Kendall Smith, the Warren East High School softball team’s sophomore catcher, pauses to draw a “T” in the dirt with her bat before entering the batter’s box. It’s a simple gesture, one that would go unnoticed if you don’t know the history. It’s also a powerful gesture, one that illustrates the impact of sports while at the same time demonstrating that maybe the games we play just aren’t all that important when compared to life and death.
Smith makes the T routinely now, but it’s anything but routine for one person watching from the Warren East dugout.
Tim McKinney, or “Coach T” to his Lady Raiders family, is the object of the homage being paid by the 4th Region’s Player of the Year. He’s the one proudly wearing his Lady Raider gear and sporting a smile that belies the pain and discomfort that accompany him daily. You won’t hear him yelling to Smith or any other WEHS player; diseased lungs and other cancer-ravaged organs make that impossible. But if they lean close, close enough for one of McKinney’s one-armed hugs, the players might get a soft-spoken word of advice or encouragement. If they pay attention, the girls might learn something from a man who has spent most of his 52 years around sports. But, watching these one-on-one dugout sessions, it’s hard to know who’s benefitting more: the Lady Raiders or Coach T.
Doctors, his constant companions for most of his adult life, have given McKinney a death sentence. The Lady Raiders, his prized companions since his nephew Phillip McKinney took over as WEHS softball coach in 2010, have given him a reason to prove that doctors don’t know everything.
“Many of these girls I have been around since they were five or six,” says Coach T. “To see their growth, not just on the field but off it, it’s just a thrill for me. It gives me an energy that I don’t have anymore. These girls have given me so much. I don’t know that I’ve given them as much as they’ve given me.”
Tim McKinney’s relationship with the WEHS girls has been mutually beneficial for years. When his health allowed, he has helped Phillip coach his travel teams, all known as the Thunder, since many of the current Lady Raiders were starting elementary school. Those girls have watched Coach T battle the health issues that began at age six, when his broken left arm became gangrenous and had to be amputated to save his life. Despite that handicap, Tim competed in several sports and even pitched in Babe Ruth and American Legion baseball leagues. He continued his association with sports while working in radio, even serving as the voice of the Western Kentucky University baseball team for a season.
The bouts with cancer started when he was a student at Warren Central High School. Since then he has gone toe-to-toe with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, and thyroid cancer that has spread to other organs. Watching McKinney’s battles with cancer is inspiring to Smith and other Warren East players.
“He’s a great inspiration to me, and I know he is to the whole team,” says Smith. “He gives us another reason to want to win. It’s amazing to see how much he fights. You can see how hard it is for him just to come to the games. That inspires us all.”
Phillip McKinney agrees that his uncle has been a positive influence on the team. “This is his seventh time battling cancer,” says the Lady Raider head coach. “It’s what he’s had to deal with. It wears him out just sitting there watching a game. He was told a couple of months ago that he had six to eight months to live, but he’s not quitting. He’s not going to stop fighting. I believe he has impacted the lives of these girls. Being around him, they understand that there’s more to life than what’s going on with you at this moment.”
Coach T is such an asset that the Warren East players now have the letter T and a cancer ribbon on all their batting helmets. Nicki Gibbs, a sophomore outfielder, explains that it’s a way to pay tribute to someone who has played a big role in their lives, from the days when he dressed in a bunny suit and coached third base during a springtime travel-ball tournament to today, when simply getting to the game is a supreme effort.
“Coach T has been more than a coach,” Gibbs says. “He has been a great influence on our lives. He pushes us to do our best on the softball field, but beyond softball he wants us to do our best in life. It (the T on the helmets) is kind of a reminder that he is always on our minds and that he means a lot to us.”
The symbiosis between Tim McKinney and the Lady Raiders was never more evident than when WEHS defeated South Warren to win the 4th Region Tournament. After the final out of the hard-fought, 1-0 victory, Coach T emerged slowly from the dugout, hugging everyone in sight and beaming broadly as he posed with the team for pictures.
“About the fifth inning I was really getting emotional,” he says. “I had tears in my eyes. The moment I knew that we were going to win was when (second baseman) Erin Houchins caught the line drive in the seventh inning. That was the second out. I thought: We’ve got this. We’re going to win. I stayed back for a while and just watched. I wanted to see it all. It was one of the highlights of my life.”
“That was really just a huge moment for him,” says Kathy McKinney, Coach T’s wife since 2006. “That was better for him than his chemo drugs. He cares so much about Phillip and the girls. To see them get to this point was just tremendous. I don’t have the words to describe the look on his face. He has been dealing with a lot of issues. Watching the girls play softball has taken his mind off the pain and the stress. It’s just very uplifting.”
Another Lady Raider, sophomore outfielder Sheridan Akins, says the uplifting goes both ways. “Coach T means a lot to the team,” Akins explains. “He’s always so supportive, and he always has a smile on his face, encouraging everyone. We’re so much more motivated because of him. Seeing him come to the games when he’s not in the greatest health, that means a lot.”
That Tim McKinney is a positive influence on the players isn’t a bit surprising to his wife. “Tim is a very positive person,” says Kathy McKinney, a retired teacher. “He makes everyone around him better. He’s not going to tell you he’s in pain. He’s just going to keep on going.”
And Coach T has no plans to change that attitude.
“It’s tough to tell anyone that cancer is a good thing to have, and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, but there are times when I think it has made me a better person,” McKinney says. “It has made me see things in a different light. This is the way it was laid out for me. Whatever it is you’re dealing with, you have to be positive. You can’t ball up and wait for it to be over. You’ve got to keep going forward. That’s what I’ve always done to the best of my ability. I wouldn’t wish my health on anybody, but I would like for everyone to have the happy moments I’ve had in my life.”
Sadly over the weekend Tim McKinney, Coach “T” passed away. We have been asked to post this story we did in March on Coach “T”.
Coach “T’s” passion for life, his love of the game and care for the hundreds of young players he has coached will be remembered for a lifetime by those players.
Our condolences to the McKinney family, friends and players from the Warren East Lady Raiders softball program for their loss.
Sporting Times –