A year ago, Daedra Charles-Furlow was eagerly anticipating the 2009-10 season. It would be her second year with the Lady Vols as an assistant coach and the team was coming off of a disappointing season in which they had lost in the first round of the NCAA tourney. Charles-Furlow, an All-American at Tennessee, two-time national title winner and the program’s first Wade Trophy winner in 1991, knew what it took to play for Pat Summitt, and she was ready to help mold a young team into winners.
“It started off great,” Charles-Furlow said of the beginning of last fall. “Second year. We had a lot to prove, seeing how we got out in the first round. I was very enthused about coming back and working hard and recruiting as well. On October 2nd, I had the biggest scare of my life, something you wish won’t ever happen. It’s something that you just don’t ever want to hear – the possibility of you may have cancer.”
Charles-Furlow had gone to her physician for a regular checkup. She found out then that she would need a biopsy after getting an abnormal result from her breast exam.
“I went all weekend not knowing if the biopsy was positive or negative,” Charles-Furlow said. “We had a big recruit in that weekend (in Meighan Simmons, who is now a Lady Vol freshman guard). That was a good thing because I wasn’t thinking about it as much but when I got that phone call on Monday they said it was positive. My whole world just seemed like it started to crumble.”
Charles-Furlow remembers walking downstairs to talk to her husband, Anthony Furlow. Their son, now 10-year-old Anthonee, was at school already.
“I remember getting the phone call, getting ready for work, it was about 8:30, and that phone call came,” Charles-Furlow said. “It was like I was in the twilight, like I really couldn’t believe I was hearing this information. I remember going downstairs and telling my husband and he was saying, ‘You are going to be all right.’
“I’m like, ‘Did you just hear what I said?’ But he was so calm. I guess he had to be calm because I was erratic.”
From that day forward, Charles-Furlow’s life changed. She missed several court workouts and practices as she met with her doctors and family to determine the best course of action. They decided she would have a partial mastectomy and then undergo chemotherapy and radiation. It meant she would soon have to step away from coaching duties and recruiting trips because of fatigue and her weakened immune system.
Charles-Furlow also decided to tell the players what was happening.
“I think they were very appreciative that I did tell them, and I took them in the locker room here at Pratt and I told them,” Charles-Furlow said. “Before I wanted to say anything to them I wanted to know what was going on. I had two weeks to compose myself to be able to talk to them about it and give them some information. They like information. They want to know.
“The one thing that I said to them is that, ‘Coach D is going to be OK. I just want them to be OK.’ I did not want to tell a whole lot of people. Yes, I am a private person, but this team, we didn’t even advance out of the first round. I didn’t want it be about Coach D more than it is about the team or this to be an extra burden to them. I just wanted to let what’s happening to me happen to me and let this team move forward. I didn’t want them to be affected by it, but I had to let them know because if I wouldn’t have they would be like, ‘Well, she didn’t tell us. Why?’ So I wanted them to know.
“They handled it very well. We all cried. We had our moment but after that day every time they see me, we always hug and talk to each other, but they really gave me a lot of energy and for them to see me come in I think that brightened their day as well.”
When Charles-Furlow would make an appearance last season at practice, the players would make train noises – her nickname at Tennessee was “Night Train,” because of her ferocious play in the paint – and crowd around her for hugs and high-fives.
The news about Charles-Furlow came a few months after they had watched a then-teammate, Amber Gray, nearly die from a stroke/brain aneurysm, and the players were devastated.
“It was obviously a huge surprise,” redshirt junior post Kelley Cain said. “A lot of us were at a loss for words, and a lot of us just started breaking down crying. I experienced it with my grandmother, so I knew a little bit what to expect, but Coach D’s was different because she had to go through chemo. I kind of had an idea what it was about but not really because it (her grandmother’s battle) was a little bit before my time.
“Learning that Coach had to go through something like this … we kind of experienced something like this with Amber but to have both of them go through something like that taught us that you have to take advantage of every day, you have to live life to the fullest. Give it your all while you can because it can be taken away like that. With those two we’ve seen it.”
Charles-Furlow asked for privacy while she underwent treatment and got it from the players, staff and university officials, fans and media.
“I just want to take this time to thank the fans, thank all my supporters, my boss, Joan Cronan, Mike Hamilton,” Charles-Furlow said. “When they were asked what’s going on they just said, ‘She’s battling some issues. Just continue to pray for her.’
“I just appreciate that nobody really tried to pry and probe. Things like this get out all the time, but that just shows me the respect that people have for me and how much they really love and care about Daedra. I will always be humbled by that. Always. I appreciate them letting me have that moment, those moments or those months where I was able to deal with it. Now is the time to let people know what was going on.”
Charles-Furlow had surgery on Oct. 22, 2009. She told her young son that she needed an operation, but she withheld the details under a few days after the procedure.
“I told him mom has to go to surgery, but everything is going to be OK,” she said. “He didn’t ask a whole lot of questions. It was easy for me to talk to him after the fact because I didn’t tell him initially what it was and why I was going to have surgery. I had a book that was given to me and it helps to explain when a parent has cancer and the different stages that they go through.
“He was like, ‘OK, so it’s gone?’ I was like, ‘Yes.’ And he says, ‘Now, are you going to die.’ Wow, that just touched my heart because that was the initial thing that I was thinking when I found out, like, ‘Oh my God, I’m about to die.’ I was like, ‘OK, you’ve got to be positive because you are nowhere near that stage of death,’ even though we associate cancer with death.
“After explaining it to him he understood. He has his moments. That was my other reason for not talking about it was, one, I was still trying to get a handle on it, and two, for him. Everybody knew him in school. I did not want it to be chaotic for him or him to be teased, ‘Your mom will lose her hair,’ or ‘She’s going to die.’ It was already tough enough.”
The Furlows informed his school administrators in case Anthonee needed to speak to a counselor, but they didn’t want him to have to deal with questions from classmates – and in the sometimes bully world of school, possibly some taunts – so they asked for medical privacy from the university and no statements about the specific illness.
The university revealed in December that Charles-Furlow would need to switch positions with Stephanie Glance, then one of Summitt’s top administrative assistants, as she could not travel to coach or recruit.
Charles-Furlow began the chemo treatments on Nov. 30, 2009. Her last road trip was to Madison Square Garden in mid-December for the game against Rutgers. After that, she was too ill to travel.
“I started my rounds of chemo and once my chemo was finished I started radiation,” she said. “In between time there was a six-week window where you have to give your body time to heal before you go into the radiation part. I wanted to travel, but I knew physically I couldn’t travel. I was tired, I felt drained and I would come around as much as I could but we had to be careful because of my immune system.”
When she felt strong enough, Charles-Furlow would join the team on the bench for home games – she usually missed shoot-around to get some extra rest that day – and she discovered that being about the players was a boost on both ends.
“I got so much energy from the kids because they knew what was going on,” Charles-Furlow said. “It was very difficult. It was hard. I was watching the (road) games on television and wishing I could whisper in their ears and tell them, ‘Hey, you’ve got to be stronger,’ or ‘You’ve got to be more enthused,’ or ‘Glory Johnson, you’ve got to get all those rebounds. Strick you’ve got to take control,’ just little words of encouragement.
“Not that they weren’t getting it but I missed doing it. I missed that part of being there on the bench to give them a pat on the back.”
Then-freshman guard Kamiko Williams was particularly close to Charles-Furlow and would often seek her out for conversations not related to basketball.
“She’s like the aunt I never had when I was growing up because we were stationed in Germany,” Williams said, referring to her U.S. Army upbringing. “I just took it day by day and just prayed for her every day.
“We tried to go see her. Some days she wasn’t up to it. Some days she was. We just tried to support her, text her every day and tell her how much we loved her. She reassured us. We reassured her. I think we appreciate our lives more. We appreciate basketball more. We appreciate each other more. I think it’s brought all of us closer together, especially to Coach D.”
The player still wear pink bands on their wrists to remember Charles-Furlow’s fight. Cain’s pink band this season says “strength.”
“It takes a strong team rooted in the faith that we have to make it through,” Cain said. “Without that I don’t where we would be. That’s why a lot of us wear the pink bands. It signifies Coach D and the struggle that she’s gone through and how she’s here. The only thing different about her is her hair, and we love it.”
Charles-Furlow is now sporting a close-cropped hairstyle. She estimated she got about 10 different wigs to wear after the treatment caused her hair to fall out, and she smiled and said she would keep them all.
I feel really good,” Charles-Furlow said. “My energy level, I can tell a difference from a month ago. My hair grew back in. I am just very blessed. … It was just a routine checkup. I just thank God that I was obedient in going every year. I think it’s very important that you go to yearly checkups.
“Had I not gone the possibility of it being larger, too far gone … it was in the very early stages, and the doctors felt very confident that I would have a pretty good recovery rate, but you just never know with cancer. It’s something that can spread quickly or it can be something that you can maintain, contain and get rid of. It was a very cloudy year for me. It was just very cloudy.”
Charles-Furlow’s health matters are a lot clearer now. She completed radiation treatment in July and her next mammogram is scheduled for this January.
“It’s gone,” she said. “The reason for the chemo and radiation is it hopefully kills anything cancerous in your body. I feel I have healed. I won’t know (for sure) until I go back and have a mammogram and it’s there or it’s not there.”
“I feel much better, Charles-Furlow added, though a recent sinus infection and fever did unnerve her somewhat, a common reaction after staring down one’s mortality. “When you talk about what I’ve gone through and now I am able to talk about it, if you had asked me seven months ago I wouldn’t have been able to talk about it. It was still too sensitive.
“It was never why me. I never questioned why God. I just think with what was going on with me, maybe I can inspire somebody else to know that it’s going to be OK, and you’ve got to have faith, and you’ve got to be positive.”
Charles-Furlow is 41 years old – very young to confront cancer – and she discovered in the past months that breast cancer is crossing all age groups.
“It is young but what I am finding out know is this is not an old person’s disease,” she said. “This is attacking 18, 19 year olds. It is something that is attacking us very early, so I think my message to everyone is to make sure you are in touch with your body. Make sure that you are getting screens, make sure that you are going to the doctor regularly. If there are any changes in your body it can be detected earlier rather than later.”
Charles-Furlow acknowledged the prayers she received from fans, letters of support and a directive from Summitt that she would fight.
“There is no quit in her,” Summitt said. “That is pretty much what I told her. You can beat this. If anybody can beat this, you can beat this. I felt she would be a fighter.”
Once Charles-Furlow’s health was on the way to being restored, she had to address her career at Tennessee. Glance took the head coaching job last April at Illinois State, and Mickie DeMoss was hired last May as a new assistant coach.
Charles-Furlow is on the mend but not fully out of the woods yet, so she knew she needed a position that allowed her to avoid the wear and tear of travel. Assistants nearly stay on the road during the season for games and recruiting trips, and airplanes and hotel rooms can be incubators for airborne illnesses, especially for someone with a compromised immune system.
Summitt approached the Tennessee administration about the job of character development, a position football coach Derek Dooley had created for former Vol Andre Lott as part of the “Vols for Life” program, after Charles-Furlow suggested it.
Last month, Charles-Furlow was officially listed on the Lady Vols website as director of character development.
“This is a new position so basically I can tailor it the way that I want to tailor it,” Charles-Furlow said. “I had already told (the staff) that they will never want to get rid of this position once I’m done with it, because I think that first of all, you build character every single day. In order to go out into this world and be successful, people look at your character. They look at who you are, what you bring, are you honest, are you loyal. I think that Pat has done an excellent job because she exemplifies all of that and she instills that in us.
“Now, she still is going to do that but I can really do that. I can focus in. I have already had them going through different training and activities to help them build better character and understand once you leave here you are going to be ready for the real world. It doesn’t matter what you do, you’ll be able to work with anybody.”
Summitt already has wholeheartedly endorsed the position.
“She’s already worked with our team,” Summitt said. “She’s done some different things with the team, us not being there. She can go talk to them and motivate them and challenge them. Whatever she wants to say I totally trust her. As a staff member, as a former player, her heart’s in the right place, her mind’s in the right place.”
Charles-Furlow said she has contacted Lott to see “some of things that he has incorporated for his young men and some of the things that they’re doing and piggyback on and maybe do some things together.”
She has already assembled the Lady Vols for a team-building exercise in communication.
“Coach D not too long ago had us go do a military obstacle course,” Williams said. “We had to get together and communicate well. It really opened our eyes that we need to work on communication. We need to listen to each other.
“I think she’s going to really help this team out and bring us closer together because there’s a lot of things that we don’t see as a problem that she might see and I think she’s going to bring it to the table and we’ll be able to fix it.”
Charles-Furlow has embraced her new role, but returning to coaching one day remains a goal.
“I came here because I wanted to coach and I wanted to be a top recruiter,” Charles-Furlow said. “Unfortunately my hand was dealt to me the way it was dealt to me. There was nothing that I could do about that. Quite naturally when you have to change, sometimes change is hard. It’s difficult to grasp why.
“I had to look at it like this. This happened for a reason, so now I have to move through this. It’s only going to help me be better. … I am very blessed and I am very favored. I thank God for his blessings, and I also thank God that they created a position for me, because this position didn’t have to come about. I understand my value.
“I definitely want to coach again, and I want to be a head coach. I am not losing my sight on that but this right here is just as important as being an assistant basketball coach. I get to still make a positive impact and help empower these young ladies and help shape them. It’s just off the court. But the stuff that I am doing off the court will help them on the court. It’s a win-win.”
Charles-Furlow is still able to attend workouts and practice as an administrative member of the staff – much like Kathy Harston, the director of basketball operations – but she must remain on the sidelines and can’t offer any on-court instruction. The transition was made easy, Summitt noted, by the fact that Charles-Furlow and DeMoss are great friends.
“Daedra and Mickie are like this,” Summitt said, placing two fingers together, “so that has worked out well. I think her health is much better and that has given her a reason to want to be back with us, back with our team. … I think she’ll bring a lot to our team, as well.”
Summitt wasn’t surprised that Charles-Furlow sought privacy last season.
“She didn’t want for the team to be distracted,” Summitt said. “She didn’t want for the coaches to be distracted. Obviously we knew what was going on. I think she handled it in a very professional way. I think she just wanted to get healthy and now she can talk about it.
“It was difficult, but I think Daedra, while she is very outgoing, she’s also very private in a lot of ways. Through this I think she wanted privacy. She didn’t want people knowing her business or knowing what health issues she was dealing with.”
Charles-Furlow relied on her faith, family and friends to persevere.
“I think through this whole ordeal I remained positive,” Charles-Furlow said. “I’m always been a prayer. That will never change. I know I had a whole lot of people praying for me. That’s a blessing within itself.
“It’s not the end of the world and I think a lot of us when we get hit with that we think, ‘Oh, my God, this is the end.’ But it’s not the end of the world because I’ve got so much more to do.”
Charles-Furlow also agreed to a video interview in which she talks about how Pat Summitt got her prepared to fight.