- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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WASHINGTON -- In 1963, John F. Kennedy established the Presidential Medal of Freedom as it is currently defined: the highest honor any civilian can receive in the United States. That same year, Bob Dylan released "Blowin' In the Wind." Toni Morrison was teaching at her alma mater, Howard, and thinking of her first novel.
John Glenn was still being feted as the first American to orbit the Earth, which he'd done the previous year. John Doar was assistant attorney general and a calming presence in the volatile trenches of the civil rights movement. Madeleine Albright was studying Russian and international relations, excellent preparation for her future job as secretary of state. John Paul Stevens was a well-respected attorney who specialized in antitrust law, firming up his qualifications as an eventual Supreme Court justice.
And what of Pat Summitt? She turned 11 years old in June 1963 and already was a seasoned hand on her family's farm in Tennessee. She played basketball in the barn behind her house with her older brothers, and they gave her no quarter. She didn't expect any, either. She still doesn't.
Now here we are almost 50 years later at the White House in 2012, with all the aforementioned legends among the 13 people awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama on Tuesday.
"Wow, the place was packed, wasn't it?" Summitt said later in the afternoon. "It was a who's who throughout the building. I was just honored to be there."
Yes, the East Room was stuffed full with prominent members of the Obama cabinet, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, invited guests and media. As the president said, the excitement around the ceremony was a testament to "how cool this group is."
Cool, indeed, and extraordinarily diverse. You could say the very essence of the American dream was on display, a collection of lives so accomplished that their impact will reverberate for generations.
Summitt has made the trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue many times, of course. Along with her Lady Vols basketball team, she was honored after winning eight NCAA titles. In February 1997, she also was a guest of then-first lady Clinton at a White House luncheon for 25 women deemed the country's "most influential working mothers." Summitt was in the midst of her greatest run of success then, with Tennessee three-peating as national champion in 1996, '97 and '98. Her last NCAA titles came in 2007 and '08.
So she definitely knows her way around this home of presidents. As does her 21-year-old son, Tyler, who first came here as a baby after his mother's 1991 championship. Yet this White House visit was special, even as it was bittersweet.
Summitt announced last August that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. She remained at Tennessee's helm for a 38th season, which ended in March at the NCAA Elite Eight. In April, she moved into the head coach emeritus position at Tennessee, replaced by longtime assistant Holly Warlick.
Summitt hopes to continue to inspire student-athletes at Tennessee, while her Pat Summitt Foundation raises funds for Alzheimer's research. She has been honored many times in her career, but the citations of the past year all carry an undeniable, poignant gravity to them. They are the kind of lifetime-achievement awards that we did not expect to see bestowed upon Summitt for at least another decade. We thought as a head coach she had a lot more time.
Tuesday, she looked strong and in good spirits, pushing her mother, Hazel, in a wheelchair toward the East Room as the honorees gathered before the ceremony. Then Tyler smiled and put an affectionate arm around his grandmother's shoulders as they sat in the audience waiting for the president's arrival.
"It was amazing just seeing my mom on that stage with so many people who have made such a difference in the lives of others," Tyler said in reflection afterward. "I think the thing that everybody seemed to have in common today is one of my mom's 'Definite Dozen' points: to put the team before yourself. Put others first. It was great to see that philosophy shown by not just her, but the other recipients."
In 1997, Summitt cowrote a book with author Sally Jenkins in which she explained the "Definite Dozen" -- the guidelines Summitt believes are necessary for success in any endeavor. Tuesday, she was the only sports figure of the 2012 Medal of Freedom honorees. And, yes, it was sort of amusing seeing her seated next to Dylan. Yet there existed a kinship between even the two of them: Summitt in her blue dress, smiling politely at all the president's jokes, Dylan expressionless while wearing his ubiquitous shades.
Dylan was the reluctant and at times combative musical voice of a generation trying to figure itself out in the 1960s and '70s, and he remains a cultural touchstone at age 71. Summitt, with her record 1,098 career victories at Tennessee, has defined modern-day women's collegiate athletics as much as anyone. Both are American icons.
In fact, you could find varying links among all of those honored Tuesday, even beyond the unifying trait of courage of conviction in their life's work. But especially among the women honored -- Summitt, Albright, Morrison, agricultural-workers advocate Dolores Huerta and the late Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts in 1912 -- there is the connecting thread of how their achievements broke barriers for their gender.
To sum it up quickly, Albright did it with diplomacy, Morrison with the written word, Low and Huerta with organizational skills and Summitt with a coach's whistle. To sum it up completely would take several volumes.
President Obama talked of how, because of leaders like Summitt, his own two tall, young daughters, Malia and Sasha, "are standing up straight, diving after loose balls, feeling confident and strong."
Nothing could please Summitt more than hearing that. Because even though we empirically measure our sports heroes with statistics -- and Summitt's numbers are staggering -- they are the aspect of her legacy that she has thought of the least.
Over the years, as she passed momentous milestones -- 500 victories then 800 then 1,000 -- Summitt would graciously accept the accompanying celebrations with her mind much more on what lay ahead. It was always a running tally, with no end in sight.
Now that her numbers are final -- which, in all honesty, is still a difficult thing to write -- we see them as not even beginning to explain who Summitt has been. Sure, they are essential elements of her story, but it is the lives she affected that this Medal of Freedom really stands for.
Those aren't of just her players, although that group is the most blessed by Summitt's teaching and empowering aura. But she also greatly influenced her fellow coaches, inspired fans, and made journalists rethink how they covered women's athletics.
President Obama noted that the Medal of Freedom is an award no one sets out to win. It can't be approached that way. The qualifications for it are not specific; it is not a goal someone can set. Rather, it is a monumental distinction earned by exceptional people who would do exactly as they have done whether any of it was recognized.
Summitt's most difficult days are ahead, and she has acknowledged that. But she has never backed down from a battle, even against an enemy no one ever wishes to fight. These are times of change at Tennessee, the school to which she has brought so much glory for four decades. As Summitt exits a direct leadership role there, one hopes that all she has stood for will continue to matter just as much in Knoxville, Tenn.
Tuesday in the nation's capital, that all was crystallized in the medal put around Summitt's neck, a very small item carrying an enormous symbolic weight.
"My son was here for this, which was really neat," Summitt said. "My mama was here, and some of my dearest friends. It was a great event. I enjoyed it tremendously."