You might say that Furman head coach Wally King went the extra mile for his softball senior class on Memorial Day weekend. The extra 2,200 miles, to be more specific. That’s roughly the distance that the Paladin skipper drove, simply to be able to present his program’s seniors with their parting gifts, with each stop granting a final face-to-face interaction between the head coach and one of his graduating roster members.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, King had a meeting with his seniors. The group of five young women predated even King’s tenure with the program, and had certainly been a meaningful class.
“When everything went down, we called the group together when we really started to see the writing on the wall,” King said. “We sat up in our office with a big conference table, and I just told the other coaches, ‘hey, I need a little time with this group.’ I’ll be honest with you, some people will say I’m not a super emotional guy, and I would say I cried, but I probably wept. I told those guys how much they meant to me, how important they were to me in the transition coming in. They’ve been huge supporters. I think it was, in that way, such a special group for me. It was kind-of that first transition group that was really “mine” when I came in as the new coach… we sat up there and cried for about 45 minutes, and got a chance to really talk. It was really, really valuable to be able to spend some time with them up there.
As most of the nation shut down and entered a near-lockdown mode, King packed his vehicle and headed home to Michigan. A native of the Great Lakes State, King’s family had stayed behind in their home state when he accepted the Furman job, and now he would travel to rejoin them as much of the world swiftly and suddenly quieted.
The abrupt end to the season meant a number of annual staples didn’t have the opportunity to happen in 2020. Included on that list of cancelled events were the Paladin softball Senior Day festivities. The quintet of student-athletes would still receive gifts from their athletic department, but a Senior-Day-by-mail wasn’t good enough for their head coach.
“I wanted to find a way to celebrate these guys,” King said. “I wanted to give them their senior gifts because they deserve that and they’ve put in the time, and I wanted them to know how much I appreciated them. It was a small gesture really on my part. It certainly wasn’t anything where I felt like ‘wow, this is above and beyond what we do.’ This is what we do as a staff. For our players, I didn’t even think twice about it. My wife didn’t think twice about it.”
A plan began to form. The first order of business was to rent a car; King’s vehicle had seen more than 270,000 miles of travel, and he needed something reliable and efficient to pull off the endeavor that he had in mind.
Finally armed with a temporary set of wheels, King set off. The first stop: South Carolina and Furman’s campus, where he would pick up the set of senior gifts, complete with framed jerseys, photos, and mementos. After picking up the gifts and making some small adjustments, it was time for the most important piece of the puzzle: the deliveries.
Over the course of two day, King spanned three states; going from South Carolina to Georgia, then back up to North Carolina, he sought out his seniors one-by-one at their homes. When he planned his excursion, King had even intended on journeying far up the east coast to New Jersey, to senior Tess Griswold’s home, but thanks to strict lockdown orders and other considerations, he’ll make that presentation this fall.
The trip wasn’t a necessity; in fact, the senior class told their head coach that he didn’t have to make it, that he didn’t have to go to that kind of trouble. For King, though, it was a labor of love.
“One of the players kind of took the lead for the group,” King recalled. “They were like, ‘We know how much you care about us; you don’t have to do this. We can get those later.’ But I don’t know if maybe I needed it even as much as I wanted them to have it, but the more I kept thinking about it, the more I really felt like it was something that I needed to do, that I had to do. And at a certain point, it’s just one of those things where you have to say ‘I’m doing this.'”
After making it home to Michigan in the early hours of Memorial Day, King had another special task awaiting him: His father, a military veteran, had passed away earlier in the year and the family planned to gather at this gravesite for the first time to honor his memory. “It was an important piece for me to be able to be there on that Monday, with my mom and brother to visit my dad’s gravesite,” King said. “The timing actually worked together really well.”
Entirely self-financed, the trip saw King sleep in his car and knockout stretches of of driving that reached double-digits in hour count. Still, though, he says he wouldn’t change a thing. “I do like to drive, but I was pretty gassed at the end,” King noted with a chuckle. “But really, I knew that I’d be tired, but that’s okay. It’s what you do, it’s what you do for your team. It was a small price to pay for the three years that they gave us, and all of the things that they sacrificed and did for this program while they were here.”
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