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Fennelly: The tale of Pat Summitt, a recruiting visit and the dash to have a baby born in Tennessee

Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt, right, has a word with guard Michelle Marciniak near the end of the NCAA Mideast semifinal game in Fayetteville, Ark., Thursday, March 24, 1994. Louisiana Tech upset Tennessee 71-68. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)
Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt, right, has a word with guard Michelle Marciniak near the end of the NCAA Mideast semifinal game in Fayetteville, Ark., Thursday, March 24, 1994. Louisiana Tech upset Tennessee 71-68. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)
Published Jul. 7, 2016

Basketball legend Pat Summitt passed away last week. Nothing speaks to her relentless passion and Tennessee roots more than the greatest Pat Summitt, Mama Vol, Rocky Top story of all.

I'll leave the telling to Mickie DeMoss, Summitt's dear friend and longtime assistant coach. DeMoss is now an assistant at LSU. Well, last March, over the phone, I begged to hear about the time 25 years ago, when DeMoss was with Summitt, and how her friend went into labor but refused to call off a recruiting visit to Allentown, Pa., to meet a talented guard named Michelle Marciniak.

Pat Summitt, then 38, gave birth to her only child, Tyler, in Tennessee. Tyler Summitt recently resigned as Louisiana Tech women's basketball coach after reports of a sexual relationship with a player. What a mess. But this is about remembering his mother. And laughing. DeMoss takes it from there:

"There's no way she could have had a boring pregnancy. Not Pat. Hell, yes, I was worried on that trip. She was ready to have a baby, and here we were on an airplane to Pennsylvania.

"When we landed, Pat says, 'Oh, I think my water broke.' My God, what does that mean, Pat? I never had kids, never been around somebody having a kid. Pat goes, 'Well, DeMoss, it means I'm getting set to have this baby.'

"I try talking to her. Let's get to a hospital. Pat says no, no, we'd already canceled the home visit one time. Bad weather. She wasn't canceling again. That was Pat. Stubborn. I told her the family might understand, with her having a baby at the moment and all. Pat says, 'Well, I think I can go.' She calls her doctor. Probably didn't tell him the entire true story. Pat gets off the phone, says, 'Yeah, we can go.'

"I'm telling you, her body looked like that baby was going to pop out any second. I'm driving the rental to the house. Pat was okay, only hurtin' a little bit. But at the house, it got worse and worse. Pat kept getting up, going in the kitchen, phoning her doctor. She was really not involved in the recruiting. And I couldn't concentrate. Michelle and her father, they didn't know what was going on, but Michelle's mom, Betsy, she sure knew. Pat told Betsy not to tell Michelle and her dad. Didn't want them distracted. Can you imagine?

"Finally, Betsy said, 'Pat, we can't do this anymore. You've got to get out of here.' By then, I'd totally lost all mental capabilities. I forgot how to get back to the airport. Michelle and her brother said follow them. I'm just going nuts, because there's all kind of construction on the road. God, I'm screaming. Pat's got both her feet up on the dashboard. She's going in and out of contractions. I was like, 'Damn it, Pat, we should have called an ambulance, we should have called the police.' I'm beating the steering wheel and honking the horn. Pat turns and says, 'DeMoss, you need to calm down. You're not having this baby. I am.'

"We get to the airport. The pilots are already on the plane. I sit down next to Pat. 'Here, I got you something,' she tells me. It's a shot of Jack Daniels. Didn't she want it? Pat said, 'DeMoss, you need it more than I do.' School planes can't carry alcohol. Pat got one of the pilots to go to the plane next door and get some liquor. Pat could get anyone to do anything.

"I swigged the shot. Okay, what do you need me to do now? Pat says, 'Get those baby pamphlets out of my bag and start reading them.' Jesus. I'm reading about labor and what you're supposed to do if the baby's coming. Pat's baby. Is this really happening?

"You're asking me why didn't she just stay in Pennsylvania. Are you out of your mind? It's Pat Summitt. No way that woman was going to have her child anywhere but Knoxville, Tenn.

"It's a two-hour flight back. Pat's getting more contractions. The pilots keep coming back. Over Virginia, one of them tells me, 'We're ready to land in Roanoke. We got an ambulance waiting. The hospital is alerted. All we got to do is sit this plane down. Please go try and reason with her.'

"Pat hears him. I go back and Pat looked at me. 'Don't even try it, DeMoss. If you let them land this plane anywhere but Knoxville, Tenn., you'll have a madwoman on your hands.' I know when it's time to shut up and do what Pat wants. I went back to the cockpit. I said, 'Y'all better get this plane to Knoxville, Tenn., as fast as you can. She's gonna have the baby on the plane or in Tennessee. It's sure as hell not going to be in Virginia.'

"I was just praying. God, just get us home. There was a toilet in back, seat down. Pat was leaned over it, on her knees. I kept massaging her back. … 'We're getting close to Knoxville, Pat. We're over the mountains, Pat. We're over Jellico, Pat.' I could tell where we were. It was a beautiful day. We're 10 minutes away, Pat. We're five minutes away.

"We finally land. Could have kissed the ground. Then Pat asks, 'You're going with me in the ambulance, right?' I said I don't know, there's going to be paramedics, doctors, nurses. Pat says, 'But you're the only one who knows what to do.' I nearly died laughing.

"And that's how Pat's baby was born back home, in Knoxville, Tenn. Michelle ended up playing for us, too. Pat never knew how to be anyone but Pat. That's what made Pat so endearing."