LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Everybody talks about what the University of Louisville can do to make itself more attractive to bigger conferences. I think U of L ought to let some conference bigwigs talk to Sherrill Brakmeier.
A couple of weeks back, U of L named the Trager Field Hockey complex's new locker room after her, which made a great 90th birthday present. But it's Brakmeier who has been giving to U of L field hockey her entire life.
If U of L has a story that isn't always told, it is in people like Brakmeier, because U of L is not a place that has had the great advantages of many of the big land-grant universities the huge conferences that are walking around the college sports landscape like they own the place.
U of L has one of the nation's better field hockey facilities, one of the few in all of NCAA Division I devoted to that sport and no other. Over the last dozen years, the stadium played host to the NCAA Division I Field Hockey championships four times.
Now I want you to meet Brakmeier. I sat with her above the Trager Stadium playing surface, in a new press box. They'd named the new locker room after her two nights earlier.
She was all smiles, because at age 90, she still remembers what it was like when she arrived at U of L in 1940 as a student and went to work in the physical education department. She never thought she'd go into coaching. Her intention was to become a social worker. Instead she went to work and never really stopped being involved for, oh, 70 years, give or take a couple.
How about this? The first thing Brakmeier had to do for many of her seasons as field hockey coach was find a field.
"Every year during the fall season all of us would walk around the campus. It had a lot of open fields and wasn't all built up then, then I'd say something to some of the workmen and say, 'That seems to be a good field there and would make a good hockey field,'" Brakmeier said. "Well, they'd cut the grass low for us and if it was good they'd tell us and sometimes they'd say, 'Oh, that's not a good field at all.' We never had the same field two years in a row, but they were always very nice and helped us find a good spot."
The field, though, was the easy part. Uniforms were a bit trickier.
"We'd get them all together and ask, 'All right, how many have red shorts, or black shorts or white shorts?'" Brakmeier said. "We didn't have any financial support at first. Whatever we had the most of, that's what we'd wear. And you'd be surprised how many parents would come forward to buy their daughters a new pair of shorts or something like that. And if somebody needed it I could find them some kind of white T-shirt with Louisville on it."
Brakmeier began organizing field hockey while she was still a student. She'd gotten a job working for the city parks and recreation department, then wound up as an aid in U of L's physical education department. She would up on the faculty of the health and physical education department, and was a leader in establishing the school's recreation program to go along with it.
As faculty member, she became field hockey coach, and then sponsored the school's cheerleading program. As the years went by, she sought increasing support for her teams, but there was never much.
Road trips were an adventure.
"I always had a station wagon, and I'd find someone on the team whose parents might let her use a car," Brakmeier said. "When we traveled, I might have $50 in the budget, and the dean would say, 'Sherrill, don't spend this all in one trip.' Fifty dollars! With at least two station wagons of girls.
"We'd always dress at school here, and we'd have maybe just an hour to drive from here to wherever. I had a heavy foot. We'd be ready to jump out and just play. I'd put two girls at the back end of my wagon and told them now if you see a policeman, tell me. And I always had oranges cut up to take to the ballgames, and the girls thought that was just great. They loved it when I'd cut up those oranges. Then we'd have supper, just a hamburger and a Coke or something really simple, but the girls were happy with it."
Brakmeier was the first female advocate for women's sports at U of L. Through a series of department heads and athletic directors, she persistently but patiently brought her program along. From Dr. Sue Hall to Dr. John Helman, Dr. Dave Lawrence, and finally Clark Wood, a former tackle from the University of Kentucky who had a daughter at home and a wife who had passed away, who understood how much sports could mean to young women.
"You never got everything you asked for, but I thought we did a good job with what we had," Brakmeier said. "I always told our coaches to just hang in and not be unreasonable. We had some hard times, but I really enjoyed the work."
After a 30-year career in coaching field hockey, Brakmeier has continued to volunteer with the program, and still attends most games. In her purse, she carries bags of candy, and always has a piece for players or cheerleaders. Her daughter, Sherrill Zimmerman, was instrumental in building U of L's nationally recognized cheerleading program.
Brakmeier was the first woman inducted into U of L's athletic Hall of Fame. Not one, but two awards at U of L are named for Brakmeier, one to reward leadership in athletics, another to reward academic excellence in the health and physical sciences department.
She can't help but walk into one of the top field hockey facilities in the nation and remember trudging around campus looking for a field to play on. Many of the women she coached had grandchildren at the school.
"I see all this and think, 'Oh goodness.' There were times we used to have to mow the field ourselves," she said. "Players come back for reunions and can't believe how it has grown. We used to just tape old sticks together and use whatever we could find for shin guards, wrap a towel around somebody's leg or whatever we could do. What we have now, it's wonderful."
Sometimes, U of L's humble origins are used against it. There's a tendency in college sports for the tradition-rich to look down their noses at a school that didn't even have state funding for most of its early existence. On the academic side, U of L is considered a poor candidate for the Atlantic Coast Conference because for so many of its years, it concerned itself with educating its urban community instead of hand-picking the best test scores from among its applicants.
But to give in to that thinking is to forget the efforts of so many like Brakmeier, and to lose the significance of what the school has today. For this university, of all schools, to have built a field hockey program and facility among the best in the nation, underscores where it has come. When athletic director Tom Jurich urges fans to remember where the program came from, he's asking them not only to appreciate where they are, but how far they've come.
Those athletes may not realize it, but when Brakmeier hands them a piece of candy, she's handing them a piece of U of L's past. A piece every bit as valuable as the shiny new facilities that now line the campus.
Copyright 2012 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.
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