Tracking the ascension of Summitt

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Tenn. -- There's an old saying about how tiring it is to work the land: On a farm, most things are either hungry or heavy. Or both.

Here in north-central Tennessee, Pat Summitt grew up in a family of five children who worked extremely hard and played occasionally. But they also did that extremely hard.

"That barn over there was the corncrib, and we'd have corncob fights sometimes," said Kenneth Head, one of Summitt's three older brothers. "You think that don't hurt? Wet corncobs hurt!

"We used to play baseball in there and in the house, with a little paddle and a pingpong ball. Pat also played tackle football with us; we didn't play touch. That's why she was tough -- she'd hit you, so you better hit her back."

Kenneth Head and his brothers, Tommy and Charles, plus the youngest of the family, sister Linda, all have stayed here in Montgomery and neighboring Cheatham counties. Family patriarch Richard Head died in 2005, but their 86-year-old mother, Hazel, still lives here as well, in the tiny town of Henrietta, much of which was built by the Heads.

So strong a personality was Richard that in many ways it doesn't seem he's really gone. It's as if all his children -- although they now are parents and grandparents themselves -- still hear his voice if they ever pause for very long in their day's chores: "What are you doing? Get back to work."

But Kenneth is gracious enough to take a break one afternoon to provide a tour of the sprawling acreage that he knows as well as most people know their front porch. How many times has he been asked about his famous sister? How many autographs have people wanted? How many basketballs signed?

How about the Walmart greeter who was so enamored of Summitt and the Lady Vols -- trumpeting their accomplishments to Kenneth every time he walked into the store -- that Kenneth finally asked, "Would you like to go meet her?"

"He said he wanted to meet my sister more than anybody and shake her hand," Kenneth said.

Indeed, the fellow was so excited he left home without his wife. But such is the effect the Lady Vols' coach has on many people, especially here in her home state. Even those who have never actually met her feel a bond to Summitt. She represents everything about Tennessee of which they are most proud.

The young man in the rental car parking lot says he has been a Lady Vols fan "for my entire life. My whole family is, too." The woman at the hotel front desk talks about the day this past August when she came in and saw one of her co-workers in tears. She had never seen him cry before and was alarmed, assuming he'd had a tragedy in his family.

In a way, he had. He told her, "They just had something about Coach Summitt on TV. She's real sick."

Summitt made the announcement late this past summer that she was dealing with a diagnosis of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. Winner of eight NCAA titles and one of the faces you'd have on a Mount Rushmore of American women's sports, the 59-year-old Summitt has a go-on-forever persona. Everyone figured she would coach just as long as she wanted to -- and that she'd want to for quite a while more.

"Daddy tried to get her to retire years ago," Kenneth said. "He thought the stress was getting to her. He said, 'Why don't you just stop?' She didn't want to hang it up. She still doesn't want to hang it up."

Surely, Richard knew that was one bit of advice his daughter would never take. He raised his children to work from sunup to sundown. If anyone ever wondered how Summitt juggled so much -- coaching, recruiting, speaking engagements, being a mom to her 21-year-old son, Tyler, and a mother figure to her players -- they just needed to know where she came from.

Now, as Summitt faces the biggest challenge of her life, we retrace her roots. We visit the land she grew up on and the college where she matured. We want to connect with those 22 years before she moved to Knoxville for a job that set her on the path toward becoming an American icon.

We go to see the places that shaped her first, the home turf that has never left her soul. We go to understand how a person of such stature always has retained humility, thanks to a youth that provided her with a lifelong reality check. We go to chronicle how Summitt's upbringing gives her the strength to combat a merciless enemy.

And, we must admit, there's another reason.

We go because we wish to turn back the clock, to before this disease put its tentacles on her.

Fruits of their labor

The old barn was built in 1953, when Summitt was just a baby. It was made mostly of red oak, about 96 feet long by 32 feet wide, with a loft and lights inside for kids to play basketball.

"It had a tongue-and-groove floor," Kenneth said. "There wasn't but one dead spot in the floor when we played, and we knew where it was."

A big storm took its toll on that barn, and another barn is now in its place. Meanwhile, a different barn, which also dates back to the late '40s or early '50s, serves as a workshop area. It used to be home to the dairy that the Head family ran.

"Mother and Daddy started with one milk cow," Kenneth said. "They got a loan, bought this farm and went into the dairy business. It grew from there.

"We've farmed. We've built houses, been in the grocery business, hardware business, ran a wishy-washer, a one-chair barbershop. We've done a little of everything."

A wishy-washer is a laundry. As you might have noticed, there is a particular dialect to this region. When Summitt left the farm, she trained herself to stop speaking that way, although she never lost a gentle Tennessee twang.

She also never lost who she really was. Home folks would tease her about changing, but the alterations she made in transitioning into a public figure were needed anyway to shore up her self-confidence. They weren't about trying to disassociate herself from her past.

"When she comes home, she's the same person she always was," Kenneth said. "You ask anybody around here. That's one thing I always like and think more of her for: She ain't got the big head. Money hasn't bothered her."

When Summitt was growing up, money was a constant motivator for the family, though, evident by the many businesses with which they were involved. Some of this enterprise was in Montgomery County, where Summitt grew up, and some was in neighboring Cheatham County, where her father relocated so she could play high school girls' basketball.

It's one of the most fascinating parts of Summitt's life story. That such a thoroughly no-nonsense man as Richard Head -- never one for whimsy, sentimentality or anything impractical -- not only saw the value of his daughter playing prep basketball in the 1960s, but moved to another house to give her the chance.

Yet in the broader picture, that's a key element to women's basketball in this country: Its roots are rural. The idea of girls being delicate, unathletic creatures was laughable on a farm, where all hands were on deck with often-strenuous manual labor. It's one of the reasons agriculturally based states such as Tennessee and Iowa have a longer and richer history of girls' basketball than less-rural places.

To Summitt, like so many other farm girls, no workout on the basketball court could ever be more taxing than an average day tending crops and livestock.

To that end, Kenneth explains the patience and persistence needed to raise and harvest tobacco. As he does, the oldest of the Head children, Tommy, drives up. Along with farming, Tommy has a construction business and is currently helping build a new school in the area.

Tommy was born in 1945 in nearby Stroudsville, and his birth came at home, not in a hospital. When the Head family first moved to Montgomery County, they lived in a log house where Tommy recalls having an outhouse, bathing in a washtub and sleeping in an upstairs bedroom that was, shall we say, very close to nature.

"We'd wake up in the morning, and if it snowed, there would be snow on the bed," Tommy says. "There were some cracks in the walls. If it was 30 degrees outside, it was 30 inside."

The log house was replaced by a one-story ranch-style home as Richard and Hazel's family expanded and their farm and dairy slowly prospered. The work was endless, though, and it started for the children about as soon as they were ambulatory.

"I had my first patch of tobacco when I was 6 years old, right down there on the other side of the ponds," says Tommy, who goes on to describe the tedious and exhausting process of caring for the plants. "It liked to have killed me."

Tommy then goes back to work on the school, and Kenneth climbs into his pickup truck to continue the tour. It's off to another patch of land where the three brothers and other family members farm and raise cattle. Kenneth explains their other failed venture there.

"We put a big dam up, and we were trying to put a 6½-acre lake in here. We were going to name it Richard's Lake," Kenneth says. "We spent about $20,000 on it, then another $15,000 tearing the dam down because it wouldn't hold water. I wasn't too happy; I don't make Sissy's money, you know what I'm saying?"

That's one of the names Summitt is still known by here. There's also "Sis" and "Trish," the other shortened version of Patricia, which is what everyone called her until she went to college at Tennessee-Martin and was too shy to correct those who referred to her as "Pat." So Pat she became.

It makes sense, though, that she allowed new acquaintances in Martin to call her a different name, almost as if she were looking for a kind of rebirth. As much as Trish Head loved her family and accepted the endless labor that farm living required, she did want something else in life. Basketball would provide that.

Kenneth makes the quick drive over to Henrietta, where Summitt's career in basketball began in earnest, even if she didn't know it at the time. Kenneth looks over his shoulder at the land where the short-lived dam used to be.

"It looks OK now," he says. "But it would be better with a lake."

Not falling far from the tree

Hazel Head, the family matriarch, lives on Hazel Drive, in one of the homes she and her husband built in tiny Henrietta. Tommy lives just a few houses down, and Kenneth jokes that his brother's large garage/workshop cost more than his home did.

Kenneth for many years sold livestock feed for a manufacturer, along with being a farmer. You can see how he was a successful salesman, with his understated and dry humor, much like Pat's. Such as when he describes his iron-willed father with a reference to a well-known commercial from years past.

"As I got older, I would talk to Daddy and tell him what I thought in some cases," Kenneth says. "But most of the time, you listened and didn't say anything. It was kind of like when E.F. Hutton spoke, you know?"

Kenneth is protective of Pat and not necessarily prone to too much public introspection about his family. When asked whether he's the sibling Pat is most like, he goes quiet for a few seconds.

"The name 'Head' should have 'hard' in front of it, I'm telling you," he says with a wry smile. "People always said we were hard-headed, and we all are. I think Charles, Linda and me are more like Mother. Tommy's more like Daddy. And Pat's more like both Mother and Daddy. Daddy was so disciplined, and Pat is, too."

You could almost miss the entirety of Henrietta if you blinked driving through it, so Kenneth goes slowly.

"Daddy built that house," he says, pointing. "And that house, that house, that house, that house, that house and one down here, and another one.

"Mother is 86 and still mows her own yard. That's what she loves to do. Now if she got sick or it was real hot, we wouldn't let her do it. But it's her thing to do; she wants to do it."

Near Hazel's home is a barn that to the uninitiated appears to be on fire. In fact, the tobacco leaves are being smoked or "fired" inside, part of the lengthy process of selling this crop.

"Sometimes you have 16-hour days," Kenneth said with a resigned shrug.

A relentless drive

The next stop is Charles' home, and there's plenty of activity there. He's making sausage for his family, from a couple of pigs that were killed that morning. Now the meat is being chopped up; later it will be ground up and seasoned with the same recipe Hazel used for decades.

Oh, yes, the Head family also once raised hogs in large quantities to sell, as many as 2,000 at one point. Now, their livestock is mostly limited to cattle.

"There's not a lot of money in cattle; they're more like a savings account," Kenneth said. "They're high right now, but you go through cheap times when they don't make much money. Everything is supply and demand."

It crosses your mind that life in this region wouldn't necessarily get the approval of the surgeon general, with such great economic dependence on meat and tobacco. In that sense, it's perhaps not so much different than it was six decades ago when Summitt was born.

Kenneth says technology has made some of the processes easier. But none of it is "easy."

That amply sums up this journey across the two counties of Summitt's youth: There are no easy roads here. Yet after navigating so much, Summitt's disease has put her on the the most difficult path of her life.

"Pat's the kind of person that -- I ain't saying she says she's going to beat it," Kenneth said. "She's going to try to do everything she can, just like anybody would. But she'll work harder and do more than most people."

It has been the hallmark of her life, in fact. When the majority of folks would have stopped, Pat Summitt has always kept going.

"Do you know how many times that people say, 'Can I get a picture signed, a ball signed?'" Kenneth said. "She'll go sign for hours, even with that rheumatoid arthritis. I said, 'Sis, why don't you get yourself a stamp?' And she said, 'Kenneth, it's not the same. They want my signature.'

"I remember once, I said, 'Sis, I got a few pictures for you to sign.' And she was just worn out. She said, 'Kenneth, give me a little break; my hand's cramping. I will do it in the morning. I'll take care of it.' And she always does."

Coming of age in Martin

Drive west out of Henrietta, and pass though Clarksville, Dover, Paris and Dresden on the 150-minute trip into Martin. Along the way, you cross the southern tip of the "Land Between the Lakes," the area of Kentucky and Tennessee where the damming of rivers created an inland peninsula surrounded by Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley.

Parts of the trip are quite pretty; it's the road Trish Head took to go to college at Tennessee-Martin.

"Pat came to us a country girl -- one with strong values, from a family that instilled in her everything that in my estimation was good," said longtime UT-Martin women's athletics director Bettye Giles. "That may be based on the fact that I, too, was a country girl."

In Martin, Giles is always referred to as Ms. Bettye. She has an exceptional memory and the desert-dry wit of a natural storyteller.

"I grew up in Clarksville, Tennessee, and I watched Pat play ball at Roosevelt Elementary School," said Giles, who turned 83 in January. "I knew of her and her family all of her life."

Giles understands intrinsically what farm life did for Summitt. Because it did the same for her and for Summitt's coach at UT-Martin, another farm girl named Nadine Gearin, who died in 2009.

"It proved to me that I could do things," Giles said. "Things that, really and truly, I wasn't sure I could do until I did them. Our fathers were strict disciplinarians. When my father said, 'Bettye, I need you to drive the tractor tomorrow. We're going to put up hay, and I cannot spare somebody else to be on the tractor,' I did it.

"Did Pat ever tell you about missing her 16th birthday party? She was helping get up hay."

Summitt dutifully obeyed her father; even her going to UT-Martin was his idea. Still, Giles recalled there were a few times when Summitt avoided him.

"Pat had a small wreck, and it didn't tear the car up badly," she said. "But Pat feared her father. So she went to Nadine, and she had her car fixed for her."

Giles began to chuckle.

"We say we don't even want the NCAA to hear about that today," she said. "I'm sure they would try to do something, even though we weren't a part of the NCAA then."

Women's college athletics when Summitt arrived at UT-Martin in 1970 was, as Giles put it, "like a newborn infant."

And Summitt herself began taking baby steps away from being the self-conscious girl named Trish Head. She wrote about overcoming her youthful insecurity in the books "Reach for the Summit" and "Raise the Roof" that she co-authored with Sally Jenkins in the 1990s.

The stories she told of feeling awkward and out of place as she began college contrast with how Giles remembers her blossoming.

"Chi Omega wanted her quickly because of her friendliness, great personality," Giles said of the sorority Summitt joined. "Everyone liked her; she just was so much fun."

Gearin and Giles saw more than just likability in Summitt. They saw a very promising athlete.

"We thought that Pat could be an Olympic star and a great person in the field of basketball, but she had to be seen by the right people," Giles said. "We had to get her out of just playing in towns in Tennessee. Nadine Gearin -- with her own money, her own car -- took Pat a lot of places. Anywhere they were having some kind of tryout or whatever, Pat appeared. And she began to be recognized by these so-called leaders in women's basketball in the United States."

Some of the road trips got a little adventurous. These were the days even before team vans, which preceded team buses and planes. This was back when coaches and athletes carpooled to games. At times, Gearin -- an almost blithely innocent person -- inadvertently got into a little trouble behind the wheel.

When Gearin died, many of her former players returned for the service, including Summitt and her former teammate Esther Stubblefield.

"Pat and Esther put on a show; it was the first funeral I've ever been to where people had tears streaming down their faces because they were laughing so hard," Giles said. "Nadine would have loved that. They told story after story about her.

"One time, she was leading the team caravan, and she gets pulled over by a cop. He said, 'Do you know how fast you are going?' Nadine said, 'No, but I couldn't have been speeding.' He said, 'Ma'am, you were going 75 miles an hour!' Nadine said, 'That just couldn't be. ... Oh! Wait just a minute! I've got new tires on my car. Did that make me go so fast?'"

Players in Summitt's era had wonderful experiences -- but they didn't have scholarships. Much of the time, team meals were bologna and cheese sandwiches consumed at roadside parks going to and from games. Summitt's team her freshman season played in a small building that still stands, now used as a student-life center. The rest of her career, her teams were in a larger venue that is now home to UT-Martin's volleyball team.

The Elam Center, where the men's and women's basketball teams play, has its floor named after Summitt. It was dedicated in 1997 when Summitt brought her defending NCAA champions to play the Skyhawks (who were called the Pacers in Summitt's day). This coming fall, UT-Martin plans to unveil a statue of Summitt, Gearin and Giles by the hoops arena.

"I was rabidly opposed to it; I thought statues came after you were long gone," Giles said, mirth in her eyes. "But colleges are overloaded with statues these days. I guess they're all the rage."

Maybe UT Knoxville needs a statue of Giles, too: She got her masters there and then steered Summitt to a graduate assisant job at the school.

"At first, she wasn't going to be coaching sports," Giles said. "She was going to be teaching lower-division physical education, which was not my first choice for her.

"But Margaret Hutson, who was the coach at Knoxville, resigned. And suddenly, Pat was coach. They say Pat had never coached a day in her life when she took over the Lady Vols, but that's not really true. Pat did a lot of coaching at UT-Martin. She was like a player-coach. She knew more about basketball than I did; I admit it."

Summitt had severely injured her knee during her senior season in 1973-74 and so was recovering when she went to Knoxville.

"She worked like the dog; I don't know how she did it that first year there," Giles said. "She was teaching, she was the coach, she was rehabbing and she was taking a full load of graduate studies.

"But part of our background is, 'Yeah, it's tough, but we can do it if we make up our minds.' We're just not whiners. We're taught to suck it up. Go on, get with it."

The sparkle in Giles' eye dimmed as she reluctantly waded into the topic of Summitt's illness.

"What has happened to Pat is almost like -- it makes you wonder about things," Giles said. "I believe Pat could have been governor of Tennessee; that was my goal for her. I was sure hoping she could get all the coaching in her that she wanted to get before I got too old to campaign for her."

We came here to Tennessee to explore Summitt's roots, the source of her strength and character. What we've seen and heard and experienced is so vivid that you almost feel like you could turn a corner, and there would be a young woman named Pat Head -- still Trish to her family -- about to hit the road for a long drive to her new job in Knoxville.

Some legends get smaller when you examine their genesis. Others get larger.

"Pat has been such a big part of the growth of women's athletics," Giles said, "that maybe it's part of the scheme of things for her to be involved in something major to be discovered with Alzheimer's.

"Maybe that's one of the greatest contributions she will ever make. For anyone who's ever had a mother or father with Alzheimer's, I'm sure they would feel that way. It might make basketball seem totally unimportant."