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December 9, 2008

(Not) Home for the Holidays: Supportive parents make things easier for the Hokies when on the road

By: Matt Kovatch

With her parents in attendance, senior Amber Hall had one of the best games of her career by scoring 14 points and blocking three shots against St. Joe’s in Nashville on Nov. 28.

Not many people saw it aside from the few teammates huddled around her at the end of the table, but she was crying. The St. Joseph’s women’s basketball team had just sat down in the McGugin Center, Vanderbilt University’s athletics facility in downtown Nashville, Tenn., and the girl at the end of the table was visibly upset.

She tried to hide it by bowing her head and covering her face with her hands, but her legs were bouncing a mile a minute under the table. One of her teammates leaned over to console her, but that just made it worse and opened the floodgates. Now the young lady was in tears, feverishly wiping her eyes in an effort to contain herself.

Why was she crying? No one besides her or the women around her may know for sure, but it’s rather easy to venture a guess once you know the circumstances. You see, it was about 5:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, November 27th. People all over the country were sitting down with loved ones in the comfort of their own homes to enjoy one of most anticipated meals of the year, but not that poor girl from St. Joe’s. Not her teammates either, nor the young women who play basketball for Virginia Tech, Davidson or Vanderbilt.

Those four teams were in Nashville over the holiday to participate in the Vanderbilt Thanksgiving Tournament on the 28th and 29th, an event that was won by the host Commodores when they knocked off the Hokies in the title game. But the games – the whole reason why the players were missing Thanksgiving in the first place – were insignificant at that moment. That’s because this meal was supposed to be special, but without those whom you are used to sharing it with, it’s just not the same.

Vanderbilt was gracious enough to organize the get-together for all the teams so they didn’t have to spend the holiday in some banquet room at a hotel, and a full spread of Thanksgiving fare was provided. There was turkey, ham, stuffing, bread pudding, mashed potatoes, rolls, pies, cheesecakes, a salad bar, an ice cream bar, green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes, and even seafood pasta. You name it, and it was there for you stuff yourself with to your heart’s content.

But it sure didn’t feel like Thanksgiving. The Hokies didn’t know what to expect, so they arrived at the McGugin Center in their Sunday best. However, it would be a lie to say that a few faces didn’t drop when they saw where they would be eating their Thanksgiving feast. It was a school cafeteria, the kind where you pick up a tray and make your way through the line to choose what you want to eat. Normally reserved for Vanderbilt student-athletes to grab a bite to eat after practice or on their way to class, it was now the dinner setting for a bunch of young women who were away from their families on Thanksgiving. There were no tablecloths or silverware or napkins on the tables – it looked just as it had the day before and just how it would the day after. It wasn’t the most welcoming of atmospheres, and Vanderbilt head coach Melanie Balcomb knew it.

She wasted no time getting up in front of the group to apologize for the lack of family-like and comforting ambience. She welcomed the players to Nashville and said that, while it may be tough to be away from loved ones, everyone else in the room was in the same boat, so for the next hour or so, it was important to enjoy yourself and help yourself to as much food as you wanted. She pointed out the cooks and the staff who had given up time with their families to try and make a nice atmosphere for the girls, and she quickly boasted about how good the food was that they were about to eat.

It was a nice gesture, but the words weren’t enough for that player from St. Joe’s. She still missed her family, and what makes it worse is that it’s very possible that her family was right there in Nashville to see her.

That was the case with Tech senior Amber Hall. She wasn’t crying, but her father, Al, and her mother, Pinky, had just driven eight hours from Tallahassee, Fla., to spend a few days with their daughter. The only problem was that no parents of players were allowed to eat at the dinner – it was strictly for the teams, the coaches and the support staff.

“Amber fully anticipated that we’d be able to eat with her because we always have in the past,” Pinky said in the lobby of the team hotel prior to Tech’s game against Vanderbilt. “Usually when we meet the team on trips, it’s like, ‘Sure, come along and you can just sit over there.’”

But that’s not how it was in this instance. The Halls were able to find a Thanksgiving dinner at a nearby hotel and ended up spending time with Amber afterward, but they found it a little odd that parents were not welcome on this occasion.

“If you think about all of the different holidays, Thanksgiving is the one that centers the most on family associations and connections,” Pinky said. “Where we come from, Thanksgiving is really big because of that. We’ve always had big affairs in the past, and when each of our parents passed on, we took a lot of it upon ourselves to have everyone’s family come to our house. Amber is definitely used to a big, happy Thanksgiving with a lot of food and games to enjoy.

“I think she liked [the team dinner], but she didn’t realize until right before it that parents couldn’t come. Some of the other players who know us and see us around – they know we always come along, so they, too, were a little disappointed.”

Whatever the reasoning was for the decision to limit the dinner to team personnel is unknown, but there were definitely some bummed families that day. That’s not to take a shot at the fine folks from Vanderbilt – they may have simply overlooked the possibility of so many families traveling to see their daughters – and besides, the dinner was well-received by all in attendance and the food was quite delicious. But it just goes to show how important the holidays are for many people, and Thanksgiving dinner or not, the Halls are still going to make the effort to be with Amber whenever they can.

“Since Amber has been away at college, we’ve tried to do all of the holidays,” Al said. “We think it’s very important. All too often, people tend to think that young adults are independent and that they don’t need parental support, but I beg to differ. I think that there are kids who need that, especially if they come from a close-knit family where those things are meaningful.”

When on a trip, the Halls always find the time in between the Hokies’ scheduled activities to hang out with Amber, but when they can’t, they meet up with some of the other families who also make the trip to support the team. On this trip, family members of junior Lindsay Biggs, sophomore Elizabeth Basham and freshman Brittany Lewis were in attendance. In fact, the Halls ran into the Biggs on Thanksgiving night.

“We families always look forward to seeing each other at these things – we’re like a little support group for each other,” Pinky said. “You feel really good when you see those other parents, too. We’ve bonded with these other people, and you expect to see them.”

The Hokies started the season with a 5-2 record thanks to a number of players stepping up and recording career highs, including junior Lindsay Biggs, who led the team in scoring through seven games with 14.4 points per game.

While there are a handful of parents who get to see the Hokies every so often, it’s important to understand that all parents don’t have the same luxury to do so. It doesn’t take long to recognize that Al Hall is a smart and thoughtful man, and his logic behind the importance of supporting the team while it’s away from home is spot on.

“It’s easy for a family to lose a bond with a kid with the whole process [of being a collegiate student-athlete], so we are eternally grateful that we [Al and Pinky] are in a position where we can afford to take a trip and be away from work for almost a week,” Al said. “But you just feel for all the other parents who can’t do that.

“When Pinky and I come to a game, we don’t simply represent Amber. For those kids whose parents can’t be there, we also serve as surrogate parents for them to show that there is hope that there is somebody from home who is there supporting them.
“This team has gone through an awful lot in the past couple of years. There was the shooting [on April 16th, 2007], one of the players’ boyfriends was killed in a car wreck, one of the players’ fathers passed away, and others have lost grandparents or family members. So sometimes, the presence of parents in post-crisis situations can serve as consolation and reaffirmation that someone is there to care for.”

“We’re supportive of all the girls, and I think that’s one of the rewards that we get out of traveling to these games,” Pinky agreed. “We have relationships with these players – not just Amber. We talk to them and give them encouragement and support, and that’s an aspect of athletics that I think is so important because they have a lot to deal with.”

While the Halls certainly understand and stress the importance of supporting a child in need, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t like to see things change a little bit. It’s time-honored to tradition to take in some football on TV or to head out to a basketball game to get out of the house when you’re home for the holidays. But what about the players who play in those games? Or the individuals who sacrifice their time to put on the events that so many get to enjoy? Like the Hokies experience every November and December, those people spend a lot of time on buses and in hotel rooms with nothing but a phone to connect them to their loved ones.

“Somewhere along the line, somebody might step back and think about this, but playing sports is a very demanding aspect of a student’s life,” Al said. “They don’t really get a chance like traditional students to have a few days to sit back and relax. Each year, they’ll have to leave on Christmas Day or the day after to get back to campus. They don’t have the luxury of being away. It’s a little invasive, really, so it’s something for people to think about for the betterment of the student as a whole. You can get so caught up in the competition that you can lose sight of the big picture.”

So why play in these tournaments? Well, with no classes in session, it’s an easy way to get some games in against some great opponents in some great locales with no reason to worry about hurrying back for school. And depending on the sport and who is playing, it also makes for good ticket sales and for some good television. Having played in college herself, Pinky understands that.

“Once you become a player, you develop the mindset that you’ll be playing for the next four years and that it’s a fact of life,” Pinky said. “But Amber already talks about being able to celebrate the holidays next year when she’s done with her undergrad. Maybe [the NCAA] could have some type of rotation where if a team plays over Thanksgiving one year, then they don’t the next year or they don’t at Christmas time.”

Until that happens, if it even were to happen, parents like the Halls and those students who play the game will have to continue to spend the holidays in an unconventional way. Visits are few and far between for some families, and for many student-athletes who attend a school far from home – like Hall and the approximately 650 miles that separate Blacksburg from Tallahassee – those visits are short. Even if a team does get a weekend off at the last minute, it’s nearly impossible to find an affordable flight or make the lengthy drive without much notice.

Opportunities must be appreciated when they come along, and that’s why the Thanksgiving dinner in the Vanderbilt cafeteria ended up not being such a bad thing. It wasn’t Grandma’s house or your mom’s cooking or the company that most were used to, but it also wasn’t the hotel room that the teams were holed up in for most of the holiday weekend. For past holiday trips, the team had been to restaurants with nice menus and attractive table settings. But Angela Crosby, one of the Hokies’ assistant coaches and one of the most down-home Southerners you’ll ever meet, said it best.

“The girls don’t care about all that fancy stuff – they just want to feel like it’s Thanksgiving.”

And she was right. The food didn’t have to be amazing, but it at least had to resemble what the players were used to and what they were missing. So kudos to Vanderbilt for making that happen.

And that poor girl from St. Joe’s with the tears in her eyes? She was all smiles after passing through the buffet line and eyeing up that mac and cheese. Sometimes all it takes is a little comfort food.