Chris Mooney's immeasurable impact

After family tragedy, student manager leans on the first family of Richmond hoops

Originally Published: October 9, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

On the worst day of her life, he offered her his shoulder and his strength, guiding her home to face the grim reality that her beloved father had taken his own life.

[+] EnlargeChris Mooney
Bob Donnan/US PresswireRichmond coach Chris Mooney has played a crucial role in the life of Robyn Jacobs Sordelett.

He stayed by her through the funeral and the entirety of her senior year, opening up the home he and his wife shared to allow Robyn Jacobs Sordelett a place to live, room to grieve and above all else, a chance to recover and blossom.

And so five years later, on the best day of her life, when Robyn needed someone to walk her down the aisle at her wedding, the former basketball student manager chose the man who had given her solace, peace and support.

She chose Chris Mooney, the Richmond men's coach.

"For me, the biggest thing was that he didn't feel like a replacement," Robyn said. "When he was standing with me, I thought, this is what was meant to be. This man was meant to have this role in my life, to be my protector, my mentor. He does everything for me. There's no one else I would have chosen."


Lesley Jacobs was the sports fan, a Chicago Bulls devotee who still refers to Michael Jordan as "my man." Her husband, Kevin, was more serious-minded, a stockbroker who, with his wife and young family, emigrated from South Africa to Connecticut 20 years ago, just before the United Nations lifted its sanctions against his country.

Of the three Jacobs girls, Robyn is most like her dad -- both middle children, both serious-minded bookworms, and both, according to Lesley, "old souls."

"I remember when she was maybe 3 or 4, she was walking with my late husband, holding his hand, and she looked up and said, 'Daddy, when time was invented, how did they know what time to start from?'" Lesley said. "And he just looked at her. It was so fun to watch them together because they were so similar."

Together, the couple raised their girls to believe they could do anything, that the only limits were the ones they set for themselves.

When a high school boyfriend convinced Robyn to keep the books for their basketball team, she thought it would be a fun lark. When she got to the University of Richmond, buoyed by that high school experience, she decided to take a bigger step. She went to then-coach Jerry Wainwright and asked whether she could be a manager.

At first, Wainwright balked -- the Spiders had never had a woman in that position. But Robyn, who is as feisty as she is studious, insisted.

"My dad actually pushed me," Robyn said. "When I said I was thinking about it, his reaction was, 'Of course you should be a manager in men's basketball."

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Courtesy of Robyn SordelettLike most student managers, Robyn played a mostly anonymous but always important role for her team.

One year later, Wainwright left and Mooney was hired. Much to the delight of her father, who, Lesley said, never enjoyed watching his daughter "run after the guys with towels," Mooney extended her role, bringing her into the office to work there.

By her senior year, Robyn was a Spiders fanatic and her mom a self-described groupie. Lesley drove to games and even sat in on practices. She grew to like and respect Mooney immensely, so amused by his use of the English language that she regrets not writing down the isms and phrases he used to teach his team.

Mother and daughter were entirely swept up in the team's fate.

"It's not like she was getting paid millions, but she was so passionate about it," Lesley said. "It got to the point where, if they lost a game, she would think it was the end of the world."

On Sept. 13, 2007, Robyn's world didn't end, but it did shatter.


She was standing outside the Robins Center when her phone rang. By coincidence, Lia Mooney, Chris' wife, was pulling up to the arena at almost the exact same time.

"Obviously a lot of that day is a blur," Robyn said, "but Lia is the first person I told."

The news was as heartbreaking as it was stunning. Kevin Jacobs was dead.

The man who seemed to have everything -- a successful career, three happy children, a devoted wife -- had killed himself.

"It was totally, totally out of character," Lesley said. "I knew the man for 30 years of my life. We were best buds. We had a fantastic marriage, and it totally blew me away."

Mooney remembers the day vividly. It was a Thursday, and the team had just finished up an offseason workout. A recruit was due in over the weekend, and he was planning and prepping when his wife walked in with a distraught Robyn.

"It was just sort of an, 'OK, what are we going to do?' and I sent Lia with Robyn to pack her things while I got on the phone and bought the plane tickets," Mooney said.

[+] EnlargeChris Mooney
AP Photo/Jack DempseyChris Mooney led the Spiders to the Sweet 16, but his most important contribution wasn't hoops-related.

He bought two, one for Robyn and one for himself. Within hours, the two were boarding a flight for Connecticut.

"I was so thankful that he didn't send her by herself, but that he came, that was just … he didn't have to do that. He could have sent someone else," Lesley said. "But he didn't even think about it. Chris came into our house during the darkest moment of our family's lives, witnessed such raw emotion, and he was there for all of us."

Mooney left the next day, but returned for the funeral and stayed in touch with Robyn in the weeks after.

By early October, she had decided she wanted to come back to college. Education was important to her father, and she believed that the best way to honor him was to finish her degree and finish it on time.

With her mother's blessing, Robyn was back on the Richmond campus on Oct. 3.

But coming back was hard. Robyn was emotionally raw, and in her dorm were other college kids, kids who thought failing a test was a disaster or a spat with a boyfriend a crisis.

She was away from home, hundreds of miles from her sisters and her mother. The Richmond basketball family wrapped her in its embrace, helped fill up her time. But there was still this strange dichotomy between her life and everyone else's around her.

Mooney already had helped Robyn's re-entry into UR, emailing the dean and her professors on her behalf.

And then he went a step further.

"Moon just said, 'Why don't you come live with us?'" Robyn said. "It wasn't like it was a decision for me. There was a time, I think, when I attempted to move back on campus, and he just said, 'We can do this two ways. You can pretend you're OK, or we can just tell you that you have to move back.' So I stayed."

He could have sent someone else. But he didn't even think about it. Chris came into our house during the darkest moment of our family's lives, witnessed such raw emotion, and he was there for all of us.

-- Lesley Jacobs

There is no handbook for helping someone through such crippling grief. The Mooneys, who at the time had no children, relied on their own intuition, pushing when they thought Robyn needed to be pushed, holding back when they thought she needed space.

Lia, who would grow so close with Robyn that she would serve as a bridesmaid in the wedding, did as much as her husband, providing a nurturing hug and the strong bonds of a woman's friendship.

In their home, Robyn found a peaceful oasis, a place where she could hibernate in her room without questions or sit down and talk cathartically.

"We went to Spain [with the team in 2008], and I was still having a rough time and for maybe a period of three days I didn't leave my room. I just sat and watched Spanish TV," Robyn said. "It was a perfect nutshell of how they worked together. Every day, Lia would come in to check on me and, I'm sure, go and give Chris the status update. Finally on the third day, he came to my room and said, 'OK, sweetheart, it's time for you to get out of your room.' And so that's what I did."

Eventually Robyn graduated and, years later, met Dustin Sordelett. He asked Robyn to be his wife on a Friday night.

The next day, she invited the Mooneys and her mother to brunch.

"I remember long before I met my husband, I was having dinner at a P.F. Chang's with Lia," Robyn said. "We were talking about what it's like to be in love, my future without my dad around, and I told her that, when it comes time, I'm going to ask Moon to walk me down the aisle. It wasn't even a question for me. I knew."


Mooney didn't know. He had no idea, in fact.

And so when he sat down and Robyn asked, he was speechless. He calls it the "greatest honor I've ever received," and gets emotional even now recalling when Robyn made her request.

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Courtesy Robyn SordelettDustin and Robyn Sordelett

There were other people she could have chosen. Robyn has a godfather and a great-uncle she's close with. Two years earlier, her mother did the honors at the wedding of her oldest daughter, Lyndsey. She could have done the same for Robyn.

Except even Lesley thought Robyn made the right choice.

"Obviously we missed my husband, but he wasn't a replacement. He was Chris Mooney doing what Chris Mooney has done for our family for the past five years," Lesley said. "Someday I'm going to have to donate a liver or something because I'll never be able to repay him and Lia for what they've done for myself, my daughter and my family."

What's perhaps most extraordinary about all of this is that Mooney doesn't see it as anything special.

The Princeton graduate is anything but an entitled Ivy Leaguer. He led his team to the 2011 Sweet 16 and is financially set, but he's also the son of a Greyhound bus driver who worked his way through college to help pay bills and lost his own mother to breast cancer when he was 13.

He learned from his mom's example to value hard work and leaned on a blue-collar Philadelphia neighborhood to see him through.

Helping people is not what you talk about. It's what you do.

"You know it wasn't something I really thought about that much," he said. "Robyn is really bright. She's an incredible writer, a true student. She enjoys literature, and I just worried that, if the semester goes the wrong way, maybe you lose something and you don't get it back. I thought it would be awful if she lost that opportunity and I thought maybe we could help her, so we did."

He never expected anything in return, certainly not this, not an extended family so intertwined with his own that even 51-year-old Lesley seeks his approval and counsel.

Certainly not to play such a central role on the biggest and best day of Robyn's life: Sept. 8, 2012.


When the weekend of the wedding rolled around, Mooney was so preoccupied with his 3-year-old son, Danny, who was serving as ring bearer, that he almost forgot his own job.

[+] EnlargeRichmond wedding
Courtesy of Robyn SordelettOn the happiest day of her life, Robyn was walked down the aisle by Richmond's basketball coach.

And then on the wedding's eve during the rehearsal, the officiant said, "Who gives this woman…" and Mooney realized: Wow, that's me.

While Dustin spent much of the day in tears, Robyn was surprisingly calm, enjoying a giddy day of giggles and fun with her bridesmaids.

"The only moment I cried on my wedding day is when I put on my dress and Lia hugged me and said, 'Look at you. Look at where you were and where you are now," Robyn said. "That was just it. Without Moon, without his wife, I would not have been able to meet the man I'm married to now, to become the woman I am. He made me strong again. He made me capable. He made me who I am today."

And so when the moment came, when everyone turned to see the bride, and when Mooney asked, 'How long do you want to wait before we walk?' Robyn did what she has done for the past five years.

She turned to the man who gave her his shoulder and strength -- who gave her peace and helped make her whole again -- and smiled.

"I just said, 'You just go,'" Robyn said. "'I'll go when you say it's time.'"

Dana O'Neil | email

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