Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley had just finished his speech at the Orange Grove Center’s annual “A Breakfast for Champions” on Friday morning when a Big Orange fan approached a member of the media.
Said the fan: “Dooley must have been up there for 20 minutes, and he didn’t say one word about football.”
And that’s a good thing.
Make no mistake: Dooley ultimately will be retained or released from his seven-figures-a-year job mostly on the strength of wins and losses. That’s the Southeastern Conference and that’s probably the way it should be if the third-year coach’s won-lost record doesn’t soon shoot north of its current sub-.500 mark (11-14).
But when your 18-year-old nephew Matthew has struggled his whole life with cerebral palsy, you also haven’t come to Orange Grove for the sole reason of grabbing a check you can quickly turn over to charity.
“We all get together for a family reunion every Fourth of July, and Matthew is always there,” Dooley said. “Over the years I’ve noticed how compassionate he is, how much he loves his cousins, how caring and unselfish he is. You’d like to see those qualities every day in your own kids, and you don’t always.”
He talked about how Matthew’s No. 1 goal in life is “to get a job so he can be like everybody else.”
He also talked about how Matthew is about to jump out of an airplane, despite not being able to walk.
“I asked my brother, ‘What about the landing?’” Dooley said. “He told me they had that taken care of. He’s an amazing kid.”
Sharon Matthews has an amazing son, Robbie, who is amazing at least partly because of the Orange Grove Center.
Much like Matthew Dooley, Robbie was born with cerebral palsy. The doctors told Sharon “he wouldn’t live past his fourth birthday. I cried for two days. Then I got angry.”
She eventually toured Orange Grove, desperate for the slightest bit of good news. They told her that this was where her son belonged, that this is where the most good could be done for him.
“I cried that day, too,” she said. “I cried for joy and hope.”
Come July, Robbie will be 32. He now lives at Orange Grove in a group home.
“He made the transition better than me,” she said. “He plays on a softball team. He has a girlfriend. On weekends in the fall, Robbie and the guys he lives with have football-watching parties. And he never roots for Alabama.”
Dooley smiled as a picture of Robbie wearing a Tennessee T-shirt appeared on the video screen.
Earlier, speaking of so many Orange Grove residents similar to Robbie, Dooley observed, “If given a chance, it’s amazing how much energy they can bring to others, how much energy they have for life.”
Sports doesn’t always show us the good side of life. The past month alone has allowed us to obsess over Kentucky’s won-and-done NCAA basketball title; to recoil at former Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino’s sex, lies and text-gate collapse; to cringe at the sight of Los Angeles Lakers forward Metta World Peace’s brutal elbow to the head of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s James Harden.
No wonder Dooley said of the current culture, “We’re the most over-communicated generation in history, yet we’re also the least relational generation in history. We can text and tweet, but we struggle to carry on a conversation with somebody in person.”
Yet it was also a week ago at the annual Area 4 Special Olympics that I was fortunate enough to come across 16-year-old athlete William Toney, who wore a Lakers jersey and told anyone who would listen, “I could dunk on Kobe [Bryant].”
There was also 11-year-old Gracie Hammond, who took home a handful of ribbons, then exclaimed, “This is the best Special Olympics EVER!”
Talk about communication skills.
As he wrapped up his talk at Orange Grove, Dooley told a story about a young boy attempting to save starfish that had washed up on a beach during high tide and were now about to die because they couldn’t get back to the ocean.
“The boy is frantically grabbing every one he can and tossing them back into the surf,” Dooley said. “An older man comes along and tells him how futile this is, that there are thousands of these starfish and miles of beach to cover, that one boy can’t make a difference. The boy tosses another starfish back in the ocean, then tells the man, ‘It made a difference to that one.’”
And with that, Dooley almost assuredly made a difference to someone in the audience regarding a far more important game than football.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...