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.”