Jan. 28, 2009

By Lara Boyko
Special to NCAA.com

Before even starting kindergarten, 5-foot-4 redshirt sophomore Cait McMahan knew that basketball was going to be part of her life for a very long time.

“It was probably my older brother Reese who got me into it as we used to play together in the backyard,” the Tennessee guard said. “There was no mercy when we played together as we are both competitive in every sport.”

Yet even as competitive as McMahan would become in the years that followed, it ended up being her right knee that would ultimately fail her, leaving her to come to the difficult decision to end her playing career Jan. 10.

“It was very difficult to make the decision since basketball is all that I’ve been playing and know,” McMahan said. “But I knew that once I stepped on the court and my knee kept giving out, I knew what the reality was so the decision was made for me. I just had to deal with it.”

McMahan’s decision came after dealing with knee problems for the better part of the last three years. During junior year of high school at Heritage High School in Maryville, Tenn., she tore the MCL in her right knee. Her senior year wasn’t much better as it was this year when she tore the ACL in the same knee. Yet even with two major knee injuries, McMahan was hopeful that things were going to be different once she arrived at Tennessee.

“When you tear your ACL and they repair it, it’s supposed to be better than ever,” said McMahan. “That wasn’t the case with me as things just went downhill once I tore my ACL.”

McMahan’s latest knee injury was just last year during her freshman year with the Vols. Despite having arthroscopic surgery Oct. 20, 2006 and sitting out for the 2007-08 season, time did not heal all wounds. Instead, there never seemed to be a meeting of the minds between her knee and medical science.

“I had problems with my knee and did all kinds of things to try to get it to work so it wouldn’t give out in games or practices and to help out with the swelling,” said McMahan. “I tried everything and nothing seemed to work. You can’t play at this level, have your knee go out and be able to continue to play. I took the month of December off and then when I came back, my knee would still give out even when I wore a knee brace.

“When I came back to practice in January, that’s when I decided. I went over to our trainer Jenny Moshak, made eye-contact with her and that’s when we both knew it was the last straw. I only broke down once as it was hard to tell my head coach that I wasn’t going to be able to play anymore. It was a lot of thought and prayer that went into it.”

Telling Pat Summitt was difficult, but it was telling her biggest supporter that her playing days were over where she really struggled.

“It was hard to have the conversation with my dad because I know how much he wanted me to succeed in basketball, but he completely understood,” McMahan said. “My dad and I have been through a lot with my mom’s death last year so we just both wanted me to do great things in a basketball uniform because I was playing for my mom.”

Despite leaving the game with a heavy heart, it was the action of one of her teammates that lifted McMahan’s spirits and enabled her to experience a different type of tearful emotion this season. 

“It was sad day for me when she made the announcement because it was hard for me to see one of my friends not being able to do something they love but had been doing for most of their lives,” said teammate Alex Fuller who changed from wearing 44 to McMahan’s 2 starting with the Lady Vols game against South Carolina Jan. 18.

“[I did it] to show her that she not only means a lot to me, but we consider her to be one of our teammates and will always be out on the floor with us. She has such a huge heart for basketball and the team, so this was a way to show our appreciation for that.”

McMahan’s limitations to helping her team as a student assistant coach may be frustrating as the Lady Vols, No. 12 in the latest polls, but it is her presence on the sidelines that is just one reminder that everyone’s role on the Tennessee team is important.

 “It’s not just about putting on a jersey and having something written across your chest. It takes a lot of heart and desire to play in this program and one of the reasons why Pat recruited us to play here is because of what she saw in us,” Fuller said. “We need to start showing that as a team.”