It was just a high-five. An exuberant one, sure, but not especially acrobatic. You know, a step, a little leap and then: smack!
Only something went wrong.
That was 23 years ago, on a cool October afternoon that had been one of the best days of Gantt's life before it became the worst. At the time, Gantt was the assistant equipment manager for the William and Mary football team. He washed jerseys, organized the gear and, before the end of every away game, ran ahead to unlock the visitor's locker room. That's where he was headed, whooping and yelling, when he saw the fellow Tribe fan running toward him, just as elated and looking for someone to hug, someone to high-five, someone to share the moment with. After all, Division I-AA William and Mary had just upset the mighty Cavaliers of Virginia, on the road, 41-37. It was one of the greatest moments in the football team's history. A celebration was in order.
For Gantt, it was, as he remembers, "just the best feeling." Three years earlier he'd joined the staff as a 25-year-old volunteer. He loved being around the game, loved talking officiating (a particular passion of his), loved going out for beers with the equipment crew and, more often than not, getting into some kind of good-natured trouble. Only a couple months earlier, he'd been brought on full-time as the assistant equipment manager, benefits and all (and thank goodness for that). Which is how he came to be holding that key, sprinting toward that locker room, on that fateful night.
Not long after Gantt hit the ground, head coach
Gantt had landed on his neck and bruised between the sixth and seventh region of the vertebra. The team doctor rode with him to the ER, then huddled with him in his hospital room. Coaches and staff visited. The prognosis was grim: Gantt was paralyzed from the chest down. He'd need a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
It took three years of rehab for Gantt, but eventually he returned to William and Mary, this time as a fan. It would have been easy to be bitter, to blame football, but that wasn't his manner. "It was a fluke," he says. "It wasn't going to stop me. I've been loyal to this team the whole time." Staying away from the game, he says, would have only made things worse.
So instead, Gantt got closer to it. He became the team's biggest fan. Laycock invited him to games, making sure he had a prime spot on the sideline or in the corner of the end zone, closest to the team entrance. If the game was within driving distance, he was there. Though of course he wasn't doing the driving; it was his sister
Eventually, PG became like family. He came to practices, sat in on coaches' meetings. One year, the staff held a golf fundraiser so it could buy Gantt a specially-designed van. Another year they raised money for a new power wheelchair. If Laycock had a team function at his house, he invited PG. To Laycock, who has been the William and Mary coach since 1980 and is beloved for both his success (190-138-2) and his commitment to his players -- since the NCAA began honoring teams for outstanding academic achievement in 2004, William and Mary has been recognized each year (including three seasons with 100 percent graduation rates) -- it seemed "like the right thing to do."
"It doesn't take much effort to include him so why not?" says Laycock, a commanding, white-haired man with a thick southern accent who once played quarterback at William and Mary. "A couple coaches have to pick him up in the wheel chair and bring him in, then park him and give him a beer and he's happy. That's all he wants."
So PG came to team dinners. He rolled into the locker room before and after games, listening quietly. If the players wondered who the small, amiable man in the wheelchair was, they didn't let on -- Gantt says they were always friendly and respectful. Still, Laycock decided to add a page to the player handbook before this season, right up front, with a biography of Gantt bearing the title of Former Equipment Manager and Life Long Tribe Fan. It touched on his high school career -- he played soccer at Armstrong High in Richmond -- and how "his love and dedication to the program remained unwavering" after his accident. And it certainly has. Gantt's name is on the coaches' suite in the football center.
So of course PG was going to be there last week when the Tribe headed back to Virginia for the first time since 1995. Sure, there were some dark memories. "It took a lot of courage for him to come back and see the game, it has to be tough on him" says Laycock. "That's why what happened meant so much."
What happened, as you probably know, is that William and Mary turned in another magical game. And again, Gantt was down on the field, only this time he was on the sideline with the team, peering out of his chair as his Tribe took it to Virginia. An interception, then another one. A lead for William and Mary. Finally, when freshman
And just like last time, Gantt rushed to the locker room afterward, beating the team and taking up his spot in the corner to soak it all in. And again it was pandemonium. Players cheering, the school president whooping. Gantt could hardly see amidst the mass of bouncing bodies. When Laycock finally addressed the team, he had to summit a chair to do so. Under his arm he held the game ball, which the schools' business manager had retrieved and handed to him. It was, after all, one of the biggest wins of his career. At the end of his address, he paused, looked around the room, and said he had something else to add.
Brandishing the ball, he reminded his team how he never gives away game balls. Doesn't believe in it, but this time was different. This time someone deserved it. And half the team thought he was talking about
"I know Michael Clemons did a great job in here before," Laycock said, shaking his finger, "but I know Mike would understand I'm not giving it to him." Laycock paused and the coach, a proud, serious man, began to crack a bit. His voice wavered, then broke. "I'm giving it to a young man who means a whole, whole lot more."
And with that Laycock turned toward the door and held the ball aloft. The players turned with him, now understanding, and they parted to reveal sitting in the corner in his green Tribe hat and green Tribe shirt, a visitor's pass around his neck, the small, teary-eyed figure of Pat Gantt. And as Laycock walked toward him, the players roared and clapped and began a chant that echoed through the halls and out to the field.
"P-G! P-G! P-G! P-G!"