CHICAGO – To say that the Play4Kay game on Friday night will take on a deeper significance for the Blue Demon athletic community is merely scratching the surface of a wonderfully inspiring, real-life story of two courageous women and an insidious disease.
Both legendary North Carolina State women’s basketball coach Kay Yow and iconic DePaul Athletics Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto (left) are shining examples that illuminate the best of the human condition.
The original breast cancer diagnosis in 1987 did nothing to slow down an extraordinary career (737-344 in 38 years) that saw Yow lead the Wolfpack to 20 NCAA tournament appearances including eight Sweet 16 berths and the Final Four in 1998. She guided the USA women’s basketball team to the gold medal at the 1988 Olympics and was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.
“Her everlasting faith was an amazing thing,” said DePaul associate head coach Jill Pizzotti, who grew close to Yow while working for Nike and serves on the Kay Yow Fund Board of Directors. “She truly believed this was the mission God had given her and to do everything she could to make a difference.
“I spent time with her while she was enduring some of her biggest struggles. I watched as she summoned up the fight and energy to continue making a difference. It was so inspiring to see. It had an impact on my life that has stayed with me as I watched her literally fight for her life.
“She somehow found the energy to go to practice and work with the team. Despite what she was going through, she continued to put others ahead of herself. It’s one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed.”
Yow embraced her role as a symbol to fight breast cancer and would be stopped by complete strangers who told her she was their inspiration.
In a 2007 interview, Yow said: “When they say that, it really gives me a lift because it is at that time I know for sure that I’m not going through it for nothing. That means a lot to me.
“I have to go through it. I accept that, and I’m not panicked about it because the Lord is in control. It would just be so sad if I had to go through it and I couldn’t help people.
“But then I see I’m helping others in a greater way than I ever have. That’s the amazing thing, you know?”
The cancer went into remission until 2004 when the courageous coach again fought it off. The cancer returned during the 2006-07 season, forcing Yow to take a leave of absence. She was back coaching by late January and her inspired players went on to win 12 of their final 15 games, upset undefeated No. 1 Duke in the ACC tournament and advance to the NCAA Sweet 16. It was a time when fans everywhere wore pink in support of Yow and breast cancer awareness.
Yow remained at the helm to start the 2008-09 season, but her condition became worse in December and she did not return to the gym after Christmas break. Stephanie Glance was on Yow’s coaching staff for 15 years and shared this memory with wbca.org.
“The team had experienced her absences before, so there was always hope that she would be coming back,” Glance said. “The coaching staff kept the team going as normally as possible, but there came a time when we knew she probably wasn’t going to be able to make it through. She was becoming weaker every day.
“We brought the team to the hospital to visit her, telling them she may not be strong enough to really interact with them. When we walked in, coach Yow was sitting up in a chair and she had a conversation with every single person.
“She gave that last gift to those players and they left the hospital encouraged and inspired. She passed away just three days after that.”
Results from a mammogram in December of 2014 revealed that Ponsetto had Stage 2 ductal carcinoma that had spread to her lymph nodes. The former DePaul four-sport athlete huddled with her doctors at Rush University Medical Center and decided to attack the cancer with an aggressive treatment plan of chemotherapy, a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery culminating with radiation last August.
As Ponsetto watches her Blue Demons on Friday night in the Play4Kay game, she is now cancer-free.
“Kay Yow is such an icon in women’s basketball and fought such a courageous battle against cancer,” Ponsetto said. “Kay was very inspirational in the way she spent every day of her life continuing to coach the team and live life to the fullest. She was a terrific example for women facing the disease, and I think about her every day and what she meant to us.
“I owe so much to Kay and to a lot of women and close friends who went through the same battle and shared their insight and support. There’s Judy Rose, the University of North Carolina, Charlotte athletic director and Donna DeMarco, Deputy Commissioner of the American Athletic Conference. There’s Western Athletic Conference Deputy Commissioner Connie Hurlbut, former senior associate athletics director at Iowa State Elaine Hieber and Chris Voelz, the former women’s athletic director at Minnesota.
“I had heartfelt conversations with all of them, and it was incredibly inspiring to see and hear their journeys and how they responded so valiantly going through every stage of the disease.”
Ponsetto is that rare athletic director in America who knows every single one of her student-athletes by name and has built a nurturing and compassionate family atmosphere in which “her kids” flourish both on the field and in the class room. It’s not uncommon for her to share team meals with them, and she interacts with any number of them on a daily basis. Former student-athletes always point to Jeanne as the lasting legacy of their days in Lincoln Park.
It’s no wonder Ponsetto could bank on a large and enthusiastic support system with a highly competitive edge that understood the significance of their leader coming out on top in this real-life showdown. When Ponsetto arrived home from her first chemotherapy treatment, well over 100 student-athletes, coaches and staff members had gathered outside her home and were screaming in unison “J-L-P” over and over.
"It was, 'Oh, my gosh, it's our kids,'" Lenti Ponsetto said in a Chicago Tribune article. "It was the first time I cried. I burst into tears. There were big hugs. It was kids from every sport, our coaches and staff.
"It was incredibly inspirational. The kids were so relieved for me. For them to want to share that with me, it was really cool."
As Ponsetto reflected back on her ordeal, she realized she was never alone in this battle.
“The biggest thing was the unwavering support of my husband Joe Ponsetto, my family, everyone in the University community, my colleagues in the athletic department and without question, our student-athletes,” she said. “It meant so much to come to work each day and be inspired by our student-athletes’ energy and enthusiasm. I could feel their concern and compassion for what I was going through, everyday encouraging me and inspiring me to forge on.
“As time went on, I realized that I was drawing on the attributes I had learned as a student-athlete---those qualities that we encourage our student-athletes to utilize every day in accomplishing their academic and athletic goals ---the determination and dedication and work ethic attitude. You do all the things that are needed to bring about a positive result to help your team win and to feel good about the contributions you made to your collective success. I had a terrific team of coaches from Joe and my family to all the coaches and athletics staff members. And I can’t say enough about the awesome team of doctors and health care professionals at Rush University Medical Center that coached me through the journey.
“Going through this process brought out my competitive spirit---like I see every day in our DePaul student-athletes taking on a big time opponent with overwhelming talent and skill. You try to counter all that talent and skill by being prepared for every instance, for every adverse moment in the game and being ready to compete to the final whistle.
“I had a lot of special moments as a student-athlete at DePaul and had enjoyed success playing on some good teams with terrific teammates. As an athletic director, I’ve been able to enjoy the most wonderful accomplishments of our student-athletes and coaches. With the prognosis I now have, absolutely this is a great victory.”
Blue Demon women’s basketball coach Doug Bruno could see a common thread running through Yow and Ponsetto.
“When coach Yow was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987, I was with her in Chicago,” Bruno said. “She was the guest speaker at a Sun-Times All-Area banquet. She gave one of the most inspirational speeches I’ve ever heard on controlling attitude as opposed to not being able to control circumstances.
“That’s what all coaches teach---you can control attitude but not circumstances. Coach Yow lived it. Each and every human being on this earth is touched by cancer themselves or they know someone with cancer.
“Cancer came knocking on Jeanne’s door two years ago. We had all learned lessons from coach Yow who taught us as she was put to the test daily. To watch Jeanne deal with the cancer every single day exemplified controlling your attitude.”
You could sense the admiration as Bruno recounted Ponsetto’s battle.
“Coaches talk about toughness and some people mistakenly interpret that as the physicality of hitting someone upside the head,” Bruno said. “Toughness is mental. What Jeanne showed on the outside was positive vibes that encompassed a toughness of heart and guts on the inside.
“If she didn’t say anything, you would never know she had cancer. She was steadfastly determined to not allow any of us to feel sorry for her. While she was undergoing chemotherapy, she was supposed to rest on certain days. By her second treatment, she was back to work a day early. By the third treatment, she was back two days early. When she had radiation treatment, you wouldn’t know it because she was at work every day.
“Jeanne personified what coach Yow was talking about in that magnificent speech at the Como Inn. In a lot of ways, Jeanne is DePaul’s version of Kay Yow. They both lived one of the most important life-lessons in sports---you can’t control circumstances but you can control attitude. It was so inspiring to watch both of them bravely maintain a positive attitude while fighting through a real tough circumstance.”
A cancer-free Ponsetto realizes the fight is far from over.
“After I had surgery last June and went through radiation treatments from August to October, I was cancer-free,” she said. “I didn’t want to get over-the-top enthusiastic because there’s always a chance the cancer could come back. But I was certainly grateful for my present condition.
“I have a lot to be thankful for and will continue to live my life to the fullest, loving what I get to do every day---working with our student-athletes, coaches and staff and being a part of the wonderful community at DePaul.
“I’ve always been very independent and self-sufficient. During this ordeal, I found myself going back to my playing days ---only this time our DePaul student-athletes were doing the coaching. And instead of me leading my team in athletics, they were leading me, encouraging me, willing me to compete and defeat this disease.
"It’s been an eye-opening experience, and I learned about the giant hearts of our kids, coaches and staff---how very kind and compassionate they are. In some small way, I feel like what I have given to others over the years came back to me tenfold.”