STILLWATER – Pushing through the teeth of powerful thunderstorms and wind in a panicked rush to return from Tulsa to Stillwater, Glenn Spencer tried to calm driver Richard Atkins, the captain of the Oklahoma State University Police Department.
“We weren't going too fast and I knew it was bothering him,” said Spencer, OSU's linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator. “And he kept saying, ‘I'm sorry, coach. I'm sorry coach.'
“He was gripping the steering wheel with both hands and he kept apologizing, because he couldn't really go as fast as he wanted to.
“To ease his mind I said, ‘Don't worry about it, Richard. Listen, the boys don't need to lose their dad tonight.'”
One lost parent would be devastating enough.
Spencer had been summoned from the press box at Tulsa's H.A. Chapman Stadium, where he and other Cowboys coaches were waiting out a lengthy rain delay before their Sept. 17 game against the Golden Hurricane.
Once down onto the field, the news from home concerning his wife Angela, while not completely surprising, shook Spencer still.
“That's when they told me that they're calling from Stillwater and Angela is not doing well,” Spencer said.
Angela's 12-year struggle with heart problems had resulted in emotional highs and lows and scares and close calls. Yet this was different.
A call to Angela's parents revealed that his wife had been rushed to the emergency room at Stillwater Medical Center. And she was unresponsive.
“From that point on, I was kind of in a daze,” Spencer said. “I was trying to find a policeman, a neighbor, anybody, I was just trying to find a car.
“At that point, the game was irrelevant. I just had to get back to Stillwater as soon as possible.”
Atkins, who regularly accompanies the Cowboys on road trips, climbed behind the wheel of a patrol car and they headed west, into weather bad enough to delay kickoff more than three hours.
“I'm sure it was dangerous,” Spencer said. “Not much was said. We got back to Stillwater as quick as we could.
“Richard did great.”
In Stillwater, doctors labored to keep Angela alive.
“I asked them to keep going until I get there,” Spencer said. “When I finally got there, they were in the room trying to bring her back, trying to resuscitate her. Those doctors were worn out. They were just doing that for me. And when I walked in, they finally stopped.
“And I said goodbye to her.”
‘UNBELIEVABLE MOTHER. DEVOTED WIFE'
Glenn Spencer doesn't want the story to be about him.
Sure, he's the recognizable face, a key coach on an OSU team still carrying national championship hopes.
But, it's Angela, he said, that was and is the backbone of the Spencer family.
“It should be more about honoring her as an unbelievable mother and as a devoted wife in this crazy profession and what she sacrificed for our family,” Glenn said. “And how unselfish she was throughout her whole ordeal the last 12 years with this disease.
“I don't want it to be about me. That wouldn't be right.”
Angela first started noticing something wrong while Glenn was the head coach at the University of West Georgia, where the two had met as graduate students.
It started with chest pains and heart arrhythmia and was misdiagnosed early. When her conditioned worsened, a lengthy stay at the Mayo Clinic revealed a disease of the heart muscle itself.
And the diagnosis involved a startling word: non-curable.
The condition was treated with diuretics and medicines for years, but the Spencers were told that a transplant was the only hope at extending her life long term.
None of it — not the illness, nor the pain or the suffering or the fear — got in the Spencers' way. Glenn continued to coach and Angela continued to be wife and mother to sons Luke and Abe, who are now 16 and 13.
There was help and support yes, from both sides of the family and friends and neighbors, too. Still, Angela pressed on in her most cherished roles as mother, wife and daughter.
“She was very strong,” said her mother, Glynda Folds. “She almost constantly hid her suffering from everyone. Very few people realize how seriously ill she was.
“She was very personal and private about it and wanted to be treated like a perfectly normal individual. She didn't want any special attention. She didn't want sympathy. She just wanted to be a normal mother and wife and daughter.”
Glenn observed and admired Angela's passion to live, not for herself, but for her family.
As Glenn moved on in the profession, to Georgia Tech, then Duke and finally OSU in 2008, he was clear about his wife's condition and the challenges they faced. But through it all — even a heart transplant in February of 2010 — they kept even the most difficult times private and personal.
“That's just a tribute to her, because a lot of people didn't know it,” Spencer said. “She didn't want it to be public knowledge. She didn't want to be treated any different.
“And she wanted to be at every ball game she could. She wanted to do every ounce of homework and go on every field trip and every football game she could. She wanted to be the mother that she thought she was supposed to be.
“Up until she died, that's what she was about.”
FAITH. FAMILY. TEAM.
OSU coach Mike Gundy gave his defensive coach no guidelines for returning to the team. Spencer would be missed, for sure, but Gundy understood the need for time and healing could be lengthy.
“I told him to take as long as he needed,” Gundy said. “I told him, ‘Glenn, you may need a month. Whatever you need to do, you do it.'”
Spencer, however, needed something else. He needed work to redirect his focus. He needed his sons. And he needed his team.
While back in Carrollton, Ga., for the funeral, Spencer called Gundy and told him that he wanted to coach that Saturday at Texas A&M, as long as his boys could travel with the team and be on the sideline for the game.
“He called me,” Gundy said, “on what would have been Wednesday. He said, ‘I'm going to come back Friday and I want to be on the plane to A&M.'
“I said, ‘Glenn, you don't need to do that.' And he said, ‘I want to. I need to. And I want my boys to be with me.'
“He said, ‘Mike, I just want you to put me on that plane and I want my boys to be with me.' I said, ‘If that's what you want, that's what we'll do.'”
Not only was Spencer there in College Station, he played a prominent role in righting the defense for the second half, critical in a comeback from a 20-3 halftime deficit to a 30-29 win.
“That's big,” OSU cornerback Justin Gilbert said after the game, “for him to go through what he went through this week and to come with us on the road and stay in tune with us.”
For Spencer, it all seemed right.
“Besides my faith and my family, these kids here, my players, are the only concern of my life,” Spencer said. “So I wanted to get back for them. Because I knew some of my players were hurting for me and I wanted them to see me and say, ‘Hey, coach is OK. Coach wants me to play hard. Coach wants us to run to the football. He's OK.'”
Spencer also recognized the benefits for his own boys, Luke and Abe.
“It was good for me and them to just be together, to hang out, stay in the hotel room that night, just for us to be by ourselves,” he said. “That was a way for us to be together without a lot of family around. And to talk about mom and talk about what it's going to be like these next few days and these next few months.
“And how she was honored was great for the boys to see. The players huggin' their neck. The stickers on the helmets. The Lord blessed us with a win and to be in that locker room after that win was the memory of a lifetime, for them, too.”
SPENCER AND OSU, A GOOD FIT
When Gundy interviewed Spencer for a defensive staff opening in 2008, the topic of Angela's condition came up.
At no point was it a cause for pause for either man.
“When I took this job and came out here, she was sick,” Spencer said. “Mike knew that. And Mike told me things in my interview about what he was about. And about his family being important to him; more than anything.
“Without that assurance, I probably wouldn't have come.”
Said Gundy: “I believe there's a bigger picture out there than winning and losing. So here's a guy who's tried to do everything right, stands for all the things that I believe in. So why should it be an issue that his wife had a heart condition?”
And it never became an issue, even as Angela required extra attention.
Spencer occasionally missed a team meeting or a practice to take his boys to visit their mom at the hospital in Oklahoma City, always with Gundy's blessing.
Over the past two years, there were several instances when Angela's condition spiraled downward — “it was touch and go,” Gundy said — and Spencer might be called away suddenly.
“Mike didn't blink, not one time, when she started having extended hospital stays, before the transplant, after the transplant,” Spencer said. “I can honestly say he didn't blink one time about expecting me to be a husband and a father before my duties here as a coach.”
Gundy shared bits of information about the Spencers' struggles with the team, so that they would understand his absence.
But also so that they would understand the man.
“Glenn is such a wonderful person,” said Bill Young, who works alongside Spencer as co-defensive coordinator. “Not only is he a great football coach, he's a great man. We all have so much respect and admiration for him.”
Gundy said he considers Spencer's time at OSU a blessing.
“People's paths cross your life and you don't know why,” Gundy said. “And he's come in here as a football coach and he's been a great example for me. I don't fear a lot of things. I don't fear anything in athletics.
“I fear the day I lose one of my parents or somebody in my family, but you never know. That's something I've always feared, because I never knew how I'd handle it.
“But he knows. And it's strong.”
SPENCER'S BEST RECRUIT
Angela and Glenn Spencer met in school at West Georgia.
She already had a degree from there and was back to get a teacher's certificate. He was there working as a grad assistant on the coaching staff.
“I tell the story I used to let her cheat off me, which is a lie,” Glenn said. “She tells the story that I was the teacher's pet, because I was a coach there. The teacher always coddled me and let me get by with things that nobody else did.
“Well, I snookered my way in to a dinner one night, claiming that I needed to go over some notes in class that I missed. And she took the bait. And we started dating after that.”
Two years later they were married.
“I'm a recruiter, right?” Glenn said. “That's the best recruiting job I ever did. That's my best signee.”
A JOURNEY OF STRUGGLE, AND HOPE
Almost from the beginning of Angela's illness, the hits kept coming for the Spencers.
First there was the misdiagnosis. One surgery helped relieve the symptoms, but only for a while. Then came the revelation that a transplant was necessary.
And after the transplant, which offered optimism of a solid 10 more years, the disease returned in a rare occurrence.
“The surgeon told us he's done a thousand transplants and it's happened three times,” Glenn said.
So the Spencers faced the need for a second transplant, which they were awaiting when she died, at age 46.
Through it all, they always focused on hope.
“When you're in one of these trials, you try to find hope,” Glenn said. “We talked a lot about that, me and her. Around every corner you try and find hope. You get some bad news, you deal with it and what keeps you going is hope.
“You have a heart disease, you have to take these medicines, your diet has to be super strict. Alright, let's do it. We can manage it and she can still be mom, she can still be my wife. That's all she wanted.
“Then when that didn't work, you have to have a transplant. Another shot, you're down. Then you go for hope. Alright, transplant, we'll get better.”
The Spencers made the most of the times when Angela felt good, including the months after her recovery from the transplant.
“She got to go to some baseball tournaments,” Glenn said. “She got to see the old one have his first girlfriend. All those experiences, we were looking back those last few days saying, ‘This is awful, what's going on, but what a blessing this last year was.'”
A painful blessing, too, for a mother and daughter drawn together by the worst of circumstances.
“That's one thing I'm very proud of,” said Mrs. Folds, “my daughter was always my best friend. We went shopping together. We giggled together. We cooked together. We were very, very good friends.
“And the bond deepened during this time even more.”
THE JOURNEY CONTINUES
“The Grandmas,” as Glenn likes to call them, Mrs. Folds and Glenn's own mother Mary Spencer, have tag-teamed with help around the house for months.
Sometimes they're in Stillwater together, previously assisting with Angela's care and more recently helping Glenn with the boys. Sometimes they alternate with the help.
And they plan to keep coming, for themselves as well as for Luke and Abe.
“We're grandmothers,” said Mrs. Folds. “Angela was my only child. I feel closest to my daughter when I'm here, when I'm with the children. And I don't want them to feel the separation so severely all at once.
“I just felt that it would be good for all of us, myself included.”
Angela's parents spent Thanksgiving at the Spencers, with Mrs. Folds preparing all of Angela's favorite dishes for dinner.
“One of her most favorites was pecan pie,” she said. “And she loved old Southern chicken dressing. And she loved green beans and potato salad and corn. And I make rolls.
“We're definitely remembering all of that.”
So far, keeping busy has kept Glenn and his sons forging forward.
Both boys are heavily involved in baseball and school. And, of course, they have the Cowboys to follow and cheer.
Still, there are those inevitable moments when things slow down.
“It's like I told my boys, we had a great time to grieve and we still do every day,” Glenn said. “But a day doesn't go by that I don't have a nauseous feeling in my stomach at some point in the day. It's like you take a punch. You get sick and nauseous about it.
“Being busy helps. But you're not busy 24/7 and there are those times in the day, you're laying in the bed by yourself or they don't have mom in the kitchen cooking for them, that you hurt. You hurt.
“It doesn't bother me to hurt that way. As strange as it sounds, it doesn't bother me. It just means how much she meant to us.”
And in his two sons, Glenn said he has a lasting memory of Angela.
“That's her greatest work,” he said. “She lives through them. And she raised two champions. Respectful kids. Children of faith. Without her doing that, that would worry me more. She was the champion of the home.
“That's her greatest work, what's behind in them.”
And that's the story Glenn Spencer wants told.
Not a focus on the challenges that he faces as a single dad and college coach, but the work of the love of his life preparing Glenn and his sons for whatever lies ahead.
“I just want people to know how devoted and how unselfish she was,” Glenn said. “And what she did. How she wanted those boys to be raised. Up until her dying day, she was mom, and that's all she wanted to be, mom and a devoted wife to me.
“And that's her testimony. I don't know the answer to why it happens and why it happened to her. All we're asked to do is to keep the faith and to keep living.
“That's what the Spencers are all about, what that lady brought as a mom and a wife.”