- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
LINCOLN, Neb. -- On game days, when it's light out, a tiny woman slides behind the wheel of a massive Oldsmobile 88 and drives through cornfields and speed traps to the ballpark. Betty Geis does not draw a state trooper's attention; she's almost 83 years old and gets here in her own sweet time. And when she doesn't, and her seat behind home plate is empty, Nebraska coach Rhonda Revelle notices. It can be in the middle of a game. Revelle will spot the empty chair and inevitably ask, "Is Betty OK?"
Years ago, Geis started making the 45-minute jaunt from Beaver Crossing, Neb., because she felt she needed to, but most of all because she hated empty seats. The first Thanksgiving after 9/11 was mind-numbing. A woman can raise eight kids, she can watch them grow up and leave the farm for bigger towns and better lives, but each one of them is irreplaceable. Julie was her tomboy. The pistol. There's Julie, maybe 13 years old, in a photo at her sister's wedding, holding the bouquet in her softball glove. The picture had to be snapped quickly, because hey, Julie had a game.
There's another shot of a dressed-up little Julie in horned-rimmed glasses, a keeper, her family jokes, because it might have been the last time she wore a dress. But the photos of Julie Geis' seemingly more notable athletic days as a captain on the Nebraska softball team are nowhere to be found. They were never taken.
Back in the late 1970s, women's sports at the University of Nebraska -- and just about everywhere else -- didn't merit much thought. They played in dirt from a landfill, and the whole team walked through it picking out glass and nails.
"Everybody had to grab a couple of handfuls," Revelle said on a recent late-summer day in Lincoln, "and then off to practice you'd go."
Revelle smiled, got comfortable in her chair, and spent the next hour reminiscing. Outside her office, construction workers toiled away on a mammoth $4.75 million training facility for the baseball and softball teams. Just out the door was a state-of-the-art softball complex. To get to it, Revelle passed by a black-and-white photo in the hallway. It's the only one she has of Geis at Nebraska, young and smiling, surrounded by teammates in pigtails and collared uniforms.
They played summer softball together in the early '80s, and in the days since Julie Geis died in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Revelle has served as sort of the unofficial keeper of her old teammate's legacy. She doesn't just want you to know that Julie Geis played softball at Nebraska; she wants you to know that some things might not even be here today if it weren't for Geis.
If Geis is more recognized in death than in life, it is, in large part, because of Revelle. On the night of Sept. 11, she gathered with a bunch of old teammates at Arturo's Restaurante and Cantina in downtown Lincoln. Some of the women hadn't seen each other in decades. But they had to watch the coverage unfold together, they had to be together because their teammate was missing.
And when it became clear that Geis had died, they knew they had to do something. What followed was a plan that brought a family close to a team, and made Julie Geis' name, in these parts, live forever.
'She was fearless'
Here's what the black-and-white photo doesn't say about Julie Geis: That in 44 years, she did practically everything. She had asthma before the days of inhalers and a balky back that very few people knew about. But it never stopped her from being a teammate.
True story: In the mid-1970s, Centennial (Neb.) High School did not have a girls basketball team. Geis was entering her senior season, and desperately wanted to play on a team. So she started one.
She could be bossy, spunky and somewhat of a pest, but somehow, she pulled it off in a charming way. On summer nights when she was a kid, she'd toss a glove at her big brother Mike as he stepped off the tractor. He didn't want to play some nights. He couldn't tell her no. "You can throw harder than that," she'd say as Mike fired baseballs at his little sister. So one day, he did, and the ball hit her square on the nose. She kept throwing, with seam marks on her face.
"She was fearless," he said. "She was competitive. If she played trumpet, she had to be first chair."
Their father was an ex-Navy man who became a postmaster and a school board president; their mother was a country schoolteacher. Julie wanted to be everything. She mowed lawns in her spare time to get by at Nebraska, earned two degrees, and eventually got her PhD in Educational Administration Curriculum and Instruction.
"Shape up," she used to tell her teammates when they slacked. Opponents must've hated it when she was in the field at shortstop, constantly chattering. Occasionally, she clashed with her coach. But that was just Geis' passion coming through.
She taught special education for years in Lincoln. She connected with people. Eventually, she took a corporate job at Aon Consulting, Inc., in Kansas City, a job that allowed her to travel the world. Her people skills helped her climb quickly through the company ranks. She became senior vice president at the brokerage's online unit.
The job took her away from her beloved Nebraska, but she still flew the Cornhusker flag on Saturdays in the fall. And when Nebraska played softball games in Kansas City, Geis occasionally showed up, waving to Revelle from the crowd. She called her Ro. She was always thinking up nicknames.
"I never met someone who even had a neutral opinion about her," Revelle said. "It was always positive. She was memorable. The first time you met her, you remembered her."
Her last words
The last words that are known to come out of Julie Geis' mouth were about a baseball game. She always wanted to see a game at Yankee Stadium -- her brother Mike's favorite team was the Yankees -- and Julie arrived early for her business trip in New York eager to see Roger Clemens pitch. On the night of Sept. 10, 2001, Geis and her friend Becky Loethen were among 50,000 who waited in the rain for the tarp to come up. It never did that night, and the game against the Boston Red Sox was postponed.
The Associated Press account from that night said that Clemens was so ready to pitch that he was panting in the clubhouse. Geis was stoked, too. She planned to go back Tuesday night, when the Yankees played the Chicago White Sox. That morning, she hopped on the subway and arrived at the World Trade Center, settling in on the 102nd floor of the South Tower. When the North Tower was hit, Julie called Loethen, asked what was going on and told her she was safe.
"The last thing she said was, 'Be sure you get those tickets,'" said Mike Geis, recalling a second-hand conversation he later had with Loethen. "They were going that night. It was a beautiful day."
Within minutes of that phone call, the South Tower was hit. And Geis was never heard from again. Revelle was working out at the YMCA that morning in Lincoln when the breaking news flashed over the TVs. She left the Y, rounded up her players and took them to give blood. They had to do something. They were refuelling with cookies and orange juice at the blood bank when a cell phone rang. Revelle's memory is foggy as exactly to whose phone rang, or who exactly called. But she does remember the blood rushing to her face when she heard the news. Geis was in the South Tower.
That night, as her old teammates gathered at the restaurant, they saw a picture of her on the TV screen. Loethen held it up in front of a camera, hoping someone had seen Julie.
"It was a very loud silence," Revelle said. "I don't know if anybody could articulate their emotions at the time."
Back in Beaver Crossing, the family started to gather. They called Julie's phone hundreds of times, but it kept bouncing to voicemail. They clicked and clicked on an online status report of Aon employees until Betty finally told them to give up because it wasn't helping anything.
"I think we just started preparing ourselves for the fact that we weren't going to see Julie again," Mike said. "That's one of the beauties of growing up in a large, loving family. We were all together to support mom and dad and each other."
Some friends of Julie's from Kansas City piled into a car and drove to New York to try and find her. Her missing poster was displayed among piles of blowing paper in lower Manhattan. But deep down, the Geis family knew she was gone.
On Sept. 20, Nebraska played Rice in the first college football game after Sept. 11. A few days later, Revelle, along with NU associate athletic director Paul Meyers, showed up with a game ball signed by the football team and a proposal. They wanted to start an annual scholarship in Geis' name, and wanted Betty to help.
The goal, to make it fully endowed, seemed lofty at the time. It would require $250,000 worth of fundraising. But here was the easy part: Betty would pick the recipients. They had to be Nebraska natives, had to embody Julie's spirit.
Their first fundraiser, a golf tournament, netted about $10,000. But the crew grew, and so did the ideas. "It became a small army," Revelle said. Julie's friends and family hustled and worked, gaining steam with each year's fundraiser, and met the goal in 2006. It took them five years.
It gave the Geis family something to look forward to. The golf tournaments were held on or near Julie's birthday every year, and there was always a small celebration on the 15th hole. Fifteen was Geis' jersey number.
"If we wouldn't have had that, I'm not sure where we would've been," Mike Geis said. "To watch my mother have the opportunity to embrace a new scholarship recipient. You lose a daughter, how can you replace that? But when you can literally adopt six or seven or eight young women who so much resemble Julie, that's not all that bad."
The next generation
Amanda Buchholz arrived at Nebraska during the perfect time, post Title IX and pre-9/11. She never had to worry about whether her playing days would get forgotten in a moldy old archive. To this day, Buchholz, a two-sport star from Ogallala, Neb., is a well-known athlete in different parts of the state.
She was a shortstop for the Huskers, just like Geis, and when she played in the early 2000s, Betty Geis used to study her. She always watches the shortstop. In 2002, Buchholz became the first recipient of the Julie Geis scholarship. Betty helped make the selection. It seemed Buchholz possessed many of the same qualities as Julie. She was feisty and competitive and polite. Most of all, she knew where her roots lay.
Buchholz is an assistant coach at Miami of Ohio now, but she still keeps her Nebraska cell number. She spent several years as a volunteer assistant at NU when her playing days were over, but eventually, it was time to move on and make some money.
On Wednesday night, she caught up with another Nebraskan and waxed nostalgic about Runzas -- a giant blob of meat and cabbage stuffed inside a dough pocket that is coveted fast food in Nebraska -- and how much she missed home.
Of course she remembers Julie Geis' story. She hung out with her old teammates at all those golf outings. Buchholz knows that Geis' favorite saying was "Intensity to the Max," and that she passionately loved the game. She knows about Betty. She used to hug her after most games.
The plaque honoring her as the first scholarship winner must mean something, because it's hanging on her wall at home in Ohio.
"I think they were able to endow her scholarship in like five years," Buchholz said. "That just shows you how much they loved her, I guess. And how much she meant to the team and the program."
Feeling close to her daughter
Betty lost her husband to Alzheimer's a few years ago. Paul Geis was in the Navy, and no doubt would've liked the fact that it was the SEALS who captured and killed Osama bin Laden earlier this year.
The softball team has helped fill a void in Betty's life. The coaches and players adopted her; she adopted them. She can't travel to the night games anymore because her eyes have gotten older. She hugs Revelle before the games, then takes her spot below the press box. She didn't go to the games after Julie stopped playing, but now she can't stay away. The stadium is new, the faces change, but Betty feels close to her daughter here.
"I know," Betty said, "that's where she'd want me to be."
Before she left for the big city, Julie went to Beaver Crossing one last time over Labor Day weekend in 2001, a few days before the attacks. She planted a flower bed on the north side of the house, with tulips and lilacs and something for all seasons. Every year, they still bloom.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.