As Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson emerged from the Sanford Stadium tunnel, an unfathomable level of warmth flashed before him. Tens of thousands joined together in pink to remember his wife Wendy Anderson, who passed in August after a two-year battle with breast cancer.
Her spirit made the travel roster Saturday afternoon.
“This was one of the classiest moves I’ve seen,” Anderson said.
Pink complemented a pair of Georgia’s silver britches around every corner. Survivors sported inspirational t-shirts. Some wore it from head-to-toe. Thirty to thirty-five percent of fans joined in on the grassroots movement — one that reached its way as far as a visiting fan from Europe wearing pink. Others couldn’t relinquish their beloved red-and-black, but had pink at the forefront of their minds.
Georgia fans came in droves to support the Anderson family in the #WearPinkForWendy movement that took college football by storm over a four-day span. Anderson tried to prepare. Emotion carries a heavier weight, however, and that challenge became steep.
A mourning head coach wanted to cry.
“I did everything I can not to just lose it. I actually held onto it pretty good,” Anderson said. “... They don’t know my wife, they don’t know me and they didn’t have to do that. I’m very grateful.”
Arkansas State descended into that same tunnel after a 55-0 defeat to No. 3 Georgia. Anderson’s team got beat soundly. Arkansas State didn’t have much opportunity to compete. Not reasons for optimism.
But something felt right. “Momma Wendy” remains with the Red Wolves. A healthier, happier version of the vibrant personality who cared for each player as her own. Wendy Anderson smiled upon them with each ray of sunshine that beamed on Athens.
“I’ll root for Georgia for the rest of my life for that, because they didn’t have to do it,” Arkansas State center Jake Still said. “It shows what we’re doing here is bigger than football.”
‘SHE’S WITH ME ALL THE TIME’
Each of the Arkansas State coaches have a pink breast cancer ribbon on their pullover jackets to remember Wendy and her influence on the program. Anderson has a pink boxing glove and the initials “W.A.” pinned adjacent to it.
That’s his reminder of their fight. One that began with the Andersons trying to figure out a balance between raising a family and coaching football. Blake made stops at junior colleges, New Mexico and Middle Tennessee and spent life as a prototypical workaholic. He didn’t have a priority on Wendy and their three children — Coleton, Callie and Cason. Wendy taught her husband the importance of family, and a few years away from football changed his perspective on life.
Their personal battles were followed by the medical fight that carried a dark cloud over the Anderson family for two years. Wendy always had an optimistic outlook on things. She loved each member of the Arkansas State team as one of her own children. The Red Wolves were her pride and joy. At times, those moments likely kept her going through a battle that grew exceedingly difficult.
She tried alternative treatments to beat breast cancer, as chronicled by David Hale of ESPN.com. Wendy became angry as it spread through her body. She endured endless days of pain as the sickness took over her body. Each time Anderson looks down, he gets a reminder of every moment up to their last together in a hospital bed.
“I’ve never seen anybody fight as hard as she fought over the last two years,” Anderson said. “You’re not going to find me feeling sorry for myself. I’ve got to live up to her legacy.”
Anderson finally got his chance to choke up in his postgame remarks Saturday. He wanted to release those emotions and bawl. Wendy sat at the forefront of his thoughts. Anderson couldn’t find her for their usual embrace on Saturday afternoons, but she never left his side.
“She’s with me all of the time,” Anderson said. “It takes that kind of relationship (in this profession). Because a lot of time they’re all you’ve got.”
Logan Bonner has a lot of thoughts race through his head as Arkansas State’s signal caller. He also has a Rolodex-like file of conspiracy theories. Landing on the moon was one that consumed him last summer.
Bonner sat down with Wendy. He was determined to win this debate. Each time they spoke, Bonner knew his standpoint was correct and wasn’t going to be convinced any other way. Until Wendy flipped his perspective and nailed his invalid assumptions into the ground. The one who they call “Momma” always wins.
“She had me thinking what my middle name was,” Bonner said.
Those memories are why the pink-out movement stays close to the Red Wolves’ hearts. Each of them miss Wendy, and they saw the effect of her abundant joy on Saturday afternoon. They got reminders of her laughs. She was funny, many of them echoed. Wendy taught them values on how to be an effective member of a community. She even brought gifts to the facility each week like a player’s mom would.
Arkansas State defensive back B.J. Edmonds remembers each time he got to interact with Wendy. He takes time to reflect on her life each day and tries to embody those values that she held as important. Edmonds wants to be a servant, rather than being served. He wants to be grateful for life’s every moment rather than take it for granted.
Anderson craved football success. Wendy did, too, as her competitiveness was equally ferocious. But she provided the balance and valued more than football.
“She had great intuition and was fun to be around,” Arkansas State athletic director Terry Mohajir said. “You can talk to her about anything and she was a really good leader. Wendy is everything you could ask for in a coach’s wife.”
Behind the Arkansas State sideline, the front row of Section 110 had a bigger surprise than wearing pink. Fourteen students in the UGA Paint Line group had “REMEMBER WENDY” painted on their backs. They turned around to reveal a powerful message during each quarter change or television timeout.
The Paint Line hopes to support someone each time they paint their chests red, but this occasion had extra significance. The group’s leader, Slater Brown, had a personal motivation as the letter “M” lay on his back. His aunt, Melinda Brown, is a breast cancer survivor. His grandmother, who passed before Brown’s birth, had her own battle with breast cancer.
Similar support radiated throughout the crowd, most showing personal meaning. One fan’s t-shirt said “I am a fighter. What’s your superpower?” Support staffers wore pinned ribbons. Some of the media members, including every ESPN employee, wore pink. Others did it more subtly as security personnel wore necklaces and wristbands.
“That was an incredible statement to our fans’ humanity,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “The power of sports is pretty impressive. I appreciate the good in that.”
Coming together, in a world with a heap of divisions, seemed easy. For a few hours, everything was united.
“It means a little more and gives us a reason for what we’re doing,” Brown said. “We want to support and share God’s love with these guys. It’s an amazing thing to do.”
Arkansas State didn’t quite know what to expect in terms of response. The Red Wolves played at Alabama last season, and knew that SEC fans could have a bit of passionate disdain for an opponent. A bit of shock came Bonner’s way as the team rolled through Athens.
A similar feeling trickled through the effort’s founder, too. Graham Coffey, who kickstarted it through the fan site Dawg Sports, got “a little choked up” as he saw a panoramic view from his home in Colorado.
Dwight Standridge, who promoted the movement through his 501(c)3 non-profit Bulldogs Battling Breast Cancer, had lofty hopes. Standridge lost his mother to ovarian cancer when she was 37, and runs the organization in honor of her and breast cancer survivor Teresa Abbott. Standridge’s revenues come from a golf tournament with the Georgia football team and a once-per-year pink-out inside Sanford Stadium. Those go locally to St. Mary’s Hospital to provide free mammograms for women.
The organization sold 200 shirts in a span of two days. Standridge held a pregame tailgate leading up to Saturday’s noon kick. He realized his dream — a parade of pink marching its way through the Classic City.
“I just thought it was the right thing to do, and it aligns so well with our charity,” Standridge said. “Our hearts break for coach Anderson, his family and his Arkansas State football team. I never expected the response it got, but I’m so glad it went viral.”
A lopsided football game usually doesn’t leave both parties smiling. Saturday proved different. As Anderson had been reminded of so many times, there’s more to life than football.
He descended back into the Sanford Stadium tunnel, overwhelming joy flashed before Anderson. He received a pair of pink shoulder pads from the UGA Spike Squad.
A reminder of Wendy’s presence to Anderson and his players. Momma Wendy’s still with them.
“We’ve felt her presence in every game this year,” Still said. “We know she’s smiling down on us and cheering us on. She’s with us all the time.”