“Pat Summitt is probably the one person on the planet I want to beat the most, but for this, I am behind her all the way,” Smath said. “I may hate losing to her, but I respect her so much. She has done so much for women’s basketball in general and the University of Tennessee in particular.”
Thanks to an informal “We’ve Got Your Back, Pat” campaign publicized on Facebook and Twitter, people around the country _ and not necessarily Lady Vols fans _ were wearing orange Friday to show support for Summitt, who announced this week that she’s been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. The Facebook group had more than 19,000 fans by Friday afternoon.
“It is also just so poignant that this woman who is so strong and capable will ultimately lose everything that makes her who she is,” said Smath, 54. “My husband’s father died of Alzheimer’s, and my grandmother had it, too, but she didn’t start to show symptoms until she was in her 90s. It is so unfair that Pat has it at such a young age, still in her prime.”
Smath, a geological editor at the Kentucky Geological Survey, was sure to inform her co-worker Steve Martin about the push to wear orange. Martin, a geologist who has degrees from UT-Knoxville and UT-Chattanooga, said he’s been a Summitt and Lady Vols fan since the 1980s.
“You just feel your heart breaking,” said Martin, 48. “It’s just the way she represents the university and Tennesseans in general with her honesty and how she tries to do the right thing. Like everyone else, it just broke my heart.”
It’s not unusual to see plenty of orange on any given day on Tennessee’s campus, but Kyle Hensley, a 21-year-old agricultural business major from Lenoir City, Tenn., said there seemed to be a bit more on Friday.
“When you walk around, there’s a lot of orange,” said Hensley, who made sure his usual choice of a button-down shirt was orange. “You don’t know if it’s out of habit, but I noticed walking around today that there was quite a bit.”
Tyler Summitt, the coach’s 20-year-old son and a Tennessee student, definitely noticed a difference when he got to campus.
“I got out of my car and I was right by Neyland Stadium and I looked around and I was like, `Is there a football game today?’” he said. “I had forgotten it was wear orange for mom. Things have been so chaotic this week.”
Tyler Summitt said his mother, who hasn’t said anything publically since a statement about her diagnosis, was trying to figure out how to thank everyone for their support.
“My mom didn’t know how things were going to be received. She wasn’t so much worried as she was anxious to see the reaction of everybody _ the public, the fans, the players, the boosters,” he said. “Having seen the response, she is so overwhelmed with joy.”
Summitt said in a video-taped statement on Friday afternoon that she has been touched by the support she’s received.
“It’s been very touching for me to hear from people all over the country. It’s just amazing,” she said. “I couldn’t do this without so many of you. I know you’re praying for me, and it makes me have the motivation to do whatever I need to do to beat this, and I thank you and I love all of you.”
The support isn’t just limited to wearing orange. People have sent letters to Summitt and changed their Facebook profile photos to that of an orange ribbon. Larry Weinberg, a Tennessee-Martin and UT-Memphis alumnus, said he and some fellow fans signed a Lady Vols flag that was to be delivered to Summitt on Friday.
Weinberg, a pharmacist for Kroger in Memphis, also paid a $5 “fine” _ a donation to charity _ for permission to wear his Tennessee polo shirt to work. It wasn’t necessary as his boss was in full support.
“She gave permission for anyone in the store to wear orange,” said Weinberg, 65. “She said she was going to have some orange ribbons cut up and available. She’s not a UT fan, but she’s a Pat Summitt fan.”
Jennifer Langston, a communications consultant from Morrisville, N.C., said the orange shirt, Lady Vols pin, orange sandals she was wearing and orange purse she was carrying was a typical outfit for her. Even her Jeep is orange.
“I found out about the diagnosis over Twitter while sitting in the Philadelphia airport on my way back from a business trip. I was instantly brought to tears,” said Langston, 39. “When I got back to Raleigh and started reading the coverage, people’s reactions, it was clear to me that I wasn’t alone. I still can’t explain it, exactly, the sense of community and closeness that’s she’s built with the fan base.
“So I am wearing orange today to try to connect with that community, even though no one in Raleigh will know it,” she said.