Expounding upon the value of mentors strikes me as a lot like talking about the necessity of good nutrition and getting enough sleep. It’s common sense, but it bears repeating endlessly.
The National Women’s Law Center is sponsoring a “Blog to Rally for Girls’ Sports Day” today, Dec. 8, where they are asking bloggers to write about the value of girls’ and women’s sports and what that means to them.
I write most of the entries on this blog about women’s sports, so on this day, I want to focus on the value of mentors … and the value of appreciating them. And in doing so, I also get to tell you the rest of a story that I wrote recently.
Last week, I did an ESPN.com piece about Nebraska volleyball player Hannah Werth … except what appeared on the site wasn’t quite all of the story that I wanted to tell. I had found myself writing it from two different aspects, but after some editorial discussion, I agreed to focus more on one. That was Hannah’s story as it appeared: her background, the adversity she’s faced, her personality, her current career. Which had been my exact intent when I had started reporting it.
The thing was, during the course of that reporting, another theme became a big part of the narrative, too. I still included that to some extent, but I want to expand on it here. Because in talking with Hannah, her mother, Kim, and one of her mentors, former Florida volleyball standout Jenny Wood Holliday, I thought about how all their stories came together and reflected some universal truths about mentoring.
Kim Schofield Werth grew up the daughter of a major-league baseball player, “Ducky” Schofield. He was an infielder for 19 seasons in the big leagues. Springfield, Ill., was the family’s home base, but Kim also traveled to wherever her dad played ball. One of the things Kim recalled to me was the intoxicating rush it was to be someplace like Boston’s Fenway Park and see her dad hit a ball off the Green Monster.
“I thought I was going to explode. It was just pure adrenaline,” she said. “And I would get that feeling every time I raced on the playground.”
She wasn’t cut out to just be a spectator. Track was Kim’s sport, specifically long jump and sprints, and Title IX was passed between her freshman and sophomore years of high school. She was part of the generation of girl athletes who hadn’t gotten very much, if any, social approval to compete, but still did it anyway. Then they found themselves at the transformative start of women’s college athletics as we know them today.
“We went to a meeting to bring more sports to our school after Title IX,” Kim said. “The only things we had then were field hockey and cheerleading, and I can tell you field hockey was not my favorite sport. But I loved AAU track. By the time I had my first state track meet in high school, I had already been in AAU national meets.
“Especially growing up, it was hard because people weren’t kind. They would say, ‘What are you ever going to do with this?’ And I would say, ‘Why is this wrong?’ Their opposition just never made any sense to me. I never understood why people thought it was weird. It was all about motivation and doing things that made you feel good about yourself.”
It occurred to her, though, that the people who would say belittling things about girls in sports probably were not unlike the idiots who went to baseball games and screamed at players. She’d heard that pretty much all her life, so figured it really wasn’t anything new to deal with.
Besides, there was someone who really did understand her drive and desire. He was among the finest athletes to ever come out of central Illinois: Springfield’s “Rocket” Ray Ramsey, a three-sport star at Bradley University in the 1940s who went on to play in both the NFL and NBA.
After his diverse career as a pro athlete ended, he became a high school coach for three decades and also ran a local track program that included his own daughters and Kim. Certainly, not every kid he impacted had the kind of talent and goals that someone like Kim did. But that’s the thing about great mentors: They can help everyone from the kid for whom just finishing a race is a triumph to the kid whose ambition burns incessantly.
“He was the most awesome coach,” Kim said of Ramsey, who passed away in 2009. “He was very quiet, but he and I got along great.”
After finishing as a nine-time state champion in high school, Kim went to Iowa State in 1975 to continue her track career. A severe back injury slowed her in the 1976 Olympic trials, and interrupted her college career.
She got married and had son Jayson _ yes, the Jayson Werth who just signed a huge deal with the Washington Nationals _ but the marriage ended and she went back to college at Florida to complete her eligibility. By the time she concluded her college career, she was 26.
“For me, it was finishing what I started,” Kim said of competing at Florida while juggling motherhood. “It was all about meeting my personal goals. When it was over, I was very satisfied. I did what I set out to do.”
And to this day, she credits Ramsey for all the time he spent with her and how much he shaped her life. And that’s the other side to mentorship: gratitude from the person who was mentored. Not ever forgetting the lessons or the teacher. Those were things Kim has passed down to her three children.
Kim married Dennis Werth, a former baseball player, and they had two daughters, Hillary, who ran track at UCLA, and Hannah, whose Nebraska volleyball team will be playing in the NCAA regional semifinals Friday in Seattle.
Hannah spoke with a lot of affection and admiration about how much her parents and older siblings had positively influenced her as an athlete and a person. And others had aided her, too. One in particular. I wondered why Hannah wore No. 44, which is not a common volleyball number, to say the least. It is a tribute to Holliday, who’d worn No. 4 at Florida. That number was already taken at Nebraska – senior Lindsey Licht wears it – so Hannah chose 44.
And this really struck me, because I often grumble to myself about athletes being uninformed about history. Especially female athletes not knowing or appreciating anything about the women competitors who came before them.
Holliday played volleyball at Florida in the mid-1990s; Hannah turned 6 during her senior season. So she’s too young to have seen anything of Holliday’s college career – played far from their shared hometown of Springfield, Ill., _ while it was ongoing. However, Hannah took the time to learn about it and decided to honor Holliday. I thought, “Jenny must have had a big impact on the kid.”
But then when I talked to Holliday, she made it sound like it was the other way around: the kid had a big impact on her. She had walked into a gym, saw this junior-high player ranging all over the court, and immediately recognized she was a Division I-bound athlete. So Holliday found Kim right after the match and said, “Look, you don’t know me, but I just watched your daughter, and she’s got it. She needs to be in club volleyball.”
Holliday then helped them start that process, including coaching one of the early club teams Hannah played on. Holliday downplays her impact, claiming she just saw what anybody who knew volleyball would have seen.
“I’d been coached by some of the best coaches in the nation and I always want to try to give back,” Holliday said. “I sure didn’t have to do much with Hannah, I’ll tell you that. I coached her just a little bit, and took her to a national tryout so other coaches could see her. And after that, she was on her way.”
But you can be sure she did plenty. However, what if Holliday had been too busy or pre-occupied to really notice? Or what if she’d thought, “Well, I don’t even know this kid … should I really say something to her mother?”
Would Hannah have found her way to club volleyball and eventually made it to playing in college? Very likely; she was too good not to. But who can know for sure? This much, though, is certain: Holliday made it easier. And that what mentors do. They are guiding lights along a path on which youngsters, uncertain of the journey, are finding their way.
Mentors can’t do it for you, but they can show you how.
“When you see a young person who you can tell has the desire that you did, you want to embrace that person,” Holliday said. “You say, ‘I want to do whatever I can to help you. I want to fuel your fire.’”
Holliday laughs as she explains her father had promised to buy her a car if she could get a Division I scholarship. She was in fifth grade at the time.
“So I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I knew my goals,” she said. “And that’s the kind of mindset Hannah had, too. She wanted to be the best she could be. She wasn’t your average kid. She didn’t care who said what at school, or who was going to what party, or what anybody was doing on the weekend. She was just focused on what she wanted to do and how she could get better.”
But Holliday also knew that such an attitude can be misconstrued by peers. And she remembered what it felt like to be in those shoes in high school: to deal with jealousy and cold shoulders and snide comments. To have people trying to subtly or not-so-subtly undermine you. Especially if you are a girl.
In fact, I would suspect many of the female athletes who make it to Division I in any sport deal with this to some degree. Some might navigate the mean melodrama of high school more deftly than others, but mentors _ along with parents, who themselves are mentors _ can be a crucial help to all of them. Because they need someone who listens and will say, “You are on the right road. It’s hard, but you can do it. I’ve been there, and I’ve got your back.”
And you really know you’ve done well as a mentor when you see the mentoring torch being passed.
“When Hannah comes home on break, she’ll come over to my club practices and jump right in and help these girls,” Holliday said. “They are just in awe of her, and she’s so good with them, trying to build their confidence.”
One of those kids might be wearing 44 in college someday because of that. She won’t have any idea who “Rocket” Ray Ramsey is or that he had the slightest thing to do with it. And that’s the most amazing thing of all about mentorship: It’s the ripple effect that never dies, reaching places you couldn’t imagine.