer. Virginia was her favorite team. London could not help but keep in touch, not because he is a football coach, but because he is a father whose own daughter fought and survived cancer as a child. He needed to show support.
They corresponded through calls and texts, London sending her inspirational messages along the way. She served as an honorary coach in a home game against Duke in 2013 and stood on the sideline, wearing a UVa jersey London autographed for her.
There was hope and prayer that Kendall would be OK. But in early October, her father texted London. Kendall, he said, was struggling. London was crushed.
Then, last Saturday morning, her father sent another text. Kendall had passed. She was 19.
London had to go coach a game against Georgia Tech hours later. But that morning, after the text arrived, London resolved he would attend the funeral. “I felt compelled,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I had to go.”
He wiped his slate clean and took off for Roanoke, Virginia, on Monday, a two hour drive from Charlottesville. His plan was to sit quietly in the back of the church. But the family wanted him somewhere else. London was escorted to the front of the church, where a seat was reserved for him in the first row, in front of the casket. He was floored.
The service began. It was beautiful, London said, one speaker after another praising Kendall for her spirit and determination. She always had a smile for everyone. Then her father got up.
“He looks over at me and says, ‘Coach London, she’s your biggest fan. We appreciate you,’” London said. “I lose it because it’s like you can’t hold emotion like that. Tears are streaming down. My daughter Ticynn is a sophomore at ODU. We went thru the same thing. So mine gets to live, and then this flower passes?”
“It’s affected me profoundly because it was through words, it was through gestures that I developed a friendship with this young lady and I never knew the power of what that did for her. This is a tough profession. I’m at peace with who I am and what I am. I’m a football coach. That’s what I do for my job. But I’m a father, husband, all those other things and if it works out that we get these wins and do this, OK fine.
“But there’s just more to life. Who decides who comes, who goes, who stays, who leaves? Look at a young lady that lost her battle. I look at my daughter making dean's list and having opportunities. … It’s all so awe inspiring to me. Having been in Kendall’s life and not knowing what type of influence I had, I can’t wrap my mind around it. To be shown such favor in a situation like that, I feel really honored and blessed to have that opportunity.”
When London got back to the office on Monday evening, he gathered his coaches around and put the game against Miami on Saturday into perspective. He told his coaches if your children have activities, whether a game or a recital, go see them. Don’t miss those moments because you just don’t know how many you have.
“I believed it before,” London says. “But I believe it now more than anything.”