As a native Tennesseean, the 2016 ESPY Awards had a definite Volunteer state flavor. Peyton Manning and Eric Berry, beloved former University of Tennessee football players, received the Icon Award and Best Comeback Athlete award respectively. The Middle Tennessee State University men’s basketball team was a finalist for Best Upset Performance, but lost to Holly Holm and her defeat of Rhonda Rousey.
But there were two moments in particular that resonated with me and should resonate equally across the nation-moments that involve the two Tennessee athletes who have been honored with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. Pat Summitt, legendary women’s basketball coach, All-American, and Olympic medalist. Silver as a player in 1976, and gold as a coach in 1984, aged 64 from early-onset Alzheimer’s. Zaevion Dobson, a sophomore football player at Fulton High School, aged 15 when he threw himself over a pair of girls to protect them from gunfire and died in their stead.
Summitt died after a career during which she was the winningest coach in Division 1 basketball (either men’s or women’s) and the first to win Olympic medals as both a player and a coach, eight national titles, taking the Lady Vols to every NCAA tournament during her tenure, who graduated every single player who completed her eligibility at the University of Tennessee. She coached her final season after her diagnosis with Alzheimer’s and took her squad to their sixteenth SEC title. Then she turned her abilities, celebrity, and passion to the fight against Alzheimer’s as the founder of the Pat Summitt Foundation.
Dobson died after working to succeed in school, athletics, and life. A child, learning to become a man, the product of a single-parent home in a low income section of Knoxville who’d been taught to supersede expectations by his mother, older brother, coaches, and educators alongside his twin Zack. His dream was to use athletics as a way to attend college and perhaps even more. When gunfire erupted in his neighborhood, he didn’t stop to think. He was sitting on the front porch of a house with his friends, who were all being the good kids they normally would be, but at the sound of shots, Zaevion threw his body over two girls, his friends, and saved their lives.
Pat Summitt died from Alzheimer’s just five years after her diagnosis, on June 28, 2016.
Zaevion Dobson died of a gunshot wound to the head, instantly, on December 17, 2015.
Both embody the best sports can offer. Forget about the scandals, the doping, the cheating. Forget about the smack talk and rivalries. Forget about everything you hate about athletics, and consider for a moment.
For fifteen years, Knoxville, TN, was home to both these people at the same time. One lived in the spotlight, the face and soul of a storied university. One lived in the shadows, the face and soul of overcoming adversity and emerging into the light. Both died within six months of each other, and the incredible courage and dignity they displayed represent the highest ideals of our society.
We live in a world today in America where violence is escalating and random, taking victims of all ages without consideration of race, gender, financial status, religion, age, or orientation. And while great strides are being made against the diseases that plague our citizens, conditions like Alzheimer’s or HIV or cancer continue to reap our citizenry of the best and brightest. These two individuals represent the full spectrum of our society, contained within a few miles of each other for fifteen years—a ridiculously short time when you get down to it, but the entirety of Zaevion Dobson’s life span.
And both were honored with the same award: the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. ESPN describes this honor as:
The Ashe Award is one of the most prestigious in sports. Recipients reflect the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost. The award is inspired by the life that Ashe lived, using his fame and stature to advocate for human rights, although, at the time, those positions may have been unpopular and were often controversial. From speaking out against apartheid in South Africa to revealing to the world his struggle with AIDS, Ashe never backed away from a difficult issue, even though doing so would have been easier. Winners of the Ashe Award strive to carry on Ashe’s legacy in their own lives – – inspired by those who do so each day.
You have to wonder what Zaevion Dobson would have felt to know that he was honored on the same level as Pat Summitt? Or what Coach Summitt would have felt to know that such a brave young man who’d lived his whole life just a few miles away would share the same award? And those of us who hail from Tennessee, famously known as the Volunteer State, can look to both these individuals as the epitome of all that is great about our native heath. The woman who kicked down all the doors in collegiate athletics and inspired young athletes to push themselves to the top, and the young athlete working toward his dreams with all the same passion and drive who was denied his chance. Both unwilling to put their aspirations before the people around them. Both leading by example.
Both taken entirely too soon.
Last night at the ESPYs, the top athletes in the world got to share in a celebration of Zaevion’s life. The video tribute was amazing–anyone who watched it was in tears by the end. Last night, Zaevion’s mother, Zenobia, and his brothers, Markasin Taylor and Zack Dobson, accepted Zaevion’s posthumous award. Zenobia Dobson took the opportunity to address the world on behalf of her son as USA Today relates:
“I’d love to stand up here and tell you even more about Zaevion than you already know — all the hopes and dreams he had for the future, all the things I dreamed about for him,” Zenobia said. “But I feel the need to tell you something else.”
Zenobia explained that just four months after her own son’s death, his 12-year-old cousin, JaJuan Latham, was killed in a drive-by shooting.
She used her platform to call for the redrafting of laws to make the acquisition of firearms more difficult. She used her platform to call on the room full of professional athletes to consider why Zaevion died and what they can do to prevent the future loss of innocent life.
“We as a country need to take a stand to consider the effects of gun violence on families throughout America,” Zenobia said.
Easy to see where young Zaevion learned that the greatest service a person can give is to others. Her speech was so impactful, coming on the heels of the video tribute that had the most famous sports stars in the world weeping, and as she spoke with dignity and restrained emotion, her point was impossible to ignore. And on a night where sports stars with a constant platform spoke out against gun violence, her words were the ones that drove that point home.
Also last night at the ESPYs, tennis legend and former Arthur Ashe recipient Billie Jean King honored Coach Summitt with a brief speech. But in 2012, it was Coach Summitt’s night to win the Ashe award for courage, and her remarks were just as impactful as Zenobia Dobson’s were last night.
“I’ve always said you win in life with people,” Summitt said in the speech. “And I have been so blessed to have great people in my life. My son Tyler and I appreciate all of your support. And during this time, that’s the next challenge for me and Tyler. And it is time to fight. As I ask all of you to join me together so we will win.”
“And I can tell you, tonight I am deeply touched as all of you heard my story,” she concluded. “I am gonna keep on keeping on, I promise you that.”
How do you take the measure of lives like these? It’s not the trophies, the medals, or the sports championships. It’s the championship off the field and court, the championship of lives that were not their own—the idea that it is my responsibility to protect the lives and dreams of those around me.
Tonight, July 14, 2016, in Knoxville, TN, thousands of people will gather in Thompson-Boling arena for a celebration of Pat Summitt’s life. Pat Summitt and I share the same roots—born in the same town to agricultural families. Her impact on me personally I’ve already shared. But tonight, her impact nationally and globally will be celebrated—not just on women who play basketball, but girls and boys who looked to what she did and were inspired by her. Even the media, Summitt had a lasting impact.
Mike Moore, who works with the Vol Network and ESPN remarked, “As a young reporter Pat always cared enough to give me meaningful answers to my bad questions. She had a gift of making everybody feel like they were important.”
A gift I experienced firsthand.
If you don’t know Pat Summitt’s story, you haven’t been keeping up for four decades. But if you don’t know Zaevion Dobson’s story, you should. Both stories represent the best in not just sports, not just Tennessee, but humanity. The Pat Summitt Foundation continues the fight against Alzheimer’s in her name, while the Fulton Foundation has created a Zaevion Dobson scholarship fund in his honor:
With a goal of awarding an annual $2,400 scholarship in memory of Dobson’s football jersey number, 24. The award will go to a graduating senior who “exemplifies the character, spirit and selflessness of Zaevion Dobson,” school officials said.
Donations would make a difference for either fund–one big, established by a coaching legend to lead the fight as she had always done, and one small, so that the legacy of the boy who inspired it can continue to change lives. A spectrum, just as in their lives–one who achieved more than anyone would have believed possible and the other, who never got the chance to reach his full potential. Two stories that were so different but yet, in the end, so similar.
“I think it (Zaevion Dobson’s story) deserves more attention,” Moore continued. “Especially after what his family said at the ESPYs last night.”
Some stories deserve to be told. This year is a little over half done, and we have mourned the loss of icons and stars and leaders. But these stories deserve more than that. These stories deserve to be honored. These stories deserve to inspire. These stories deserve emulation.
These stories deserve to be lived–by all of us.