What’s In A Number

cooper-numberBy Taylor Cooper

There are two reasons why I wear the jersey number #3.

The first reason is because of Candace Parker. She was my favorite women’s basketball player growing up. She was who I idolized. She was the complete player and that’s how I’ve always wanted to be looked at as a basketball player. After two years of high school I decided that I wanted to change my number, to kind of define my own identity. But I ended up keeping #3  to honor one of my good friends Kyle Lewis.

number-cooperKyle and I were good friends all throughout middle school and high school. His dad coached my dad throughout high school and so we had always been close. Kyle wore number #3 in basketball also and I was always inspired by the way he played. He was the type of player that was always on the floor diving for loose balls, taking charges, and he could shoot the 3. He was the heart and soul of the team just because of how hard he played and the attitude and mindset he brought each and every day. Before my junior year of high school Kyle was killed in a car accident coming back from a golf tournament. He had committed to play golf at the University of Oklahoma and was coming back from one of his last tournaments for the summer. So the reason why I kept the number three as my jersey number is to honor him.

 

MY HERO

breast-cancer-picAt the age of 57, there have been two dates that have dramatically changed my life. The first coming on September 7, 1991 when Sherie Yvette Hayslett made me the happiest man on the face of the planet by taking my hand in marriage.

Then there was June 19, 2007.

On that day, I was in our Baton Rouge house working on the computer in my home office.  It was late morning and Sherie walked in saying she had just gotten on off the phone with the doctor.

“I have breast cancer.”

It is impossible for me to put into words the incredible wave of emotions that washed through me at the moment.  As I got up from my chair to hug her, the first thought that came to mind was “could she possibly die?”  And then, I just as quickly erased that thought, looked into her eyes, and said, “We’re going to be OK — we’re going to beat this.”

And then the journey began.

The bad news was that we had been diagnosed with HER2, one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancers…the good news is that it was Stage 1 — the result of early detection.  In 1991, Sherie had felt a lump during a self-examination and while it proved to be nothing more than a water-filled cyst, a checkup found another lump which also proved to be nothing serious, but started her on an annually scheduled mammogram.  In 2002, after an ultrasound, our doctors suggested two mammograms a year — which eventually found the cancerous tumor — early!

Sherie and I often speak to organizations and the one thing we are quick to point out is that she is alive because or early detection.

After we received the phone call, we met with our doctor and went about putting together our “Dream Team” of physicians, including our oncologist Georgie Reine, surgeon Mary Christian, and cardiologist Carl Luikart.

There were more tests and then a scheduled lumpectomy to remove the cancer, which went well.  Then Sherie had a port installed to receive her chemo and meds.  Sherie named her port “Polly” after the cartoon Underdog’s girlfriend.  Yes, “Polly Port.”

It was early in our journey when I came to the realization that my wife is a hell of lot tougher than I am.  While I am silent in my fear with a happy, positive face on the outside, Sherie is steamrolling through each day with the most amazing attitude.

On July 2, we started chemo and Herceptin, which was a relatively new medicine for HER2 breast cancer.  It was during this process that we learned of all the groundbreaking treatments for breast cancer that are available today.  Early on, there was only one type of chemo, often called “Red Devil” because it was red and made patients incredibly ill.  Today, treatments are practically tailored to each patient.  Along with Sherie’s chemo and Herceptin, she had a medication to fight nausea.

Chemotherapy was at the oncologist’s office.  This was where we were introduced to the “Infusion Room.”  It was a large room filled with comfortable recliners.  The nurses that worked there were amazing.  They were personable, great listeners, and positive-thinking people.  It was in the Infusion Room that I had another realization.  The women would be sitting in their recliners with tubes attached to their ports and various medications pouring into their systems while their husbands and boyfriends sat by their sides. The women would be chatting about anything and everything — their children, their jobs, television shows, vacation plans — anything and everything.  While we men sat there and stared into space.  We all knew what each other was thinking.  Some women drove themselves to the Infusion Room and then drove to work. Early on, it hit me.  Sherie just wasn’t tougher than me — women were tougher than men!

We received our radiation treatments at the Mary Bird Cancer Center.  It was staffed by amazing people who impacted Sherie and me greatly.

Early in our journey, Sherie and I had a conversation about whether we wanted to battle this disease privately and concentrate completely on doing what we needed to do to defeat cancer? Or did we want to take our battle public and see if we could do some good in our community?  Both choices are correct ones — and it is up to each team to decide.

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Our choice had a great deal to do with Coach Kay Yow.  If I can rewind, I’ll explain:

In March of 2007, I was serving as the interim head coach for the LSU Lady Tigers in the NCAA Tournament and we had advanced to the Regionals in Fresno, California. Another of the regional participants was Coach Yow and her North Carolina State team.  I was sitting in my hotel room with my wife. We were watching a moving piece on ESPN on Coach Yow and her battle with breast cancer, talking about how Coach Yow had actually had a chemo treatment on the team plane from Raleigh, NC to Fresno.  It was very moving and I can remember as if it were yesterday my wife Sherie, with tears in her eyes, saying, “She must be an amazing woman.”

Two months later Sherie was diagnosed with breast cancer.  When we spoke about the various options, Sherie simply said, “I hope I’m as tough as Coach Yow.”

During the 2008 Final Four in Tampa, my wife and I were honored to speak at the inaugural Kay Yow Foundation press conference and for the first time, Sherie got to meet her new hero.  I had known Coach Yow for some time, working her camps.  But I will never forget how she treated Sherie that day — as if they were old friends.

The first group we shared our news with was our LSU Lady Tiger Basketball family.  There is nothing — and I mean nothing — like a team.  Our team rallied around Sherie in so many ways — especially our players.  They constantly checked on her and offered assistance.   And not just the current players, but the alums.  Temeka Johnson was a constant visitor and someone who made herself available to Sherie in her fundraising projects.  To this day, Sylvia Fowles will send Sherie her pink game shoes with an inscription.  Marie Ferdinand sent her a pink sweat suit.  There were notes, cards, and phone calls.  The love she felt from so many made a huge difference.

img_9981Soon the time came, as it does with most, that Sherie’s hair started to fall out.  I was worried about how this would effect Sherie.  You see Sherie is a cosmetologist — went to school…got her license…opened her own successful hair salon.  Hair was important to her.  But as with everything else in our journey, it never phased her.  She told anyone who asked that it meant a shorter shower for her, laughing as she said it.  We made the decision that I would shave my hair as well — after all, we are a team.  We set a date and Sherie broke out her professional clippers and in our living room we shaved each other bald!  We walked into the bathroom to look in the mirror and both laughed.

Of course, I was upset.  I thought for the first time in my married life that I would finally be the more attractive one — WRONG!  Sherie was stunning — even without hair!  I wanted to make it as fun as possible so I scheduled a “Glamor Shot” photo shoot for the two of us.  Sherie looked so amazing that the studio actually put up some of her photos in their store — the ones without me.

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We purchased wigs for Sherie but she opted never to wear them, being comfortable with whom she was and how she looked.  Only an occasional hat to keep her head warm.

We scheduled her chemo times in the morning so I could be with her and not miss our afternoon workouts with the team.  What this does is it creates a “chemo family”.  The same people are there at the same time and they get to know each other very well.

There was one day, however, when we had to move our chemo treatment to the afternoon.  We were out in the waiting room when a woman arrived in a wheelchair.  This was obviously her normal time because everyone in the waiting room smiled, waved, and called her by name.  Then another woman said, “What are you doing here?  I thought you were done with your treatment a month ago?” The woman replied, “I did finish up but the doctors asked me to come back in.”

Soon after, they wheeled her back.  Before long, she came back out in the waiting room where she was crying and visibly upset. Her friend from earlier asked what was wrong and she responded, “The doctor told me the cancer is back, has spread, and it is not treatable.”

There was stunned silence, followed by tears from everyone.  My body shook.  Except by the grace of God that could be Sherie.  Wait, it still could be.  There’s no guarantee that the cancer won’t return.  It happened to Coach Yow.  That afternoon in the Infusion Room was very sobering.

But that’s not the part of the story I want to leave you with.

A few weeks later, we were back in the Infusion Room at our regular time and in wheeled this same woman who earlier had been told she had only a short while left on this earth.  As a friend wheeled her around, she reached into a Kroger bag on her lap and brought out a wrapped gift. She gave one to each nurse in the Infusion Room, thanking them for taking care of her.  It was the most amazing act of humility I have ever witnessed.  I have told the story many times, never without tears or my voice cracking.

After a year of treatment the news that you are cancer-free gives you an emotion never before felt…it’s hard to explain — happiness…joy…exhilaration. Those words aren’t suitable for describing it.

But then, Dr. Christian asked to meet with us. We were told the BRCA test they had performed on Sherie had come back positive for the BRCA gene.  Dr. Christian told us, in simple terms, that there could be up to a 40% chance the cancer could return!  My mind immediately thought of Coach Yow and the woman in the Infusion Room.  Dr. Christian said her recommendation, and she said it was a very strong recommendation, was for Sherie to have a double mastectomy removing both her breasts.  She told us the chance of the cancer returning would drop to 2%.  The decision for me was easy but it wasn’t up to me.  As we went through this journey, I thought Sherie needed to have ownership for her decisions — it was, after all, her body.  My responsibility was to fully support those decisions.  Normally, when it got to situations like that, she would ask my opinion — not this time.  She said, “Let’s do it!”

This is where we added one more member to our “Dream Team” — Dr. Gary Cox, our reconstructive plastic surgeon.

Today Sherie remains cancer free — and there isn’t a day that goes by that we take that for granted.  Before her diagnosis, I spent too much time at my job and not enough time with her.  There would be summers where she would vacation with friends because I didn’t think I could be away from my job.  During the season, I would spend two nights a week in the office, never going home, preparing the next scouting report.  I worked on Christmas Eve and even Christmas Day.

Not anymore.  As much as I loved Sherie on that wedding night of September 7, 1991, it’s multiplied by 1000.  We don’t miss vacations anymore.  We don’t miss opportunities to spend time with each other.

The journey was difficult but it was also a blessing.

img_9982Sherie was so affected by the staff in the Infusion Room that she became a volunteer worker, volunteering at the Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center until we moved.  We got involved with the Komen Foundation and, of course, the Kay Yow Foundation.  She was the head of a committee that ran an annual fund-raising golf tournament for Women’s Hospital. She was a chairperson for the annual Komen’s Race for the Cure in Baton Rouge.  She even shot a commercial for Mary Bird Perkins which ran several years. Here in College Station, we give and support the Pink Alliance.

As you can tell, I’m incredibly proud of her.  She’s my hero!

This past month, I was honored to receive a call from Stephanie Glance who heads up the Kay Yow Foundation, asking for me to be part of a committee of NCAA assistant coaches.  Our committee leader is Beth Burns of USC and our movement is called Screen For Kay, where we are raising money for mammograms.  I can’t think of anything more important — my wife is alive today because of a mammogram — because of early detection.  What a great way to pay it forward. This Thursday night, Sherie and I will donate $1 for each student that attends our game against Alabama to Screen For Kay fund.

screen4kay-3As a coach of a women’s basketball team, it’s so incredibly important to me that we do all we can to defeat breast cancer.  It’s not lost on me that when we huddle at midcourt after each practice, and we have 12 to 15 young women standing in that circle, that the national statistics say 1 in 8 women will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetime.  It is predicted that over 250,000 new cases of breast cancer will occur in 2017.

We are making great strides in the battle against breast cancer, but we are also far from total and complete victory.  If you are an assistant coach out there reading this, our Kay Yow committee is going to be leaning on you to help.  We often talk about growing the game and what better way to do that than protecting those who play.

 

 

Why Not?

why-notBy Alyssa Michalke

“Why?” A short, simple question that often calls for a long, involved answer. When someone has accomplished something significant or made a life-changing decision, people aren’t just interested in what or how. They want to know why it happened. What was the person’s mindset while pursuing this goal? What inspired or motivated? Why?

The answer, carefully crafted, can leave the reader in awe of the person’s drive, determination, intelligence, wisdom, maturity, perseverance, and/or work ethic – believing that he or she was blessed with these attributes to such an extent that others could find it difficult to achieve this level.

This past two years, I have been asked numerous “why” questions. Why did I choose to come to Texas A&M? Why did I major in engineering? Why did I join the Corps of Cadets and then, apply to be the Corps Commander? Why did I try out for the Texas A&M women’s basketball team? I gave the answers the reporters wanted to hear. A&M provides a quality education both inside and outside the classroom. An engineering major leads to a challenging career that impacts the world in a positive way.  The Corps strives to grow and develop students into better individuals and more effective leaders. The Corps Commander leads an organization I had come to love and works alongside exceptional student leaders on a daily basis.  The women’s basketball team loves the sport and the privilege to represent Texas A&M as student-athletes.

While those last two answers are completely true, there’s actually a much simpler, and shorter, answer, one that better explains my mindset when applying to lead the Corps and try out for the basketball team. It’s two simple words: “Why not?”

“Why not?” is much more than a question or even the answer to a question. It’s a mindset, one that I embraced in my sophomore year in the Corps with the help of an incredible mentor. I was planning to apply for a leadership position, but was content with staying within my Corps unit instead of applying for the Corps Sergeant Major position. I mentioned that to one of my upperclassman mentors whom I had come to respect, and he asked me why I was content to stay with the unit instead of applying for the top junior-level spot in the Corps? I told him that I was unsure if I was capable of filling the position and I didn’t want to take a job that I couldn’t do. He told me that the selection committee wouldn’t put me in a leadership position if they weren’t confident I could perform the job’s duties.

“Why not?” he said. “What’s the worst they could tell you? ‘No, you didn’t get the position’? If they do, you just work even harder next year and prove they made the wrong decision.”

As I walked away from that conversation, I had a new outlook on life and the goals I had set for myself. Using that mentality, I applied for the Corps Sergeant Major position and underwent multiple mock interviews with my peers and upperclassmen to prepare for the real interview coming up in a few weeks. Even though I kept having doubts about my qualifications for the position, I continued to prepare for the interview. Why not? Was I really that afraid of the word “no” that I wouldn’t apply for the position?

mttb-2016Although the interview was more difficult than I had imagined, I received word a few days later that I would be serving as the Corps Sergeant Major for the 2014-2015 school year. I would work directly with the Corps Commander, Deputy Corps Commander, and Corps Chief of Staff. My primary goal would be to develop and review training plans that would help cadets accomplish the vision and goals set forth by the senior leadership of the Corps. I knew the year would be difficult, as I would be juggling challenging engineering classes and my responsibilities in the Corps. However, my parents did an exceptional job of instilling a blue-collar work ethic in me, and I used that to my advantage throughout the year. There were a few moments when a challenge made me pause and evaluate my ability to overcome it, but my newfound “Why not?” mindset took over, and I overcame those obstacles more often than not.

In January of my junior year, the time came again to apply for leadership positions within the Corps. The option to apply for Corps Commander was there, but I hesitated to check the application box. I had seen how well the current Corps Commander had led the Corps, developed a great vision for the Corps, implemented policies to help accomplish those goals, and worked with cadets across the Corps to improve our organization. I was doubtful of my ability to perform all of those duties as well as he had. However, a small voice in the back of my mind kept whispering “Why not?”, so I decided to check the box, prepare for the interview, and leave the rest in God’s hands.

12038077_10153058322075766_258877812113397442_nA week after the interview, I was informed that I would have the privilege to serve as the Corps Commander for the 2015-2016 school year. I was honored, but also anxious. I knew I had quite a bit of work ahead of me, and I placed pressure on myself to be the best Corps Commander I could possibly be.

Thankfully, I was blessed to work with incredible leaders on a daily basis, all of whom shared my love for the Corps and the cadets within it. We worked tirelessly to improve the organization, trying new training styles and plans that differed from the previous years. There was often some skepticism before trying something new, but I did my best to inspire my peers with my “Why not?” attitude. I often reminded them that the worst thing that could happen would be a dressing-down from one of our military advisors, after which we would explain what we had intended to happen and improve the process in the future. I wish I could say that every new operation we attempted went smoothly, but that wasn’t the case. However, we learned substantially more than expected from those faulty training sessions, and were able to better improve future training which benefited cadets substantially more.

My “Why not?” attitude carried over when I decided to try out for the women’s basketball team. I attended multiple home games throughout my senior year, and really enjoyed the energy, passion, enthusiasm, and love for basketball that I saw in all the Aggie players and coaches. I knew the team had hosted walk-on tryouts in the past, and also knew that I would have a substantial amount of free time over the summer to train for the tryouts. I remember mentioning this to my parents, and while they were both extremely supportive of my decision, they both asked why I was planning to tryout.

tam_1618My answer: Why not?

I applied that same workmanlike attitude to my workouts over the summer. I was in the weight room and gym six days a week, working on getting stronger, faster, and becoming a better basketball player. I watched WNBA games on my laptop, trying to improve my knowledge of the game. After watching those games, I often shook my head in disbelief. Was I crazy for wanting to try out for a well-known, highly-respected Division I program headed by a Hall of Fame coach? How could I possibly compete with these amazing athletes and highly-talented basketball players? Was I sure about this decision? These questions continued to bombard me after every training session. Eventually, I grew tired of the self-doubt, so I bought a roll of duct tape and a sharpie. I wrote “Why not?” on numerous pieces of tape and placed them above my bathroom mirror, the doors into and out of my apartment and bedroom, and the steering wheel of my truck. I also changed the background of my phone, and wrote “Why not?” on the sides of my shoes and my wrists during training sessions. It served as a constant reminder to pursue this goal, no matter how difficult it became.

Once I came back to Texas A&M and started school again, I had less free time than I had over the summer, but still made it a point to get into the gym and weight room on a consistent basis. Weeks passed with no mention of walk-on tryouts from the basketball team. Every morning when I woke up and every evening before I went to bed, I poured over all of the basketball team’s social media accounts and official web page in hopes of an announcement. I grew a little frustrated as time went by, but tried to maintain a positive attitude. On September 23, I finally saw what I had been hoping and praying for —  an announcement regarding walk-on tryouts. Although tryouts wouldn’t be held for another week and a half, I grew extremely nervous and anxious. All of my hard work over the past few months would come down to a 45-minute tryout. Over those next few days leading up to the tryouts, I spent even more time in the gym than before, going both in the morning and evening to lift weights, run, and play basketball.

The tryout day was upon me, and I honestly felt extremely underprepared. I was anxious in class throughout the day, and my focus continuously drifted from the professor’s lecture to the upcoming tryout. I had the time to drive home for a quick bite to eat before the tryout, and as my hand gripped the steering wheel, I felt the adhesive still stuck to the wheel from the numerous strips of duct tape I had utilized over the summer to keep me motivated during difficult training sessions. I reminded myself of the reason why I had chosen to try out for the team: Why not?

Although the tryout itself didn’t go as well as I had hoped, I was blessed to receive a text message a few days later informing me that I would be placed on the practice squad for a few weeks so the coaching staff could further evaluate my skills and ability to play on the team. After a week or two of practice, Coach Blair called me into his office and offered to place me on the team’s roster as a walk-on. He asked me to stay for the entire season, not just the fall semester, even though I was scheduled to graduate in December and start my career in January. “Why not?” I replied with a huge grin on my face.

These past few months with the team have blessed me with a wealth of incredible experiences and memories with an amazing group of people. My teammates have been nothing but supportive and encouraging, and I’ve done my best to return the favor in practice and during our games. Our coaching staff is one of the most experienced and intelligent staffs in the college game, and they have taught us an incredible amount about the game throughout the season, all while pushing us and demanding our best every single day. We’re also blessed with a great group of trainers and managers who sacrifice their time to assist with practice and during road trips.

Arkansas Texas A M NCAA Womens BasketballEven though there have been plenty of tough practices and conditioning sessions throughout the season, ones that left me completely exhausted and made my summer workouts look easy, I constantly remind myself of the incredible privilege I have to be a member of this basketball program at an amazing university. I wholeheartedly believe that it was my “Why not?” mentality, coupled with a great work ethic and character instilled in me by my parents, that allowed me to accomplish these feats. I know life will continue to throw challenges and obstacles in my path, but I look forward to meeting those with the right mindset, a strong work ethic, and a solid foundation in my faith and myself. I will continue to set lofty, challenging goals for myself in both my personal and professional life, and I’m excited to see where the pursuit and accomplishment of those goals will take me. If anybody ever questions why I continue to challenge and push myself to be the best I can be, I know exactly what my response will be…

“Why not?”