The Man Who Made Me A Champion
I was sitting down to dinner at my sister’s new house in Atlanta, Tuesday, June 2nd when I answered my mom's facetime to her crying my name, “Cortney,” and I knew that what would follow was going to shatter my heart. “Kenny Rhoden died,” and I sank to the floor. I wouldn’t uncover my face full of tears to see my mom’s during the rest of her being on the phone. I couldn’t. I couldn’t look at her pain nor could I allow her to see mine. I sunk into my childhood and recalled the man, a true man, and his powerful presence in my life. My heart splitting into pieces thinking of the family he cherished, the family he left behind, physically. How they must all feel so totally lost at this very moment.
He was my best friend’s Dad. He felt like mine too. He loved me like I was one of his own, and I knew that. A father's love. Something I needed, and he - knew that. His daughter, Natalie, Nat, and I joined forces when we were eight years old and didn’t part until high school graduation. We spent everyday of our summers together playing softball, basketball, volleyball.
Kenny was our coach. We were the Martinsville Angels. I still remember the cheer.
“Everywhere we go,
people wanna know,
who we are, so we tell them.
We are the Angels,
the mighty, mighty Angels,
and we have the power to - whoop you.”
Which we did. Kenny taught us to play not like, but better than boys. Nat fielded slow grounders from shortstop, and Erika would catch her underhand tosses from second, both with bare hands, to turn double plays. We slid head first. We pointed to our target with our glove then fired from our hip. I was the pitcher. When Danni, our first basewoman fielded a ball, I ran down the first base line to catch her throw and make the out. We demolished teams, traveled everywhere, and the only ones to ever beat our little Indiana team were Floridians that played year round. At nine years old, Kenny Rhoden showed me my heart. What it was capable of. He built tiny warrioresses - made us better than we ever thought possible, than anyone ever thought possible. And he did it with such love. He rarely raised his voice, but if he did, you knew it was bad. Kenny was calm, collected, kind - always. He made you want to be the best version of yourself. You wanted to be that - for him. I can remember getting up to bat, looking down the first base line to get his instructions and thinking, “do it, get to him, make him proud.” He always let us know that we made him proud. His love was pure gold. It’s why we won. When we lost, which was not often, and we hated it, Kenny’s love held us up. With anguish in our teary eyes he would tell us how honored he was to be our coach, and how we must go out there with our chins up and genuinely high-five that team with the deepest respect.
In middle school he was our basketball coach. A sport we may have been even better at. He made us that way too. Nat and I never stopped playing. We spent our slumber parties in her driveway playing against her older brother, Kyle, and his friends. Kenny was a hard coach with a soft heart. We may not have been the biggest team, but we were the smartest. He instilled intelligence, vision, and always - grace. Again, we demolished teams. At thirteen, Nat and I were shooting the lights out. I learned quiet confidence from Kenny Rhoden. He knew we were the best. He knew he was the best. And our performance was the only thing that needed to deliver that message. When you looked over at him after really messing up, he would be stoic, not angry, but his neutral expression told you exactly what you should have done. When you did something great - you got the same, except perhaps the slightest hint in his eyes. The times when his face would break open into a full smile, ah man, that! That was the best moment and you felt like queen of the world. We were beasts. We wanted it all. Kenny was the one who planted the seed that we could have it. It was in that East Middle School locker room where he announced that he was looking into the eyes of dedicated girls that were destined to be State Champions. And we were. And he may not have gotten credit for that. But it was because of him that we rose to the top of Indiana High School Girls Basketball, two years in a row.
It must also be noted, that even as beastly as Nat and I were, we also attended Cheer Camp with the same level of passion, and Kenny would endure our incessant making up of dances, practicing our cheers, perfecting our herkies and toe-touches, our constant need for him to bear witness. Which he did, with the same level of pride in his eyes.
Kenny was my first spiritual teacher. Looking back I see that. His knowledge for the game of baseball and basketball went unmatched. I was so lucky to learn from such a master. But Kenny never needed anyone’s approval. He never needed the attention. Dismissed it even. This man changed the lives of countless young people throughout his life. He has left generations of an entire community deeply saddened by his departure. My story is one of infinite others. Without his presence in my life, I know that things would not be as they are. The fearlessness, the faith, the non-reaction, the understanding, the openness, the calm, the self belief and strength, the steadfast focus, the standards, the certainty - the Kenny Rhoden in me. And that is just the stuff he instilled on the field and on the court. Outside of the athletic arenas he taught me what a true man looked like. I observed as he showed up for his family first and always, undoubtedly. I witnessed what it meant to be a father. From the front seat I saw what it took to be in partnership, how to love and honor your wife. I was up close and personal with greatness, truth and honesty, complete reliability, security, stability. Kenny Rhoden was a king. The first and of the very few that I have ever had the privilege of knowing. Looking back at that little girl who danced in the light of her best friend’s dad’s love, who grew up strong because of it, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I have known what to look for and what to stray from. I have learned my worth. I have been a champion. And I have him to thank for it.
I would give anything to be wrapped up in those arms one more time. I would do anything to be able to tell him in person what he did for me. What I would do just to see him shake his head, smile and say “no, no, Cortney, you did that,” because he would never take the credit.
I know my entire hometown of Martinsville, Indiana is suffering from the weight of this tremendous loss.
I will never know the suffering of his family. Of his wife, Theresa, the yang to his yin, my second mom. Of his two sons, Robbie and Kyle. Of my best friend forever, Nat. Of their kids, Kenny’s grandchildren. Those that he covered with his love and light and absolute, wholehearted presence. No, I will never be able to touch their pain…
We are the lucky ones.
We all have one more angel on our team up there.
And Kenny Rhoden is the head coach.
“Everywhere we go,
people wanna know,
who we are,
so we tell them…”