Race Is Full Of Hurdles: Bethune-Cookman Coach Took Heat For Her Color, But Helping Mom In Time Was Watten’s Main Concern

By Kevin Blackistone
Updated: May 27, 2005

AUSTIN, Tx. — Her legs cramped. Her body ached. Walking became difficult.

More and more, Nancy Watten just found herself swaddled in pain. The last thing her doctors wanted her to do was travel far from her suburban Dallas home to partake in anything that could test her nerves.

But Nancy Watten, 68, is a mother of three girls and a boy. She’s a grandmother now, too. Who knows better than moms? She was determined to be in the stands at Disney World to watch one of her babies, 36-year-old Laura, coach her biggest game of the year. Mom wasn’t about to hear her daughter’s plea, either, that she stay home.

Laura understood. Part of her wanted her mom to be there.

“I also knew that it was a situation of,” Laura said, pausing to find the words to explain, “um, you know, it was a last time for her to be able to, maybe, possibly come out there, you know, because we didn’t know what was going to happen.”

A kidney was failing. Her mother was scheduled for a transplant to save her life. The surgery was to be a few days after Laura’s big game. Laura was the back-up donor to her mother’s sister, Susan Buratto.

So mom and dad, Paul Watten, hopped a plane bound for Orlando, Fla., to watch Laura lead her Bethune-Cookman softball team in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title game. Laura’s Lady Wildcats were undefeated in conference. Out of conference, they’d even toppled the women at the state’s all-powerful flagship university in Gainesville. They were all but a lock to beat Florida A&M for the MEAC crown and make the NCAA tournament.

But things fell apart for Laura’s team that Sunday, May 1. They blew a late lead and didn’t win the championship game for the first time since 1999. Their season looked complete.

It wasn’t likely that the NCAA tournament selection committee was going to offer an at-large bid to the little black-school team coached by Nancy’s youngest daughter. But Nancy said Laura didn’t seem upset by it when they dined later that night.

“She was so relaxed,” Nancy recalled. “I think it was just like, ‘Now I can just go home and concentrate on what’s ahead of us, with the surgery, and I don’t have to worry about getting ready for regionals. … I can just concentrate on mom and not softball.’ It was a totally different demeanor than we’ve ever seen after she’s lost. My husband and I were just so relieved to see how settled she was.”

The strain on Laura had been obvious, Bethune-Cookman athletic director Lynn Thompson said.

“I noticed Laura losing weight,” he said. “I started worrying.”

Laura hadn’t let any of her colleagues or players in on what was going on in her life. She just wrapped herself in work to keep her mind off of the diagnoses coming out of Dallas.

“Finally she told me,” Thompson said. “She said, ‘Look, mom’s got to have a kidney transplant. I’m one of the matches, and I’ve got to get in the best shape of my life because I’ve got to give her a kidney.”

Nancy and Paul returned to Dallas that Monday. Surgery was planned for May 5.

Back in Florida, Laura decided she didn’t want to disillusion her players by having them hang around and practice for another game that all of sudden was no longer guaranteed to come. Instead, she bid her team goodbye. Some of her charges even left town for spring break. Laura packed up for a trip to Dallas later Monday not knowing when she’d get back to campus.

Nancy, soon to be a retired kindergarten teacher, was surprised Laura ever left Dallas. The Wattens are a tightly knit family. Nancy and Paul met in high school in Minnesota. They’ve been married almost half a century and have been in Dallas almost as long.

Laura graduated from Carrollton R.L. Turner, where she played softball and volleyball, and UT-Arlington, where she was named to All-Southland Conference softball teams. She wanted to stick with softball as a living but found restaurant management a lot more lucrative right out of school. She never lost her passion for the game, though, playing in competitive rec leagues and giving lessons on the side.

Then one day she heard that Bethune-Cookman, a historically black college in Daytona Beach, Fla., was looking for a coach. Laura gained an interview, Thompson offered her the job and she accepted it even though it paid less than half of what she was making running a chain eatery.

That was eight seasons ago.

“When she came home that first Christmas,” Laura’s mom recalled, “she talked for two weeks about those girls and how excited she was and what a good team she’s got. Of course, she met lots and lots of challenges. I’m just amazed at how tough she is.”

Laura didn’t have an office. The team didn’t have a field. She got the city to let her use a city park frequented mostly by the homeless. And everyone wanted to know what a white woman from the suburbs was doing coaching a team at a historically black university, as if it was against some law. It isn’t.

“We took a lot of heat from the African-American community for diversifying our athletic program,” Thompson said. “We’re historically black, but we’re not exclusively black. We’re sick and tired of hearing that stuff: ‘But she’s white.’ A person asked, ‘Can a white kid go to Bethune-Cookman?’ I asked, ‘Can a black kid go to Duke?’ What’s the difference?

“Laura’s been a godsend for us. She’s truly been a role model for these young ladies.”

She’s taught them how to be winners, reinforced the importance of education (all of her players have earned degrees, and the team GPA this season is 3.62) and, unintended as it was, given them an invaluable lesson the last six months in perseverance.

For not only did the surgery go fine, but last week, while Laura was at her childhood home helping her mother recover, the tournament committee awarded an at-large bid to Laura’s team.

“I was so excited,” Laura said.

Laura returned to campus, organized her young women and beat Florida in Gainesville for a second time. It was Bethune-Cookman’s first regional playoff win in school history. Then Laura’s ladies won their next two games, both against South Florida.

As a result, they flew to Austin for a best-of-3 super regional series against Texas. Entering this weekend, Bethune-Cookman is one series win from the Women’s College World Series.

And who planned to be in UT’s softball stadium rooting on Laura’s Lady Wildcats again? Her mom, healthy and pain-free.

“Everything,” said Nancy, “just worked out so beautifully.”