- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Taber Spani wasn't yet 3 years old, but Grandpa Frosty still felt sure she could follow along. Thus, Spani started learning about "X's and O's" well before she had even mastered the alphabet.
Now here is the Tennessee senior -- just turned 22 last weekend -- in the final months of her college career. Sunday, she'll be back home in Missouri -- she's the only Show-Me Stater who has competed for the Lady Vol hoops team -- as Tennessee takes on the new-to-the-SEC Tigers. And it's a good time for her to reflect.
"I could never have scripted it," Spani said of her time at Tennessee. "It's much different than I thought it would be."
Yet if there were ever anyone prepared to conquer a twist-and-turn path, it's Spani. Daughter of an NFL linebacker and granddaughter of a football coaching legend, she has the "toughness" bona fides that Tennessee has needed.
But there's a mindset more rare than just "being tough" that has actually been even more valuable as the Lady Vols have gone through an unanticipated program transformation in Spani's time.
That something is this simple and this complex: Taber Spani's singular mission in life is to do the right thing.
"I'll be honest, when I found out she was home-schooled, I wondered how social she would be, how she'd adjust," coach Holly Warlick said of when Tennessee began recruiting Spani. "But she's the most mature kid I've ever been around. So easy to talk to, so warm with people. She has been special for us."
An assortment of frustrating, nagging, and painful injuries has kept Spani -- a 6-foot-1 guard/forward with a silky shooting stroke when healthy -- from putting up the numbers she had hoped to. She has fought through it all to play in 117 games, starting 68.
In Tennessee's 83-75 victory at Vanderbilt on Jan. 24, fans got to see the version of Spani that all the top college programs were hoping to get when she was playing for her parents, Stacey and Gary Spani, with Metro Academy in Lee's Summit, Mo.
Spani had 24 points and six rebounds, making 8 of 14 shots from the field and all five free throws. When her body lets her, that's the player Spani is, and she still hopes to prove that she can compete at the next level as a pro.
But even when her body has slowed her -- she has battled back issues this season -- the person Spani is hasn't changed. The foundation for that is too solid to be rattled.
"You come in and expect to play for Pat Summitt for four years," Spani said. "You think you'll go to a Final Four and win a national championship. And individually, you expect to be on the floor and able to produce to the best of your ability.
"With the injuries, I haven't been able to do that. Pat's illness changed everything. We haven't had the team success that we all wanted to. But looking back, I can say that I'm thankful for everything I went through."
Her stats won't put her high on any of the Lady Vols' charts. But Tennessee personnel and fans will remember someone who always pointed "true north" when the program was going though its most challenging time: Summitt's dementia diagnosis in 2011 and her decision last spring to move to an emeritus role.
Of course, Spani's not done yet. Even if the Lady Vols' games this season against three of the current top-five teams in the county have been losses, they are still undefeated in the SEC. The final pages of this particular chapter in Spani's athletic career are yet to be written.
But let's go back to a much earlier chapter -- one that started the afternoon Grandpa Frosty was visiting and decided it was time to teach little Taber and her older sister, Shalin, what the gridiron was all about.
A family sports history
Football shaped the lives of both of Taber's parents. Gary, a Sunflower State native, became the hometown hero in Manhattan, Kan., who played for Kansas State and then the Kansas City Chiefs. He's still the Chiefs' all-time leader in tackles (999), finishing his career in 1986, and now works for the organization as director of tickets and events marketing. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2002.
Stacey Spani was the youngest daughter of Forrest Edward "Frosty" Westering, who earlier this month won the American Football Coaches Association's Amos Alonzo Stagg Award. It's a fitting lifetime achievement honor for a man who went 305-96-7 in 41 years of coaching, most of it at Pacific Lutheran in Tacoma, Wash.
He won three NAIA Division II national championships there, and one NCAA Division III title. The latter was in 1999, when Taber and Shalin -- who went on to play hoops at Kansas State -- were old enough to ride the bus with their grandpa's team to the big game. Just as Stacey had done when she was a kid.
By '99, Shalin and Taber -- the oldest of five basketball-playing sisters -- actually for years had been studying Pacific Lutheran game tapes, mailed to them in Missouri by their granddad.
Shalin married Kansas State quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Collin Klein last summer, and no football player ever found a more football-savvy wife. The Spani girls came by their football acumen via nature and nurture.
Their football education actually began when Grandpa Frosty was visiting Missouri and decided lessons were in order. As Stacey recalls it, Shalin was around 5, Taber not quite 3. Grandpa went to the store and came back with green poster board (to simulate a football field) and construction paper for the girls to cut out triangles and circles (to show them how to line up players and run plays).
"The start of 'Camp Frosty,'" a grinning Gary Spani said.
Westering's players over the decades had experienced the "Frosty philosophy": That you could team-build without tearing anyone down. That you could get athletes to play their hearts out for each other without screaming at them.
Westering's belief was that winning was "a by-product of learning to live decently," as he told Sports Illustrated in a 1994 story that highlighted his unorthodox methods. Those included preseason retreats that weren't about grueling two-a-days, but things like pie-eating contests, tug-a-war and performing skits.
"He had the heart to do things a different way to influence kids," said Stacey, who like her siblings and mom did everything from helping with team laundry to chalking the lines on the field. One of her brothers, Scott Westering, is currently Pacific Lutheran's head football coach.
"My dad could have moved to a bigger program," Stacey said. "But to stay at that level gave him the freedom to coach the way he believed helped players become better people.
"He had a whole philosophy on the 'inner game,' and what it took for players to believe in themselves and each other."
It is not a surprise, then, that when looking for a college program, Taber would gravitate toward a coach known for character-building as much as her success. Taber played in high school for Metro Academy, a team of home-schooled athletes that is coached by Stacey and Gary. Their third daughter, Tanis, now plays for Southwest Baptist in Bolivar, Mo. The youngest two -- Sajel, a high school senior, and Taris, a freshman -- currently play for Metro Academy.
Add in attending the K-State football games their son-in-law played in this fall, and Gary and Stacey are constantly on the go. Monday, for instance, they were in Knoxville for Tennessee's game versus Notre Dame. After driving home all day Tuesday, they were coaching Sajel and Taris in a high school game in Olathe, Kan., that night.
"There is so much going on," Gary said, "but you want to take time to cherish all of it."
Taber could have stayed closer to home; Kansas State desperately wanted her. Shalin was already there, and it's their dad's alma mater -- plus is just a little more than two hours from Lee's Summit. But Taber's visit to Tennessee sealed her decision.
"It was Pat; she knew that was who she wanted to play for," Stacey said. "There was just no question. It was an immediate bond."
Delayed arrival, but right on time
Faith is a constant for the Spani family. Gary and Stacey met when each was visiting Hawaii. Their paths crossed on a beach, and each sensed that really wasn't an accident. It was a longtime and long-distance courtship, but their ultimate bond was a shared belief that you can have an everyday relationship with God.
They prayed for guidance on each of their children's names. With Taber, the name came in a dream Stacey had in late 1990: An angel told her "Taber" would mean "the spirit of truth." In the dream, Stacey had just given birth and was watching a football game on TV that was being played in Tampa Bay. (You know how dreams sometimes are, with weird but vivid detail.)
It so happened the Super Bowl was indeed going to be played in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 27, 1991. That was two weeks later than her due date, but Stacey became convinced Taber would be born on Super Bowl Sunday.
That morning in church, she had a false alarm. No baby yet. Later -- after Whitney Houston sang/lip-synched her now-famous version of the national anthem and the Giants and Bills began playing -- Stacey drifted off to sleep.
At halftime, though, she woke up and said to Gary, "Time to go to the hospital." Taber arrived in the fourth quarter.
Super Bowl Sunday is later this year -- Feb. 3 -- but Taber and her parents will be together again for part of it, along with a lot of other family and friends who'll make the two-hour drive from Lee's Summit to Columbia, Mo., for the Lady Vols' game against Missouri.
Taber will always have a special bond with football, even if that's not the sport she plays.
"I had the most fun time ever watching Collin last fall; he's the best brother-in-law a sister could ask for," Taber said. "With all the TV exposure they got, it was fantastic. I tried to convert as many people in Knoxville as possible to K-State."
Taber actually started in soccer before finding her niche in basketball. But ultimately, the sport an athlete competes in is not the most important thing to her. It's what that athlete does with whatever platform he or she has.
For Taber, that has been not just talking about her faith, but showing it in her community service, her kindness toward fans, her love for her coaches and teammates. Summitt's illness hit all the Lady Vols very hard, and it was one more "test" that Taber has had to face along with the series of injuries that have befallen someone who, while growing up, was rarely hurt.
But there's a phrase from a Biblical verse out of the Book of Esther that Taber had written down before she left for her freshman season at Tennessee. It resonated with her, even though then she wasn't sure why: "For a time such as this."
Not everyone believes in dreams, or scripture, or even God, for that matter. But Taber does believe, and this is her story. Now, she can look back after the physical and emotional rough waters at Tennessee, and those words seem prophetic to her.
Sure, she'd love to win a national championship. That goal is still there, as challenging as things might look for Tennessee to get that far this season. But maybe that was never the true purpose of her going to Knoxville. Maybe it was to be there for Summitt's final season as head coach. To be there for the transition to Warlick. To be there when character would be tested. To be there for a time such as this.
"I don't have any regrets," Taber said. "And that's what I want to end this year with: The feeling that I know I gave everything I had to Tennessee and this program. If I can say that in April, I'll be good."