The first time I met Daedra Charles was in the back row of a classroom. We were both freshmen students at UT-Knoxville, and I can’t help but laugh a little when I write that statement, but it was true.
I laugh for several reasons.
One, I was a 25-year-old who had finally gathered up the motivation to attend college after having already served seven years as a so-so sports writer at the Chattanooga Free-Press and it was my first semester of school since my last one my senior year in high school, yes, seven years earlier.
I had decided to ease my way back in when it came to class loads, and I had signed up for Human Sexuality 101 in my first semester and I was the only guy in the class of 50 or so.
I took a seat rather shyly in the back of the class.
About five minutes before that first class started, Daedra, all 6-foot-3 of her, walked in and plopped down in the seat next to me.
Daedra had a shyness about her too. I knew she was an athlete from the size and her Lady Vol apparel. I found out she was indeed one of Pat Summitt’s basketball girls, but was sitting out the year to focus on her grades because she was a Prop 48 enrollee.
So between her size, the class subject itself, and as I found out later, a little bit of embarrassment about her Prop 48 status, she kept to herself.
Now I was a student in every sense of the word, but I was also still employed by the newspaper here in Chattanooga and I paid for school by assisting in coverage of Tennessee athletics. When the Lady Vols started practicing, I was often there in the front row because I loved watching Pat’s magic at a basketball practice.
It was night and day from the practices Wade Houston ran with the boys, especially from a volume perspective.
I always made sure to catch Daedra’s eye, hoping she would recognize me from class, and finally one day in class she asked me why I was stalking her at basketball practice. From that day forward we were besties in class and at practice. She had a special way about her, and I watched her blossom from this shy girl into class clown.
Oh how we sat in the back of that Human Sexuality class and giggled at some of the subject matter and the way it was dispensed upon us. Some of our conversations during breaks at basketball practice or afterwards sure brought a few funny looks from those within earshot because of that class.
Daedra was a perfect fit for Pat at UT.
On the court, she was an absolute beast of a player. She had a toughness Pat not only admired but got her adrenalin going. Pat’s voice was always the most dominate noise at a Lady Vol practice and I’ve seen basketballs thrown and kicked into almost every section at Thompson-Boiling Arena during those practices, but Daedra always seemed to calm everything down as she matched Pat’s toughness in practice.
When Pat got animated, Daedra got physical. To this day, I’m not sure what was worse for her teammates, Pat’s presence or Daedra’s response to it.
And, oh how it carried over to game days.
When Daedra claimed a spot down on the low block it belonged to her. By the time she was introduced to the rest of the SEC after sitting out that first year, she was a polished product. She was the most dominating inside force in the women’s game by the time she was a senior, becoming the SEC’s first player to win the Wade Trophy Award, the highest honor in women’s basketball.
Her No. 32 is one of six Lady Vol jerseys retired, and hanging from the rafters at Thompson-Boiling. Just for the record, she had 1,495 points in her career and 858 rebounds for the Lady Vols.
Daedra went on to play professionally in Italy (this was before the WNBA) and later joined my buddy Joe Ciampi at Auburn as an assistant before returning to UT to sit beside Pat as an assistant. She also coached the Detroit Mercy in the WNBA, returning to her hometown of Detroit.
Most impressively, the Prop 48 student graduated in four years with a degree in child and family studies.
We were always cutting up with each other during her UT career, but I remember how down she was when the Lady Vols got eliminated by Virginia in overtime in the elite eight in 1990. It kept the Lady Vols from playing in the Final Four in Knoxville that year, and she refused to even come to the event no matter how much I begged her.
The next year she helped lead the Lady Vols to a national title, scoring 19 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and blocking three shots in a win over that same Virginia team in her collegiate finale.
She was made to play for Pat, and no matter how hard Pat pushed her, she always responded. I recall Pat jumping all over her after back-to-back four rebound games in the middle of that year. Daedra averaged 15 boards a game over the final 24 games of the season.
Daedra always made me laugh, and I guess it came from that awkward bond of hearing a teacher talk details of human sexuality for a whole semester. She was this inner city Detroit gal and I was this country bumpkin from Tennessee, and we acted like we had grown up next door to one another.
Jody Adams, the ultra competitor from Bradley Central, roomed with Daedra at UT and she told me the exact same thing on the phone today.
The two of them learned so much from one another, and I can’t think of two players I covered under Pat who better thrived at being pushed to their physical and mental limits. Pat got the most out of both, and both loved her dearly for it.
Daedra fought through two bouts of breast cancer, and I know how difficult that is. My wife has done it once, and I know the toll it takes on everybody. Those close to Daedra will tell you she showed up every day to work and never gave in to a bad day during the battles.
Daedra was found dead yesterday at the young age of 49 and so far no one knows the cause. It is numbing to think about, so I chose to think about all those fun conversations we had in class.
I chose to think about the pure joy she brought to so many. The competitiveness she brought with her every day to practice and games. She was one of those folks you wanted to like you.
“I remember how mad I was at her once because she didn’t pick for her team during practice one day. I went to the room and let her know about it, and she just laughed, knowing it had gotten under my skin. She always loved to messed with people,” Adams told me as we reminisced about her.
I’ve been blessed to be around a lot of inspiring people, especially athletes, but Daedra was unique. No matter how boring covering a long basketball season could become, I never wanted to miss a practice or a game because of the joy I got from Daedra. I never once thought about skipping that Human Sexuality class.
Daedra Charles made all of it fun. And I will miss knowing she is not around bringing fun to somebody else’s day.
(Contact James Beach at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @beachnut1134)