By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – When Tennessee head coach emeritus Pat Summitt announced in August 2011 that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, Kara Lawson answered the call to action before it had even been placed.
Without hesitation, Lawson, who played for Summitt and the Lady Vols from 1999-2003, and her husband Damien Barling began trying to conceive how they would help the legendary coach in the biggest fight of her life.
“Coach Summitt, coming out and disclosing that she has the disease and fighting it in the public eye, is very courageous and very impactful to people who have Alzheimer’s and the families and caregivers of people who have Alzheimer’s,” Lawson said by telephone on Monday. “Even before the inception of the foundation, my husband and I were trying to think of ways to raise money to help Alzheimer’s to help create awareness and fund research to find a cure.”
Lawson’s response came as no surprise to those who knew her. The 31-year-old, who averaged 13.6 points per game for her collegiate career and now plays for the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun, built a close relationship with Summitt during her time in Knoxville.
“When you’re 17 and being recruited to play four years at point guard for someone, which tends to be more of a hands on relationship than some on the court, that person has a big impact on your life,” Lawson said. “We’ve just stayed in contact from the time I graduated until now. Many times I have called her for advice. Just the experiences she has had give me a unique perspective. She is definitely a wise woman and I have always tried to take advantage of gathering wisdom from her.”
When Barling was selected to participate in the prestigious New York Marathon in the fall of 2011, the couple realized it would be the perfect way to begin aiding Summitt in her fight against Alzheimer’s Disease. Barling would accept the offer to run the marathon and Lawson would run the 5K associated with the event, and they would use it as an opportunity to raise money for disease research.
“They were one of the first to call me and tell me what they wanted to do,” Summitt said last year when Lawson announced her plans. “It was very touching for me, but I’m not surprised. They’re great people and I appreciate what they’re doing.”
Fittingly, Lawson was recently named co-chair, with Peyton Manning, of the Advisory Board of the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund, which was established in November 2011.
“I was honored to be asked to be a part of this along with Peyton,” Lawson said. “For me, it was an easy decision. We were already in fundraising mode for the Foundation. We just want to set a good foundation for the foundation, creating a vision and establishing an identity of what the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund is going to be all about. At the core is raising as much money as possible for research.”
In addition to Lawson and her husband’s participation in the New York City Marathon a year ago, she has continued to find new ways to bring awareness to the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund. They had plans to repeat the feat at this year’s New York City Marathon before the event was cancelled. Lawson even connected her involvement in the Foundation Fund to her job as a WNBA player.
“We were really trying to decide what to do this year for our campaign and continue momentum,” Lawson said. “We decided to link the fundraising campaign to my three-point shots during the season. Any time fans have something to follow or cheer for, and look in the box score for, I think it’s a positive.”
In fact, Lawson, also one of ESPN’s leading college basketball analysts, donated $50 of her own money for every three-pointer made during this past WNBA season. It led the charge for a generous contribution to Summitt’s Foundation Fund.
“It really gained some steam and we were able to raise over $30,000 through the course of the season in doing that,” Lawson said. “What we’ve done hasn’t all been done under one umbrella, but all of the funds are going to the Pat Summitt Foundation, so it has been pretty cool to see.”
Lawson has been pleased with the outpouring of support that her former coach has received in the fight against Alzheimer’s, but she is not at all surprised that people are lining up to support an important figure who has always been there for others.
“It has just been an affirmation that people know the type of impact that Pat has had on people – people she hasn’t even met,” Lawson said. “I think that everybody that has had contact with her knows that she’d be doing the same thing for any of us if the roles were reversed.
“Nine times out of 10 when I talk to her, she’s trying to figure out how I’m doing and how she can help me,” Lawson said. “She always manages to steal the conversation and turn it around. She’s a giver and the response just shows you how many people are so thankful for the presence she has had in their lives.”