Mike Leach, my mother and the gift of life

Knowing Mike Leach—the head coach of the Mississippi State University soccer team who died of a heart attack a few weeks ago—was loving him. I loved him and never met him.

The closest I got to him was watching him on the sidelines. My favorite team — the MSU Spartans of East Lansing, Michigan, which is more than 800 miles north of Starkville, Mississippi, home of Leach’s MSU Bulldogs — has played teams coached by Leach twice recently. Leach defeated the Spartans 41-31 at the 2010 Valero Alamo Bowl while still at Texas Tech, and the Spartans defeated Leach and the Washington State Cougars* 42-17 at the Holiday Bowl in 2017.

I cheered hard against Leach in both games, but otherwise I drew for him. Leach knew his stuff. Often referred to as an “innovator,” Leach has been credited with developing air raid Offensive, a program he eventually brought to the University of Oklahoma, where I went to graduate school about 13 years after Leach made a brief stint there as the offensive coordinator. I’m first and always a Spartan, but I also cheer for the Sooners and enjoy the offensive clinic they regularly put on at Norman. It remains part of Leach’s enduring legacy.

But Leach’s true contribution to college football — and by extension, the rest of America — was his endearing personality. A trained lawyer, Leach had a brilliant mind and still managed to speak like a normal guy. Instead of talking about football, Leach would often spend press conferences ranting humorously about topics like Halloween candy, tree houses and cargo shorts. As my friend Anthony Farris OutKick wrote in a recent tribute, “Mike Leach was every content creator’s dream. Simply put, Leach was a gift.”

Leach was indeed a gift. But he was also a giver, even in his last moments. According to a moving statement from his family released shortly after his death, Leach “was able to participate in organ donation [the University of Mississippi Medical Center] as a final act of charity.” Modern medicine may not have saved Leach’s life, but that day Leach helped modern medicine save the lives of others.

I experienced how precious the gift of an organ donation is, because my mother Karen had a heart transplant in March 2021. Otherwise a strong woman in her 60’s who had earlier given birth naturally to three children, my mother suffered from a serious congenital heart defect that went undiagnosed until her early 40’s. When she was put on the donor list, she struggled to get into a car and buckle up. Even a short walk from a parking lot to a restaurant left her breathless. She had to retire early from her beloved teaching career and had limited energy left for her young grandchildren.

All that changed the day my mother received her new heart. To protect the interests of the donor’s family, the transplant hospital has released few details about her heart donor. As far as I know, he was a man who died suddenly in the prime of his life. He may have had a wife and children. He may even have loved college football.

My mother definitely thinks he must have been an athlete. “I can’t sit still,” she told me several months after the transplant. It still tickles me to hear her talk about adding more weight and reps to her routine at the gym. Two years ago, she would have been exhausted just to spell the word “gym.” Now she shames me with her dedication to fitness.

In July 2021, not even five months after the transplant, together with my father, her husband of almost 50 years, she went for a 5 km run, which they covered in just over an hour and 20 minutes, good for 2, 5 miles per hour.

That speed probably won’t win her a race, but my mother knows she’s already won the actual prize. Thanks to the sacred gift of a new heart and zest for life, there’s almost nothing she can’t do. Along with frequent walks and even more interaction with her grandchildren, my mother can once again enjoy the hobbies she neglected when her old heart couldn’t keep up.

My mother has always been a devoted member of her church choir and sang much of the music at my wedding last December, just nine months after the transplant. During Mass, she and my mother-in-law even sang a duet of “Ave Maria,” which united her motherhood with the motherhood of the Virgin Mary, a precious gift in the earliest moments of our marriage that my husband and I will never forget.

Screenshot of the photo by Ilze Lucero

The gift of her organ donation continues to unfold in our lives. My mother dutifully follows all of her medical team’s recommendations for proper care because she wants to honor her donor and his family with her life and health. Jesus Christ gave her the perfect gift of eternal life in heaven, and her heart giver gave her a longer and better life here on earth. Even those of us who love her the most can’t compete with that kind of sacrifice.

Your donor, whose name is known only to God, his loved ones and a handful of hospital staff, is a hero who lives on through my mother and every other fortunate person who received his organs. Mike Leach made a similarly heroic gift to those who can now live new and healthy lives because he once lived.

To summarize her final act of mercy, we need look no further than the words of the State of Mississippi battle songwhat encourages us all:

“Fight for that win today.
Hit the line and carry the ball
Cross the target before you fall!”

Leach, my family’s unknown donor, and the thousands of others who have saved lives through their deaths like her, can teach us all what it really means to “get there before you fall.” Thank you coach May you rest in peace forever, and may all whose lives you have touched – your family, your players, the entire college football community and the blessed recipients of your gifts of life – experience peace and joy in this world and the next .

*I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that WSU quarterback who played bravely in the 2017 Holiday Bowl, Tyler Hilinksi, died in an apparent suicide just weeks later. We think of him and continue to pray for the rest of his soul and for his family and friends.

“He was an incredible young man and anyone who had the privilege of knowing him would be better off,” Leach said of Hilinksi in one expression released shortly after the young man’s death. “The entire WSU community is in mourning, while thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”

https://www.theblaze.com/op-ed/mike-leach-my-mother-and-the-gift-of-life Mike Leach, my mother and the gift of life

Laura Coffey

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