Royce Young’s “The Leader Inside Russell Westbrook”

The Oklahoma City Thunder has become one of the most premier teams in the NBA since relocating from Seattle in 2008. They’ve made four Western Conference Finals, one NBA Finals and have had two MVP players in just nine years of existence.

And Royce Young has been covering them since day one.

A University of Oklahoma graduate, Young started covering the Thunder when the team first arrived, creating his own blog, dailythunfer.com. Young was eventually noticed by CBS who would hire him as an NBA blogger in 2010, before he took a full-time job at ESPN in 2014 as the Thunder’s sole beat writer.

Today, Young is considered as one of the best in the business at his job.

Young has written many stories over the course of his career, but I asked him specifically over a story he wrote in April of last year called “The Leader Inside Russell Westbrook.” This story took a deep dive into how Westbrook grew as a leader in his first year without Kevin Durant.

“Everybody was talking about the stats and triple-doubles, and I was like there’s more to his MVP campaign, and more about the leadership element,” Young said.

Young took a different angle than most, and knew what he wanted to write months ahead of time.

“It was probably a story we were kicking around March or February,” Young said. “I’m really blessed to have editors at ESPN that are not like traditional editors that are like ‘I want that 700-word story right now’ because I kept telling them I didn’t have enough for it. I wanted it to be a little bit more of a feature type-deal, and they were like alright let’s push it back.”

What made Young’s story unique was the amount of small anecdotes that he had compiled for years about Westbrook. He took the reader inside the locker room, and places most don’t see to create a piece

“A lot of time stories are rattling around in your head, and then a lot of times for me it’s just anecdotes from three years ago that I may just have on my mind and it’s about deploying them at the right moment,” Young said. “In my mind, I’m somewhere the reader’s not. They can watch the game, they can watch the interview, but I’m seeing stuff they don’t get to.”

Over his time covering the Thunder, Young has gotten to know multiple prominent people in the organization such as Nick Collison and assistant general manager Troy Weaver. By having these sources, Young has been able to gain valuable information that most don’t have, giving him the opportunity to write stories like this one.

“The information you have is what’s going to make a great story,” Young said. “A lot of it is just me knowing Russell (Westbrook) for 10 years, and being around him… That’s something I make a point to do, is to observe and really take in scene.”

Young said a lot of the best information comes when you’re not recording or interviewing, but just having a conversation. He also believes to be great a journalist, sometimes you have to be a little over the top.

“To be really good at reporting, you have to be super annoying,” Young said.

This season, the Thunder is one of the most interesting teams in the league, which will make for one of the most important years in Young’s career. Before the season started, he bought a big white board and started writing all of his ideas down

“I want to write the definitive Russell Westbrook fashion story,” Young said with a laugh. “ESPN wants stories that are going to be on the front of the homepage that’s what I hope to do this year.”

Read Young’s full story here: http://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/19142368/nba-leader-oklahoma-city-thunder-russell-westbrook

Bob Stoops living his best life

Nov. 11, 2017 marks 154 days since Bob Stoops announced his decision to walk away from coaching football. Since then, he’s been living a life he’s not used to, a life he’s always imagined.

He doesn’t have to worry about beating Texas, or capturing an 11th Big 12 title, or making the College Football Playoff. Today, those who know him say, all Stoops is worried about is his golf swing and perfecting his homemade pizza recipe.

“I’m just trying to get through this day,” Stoops said at his retirement press conference in June. He declined to comment for this story. “I do not have a plan… It’s little bit frightening definitely, but I’m really a spiritual person and believe until you open yourself up to something you don’t know what the opportunities are. We’ll see what might flow my way.”

A husband to one, a father to three and a friend to many, Stoops has enjoyed his 154 days of retirement, spending it the only way he knows how — with family and friends.

“This is a guy that has built his life around his family, not around football,” University of Oklahoma Dean of Students and one of Stoops’ closest friends Clarke Stroud said. “That’s something Bob’s always tried to do, is to make sure he’s got that balance. Family is his number one.”

What follows is a recounting of some highlights of Stoops’ first few months of retirement and the stressful and busy life he left behind:

DAY 1: Reflection

Twenty-four hours after addressing his shocking retirement, Stoops found himself on a beach in Florida with his wife, Carol, his good friend and Assistant A.D. of Football Operations Matt McMillen and Matt’s wife, Gina. This wasn’t something new, the Stoops and McMillen families go on vacation every summer, taking a pause from their usually busy schedules to spend time together.

“We’ve done it forever,” McMillen said. “Everything fails in comparison to his family, it’s the most important.”

However, this time it was just the parents, reflecting on a friendship that started in 1989 when McMillen and Stoops met at Kansas State. They shared memories and favorite stories throughout their relationship that week in Florida, not wondering what was next for the two best friends that started their careers in Manhattan, Kansas.

Although McMillen no longer works under Stoops, their strong relationship continues.

“We’re great friends, we were always great friends out of the office,” McMillen said. “I talk to him everyday, and see him most everyday. Nothing’s really changed.”

DAY 18: Sense of humor

Stoops always had a causal relationship when it came to the media. He was professional when he had to be, and friendly when he stepped away from the OU backdrop. He was straightforward, never giving too much information, but just enough to satisfy the reporters.

Eighteen days after his retirement, Stoops found himself in the back of a 30-year old van, talking to two of the most polarizing sports media personalities in the country — Barstool Sports’ Big Cat and PFT Commenter. Known for their hilarious, yet insightful interviews on their No. 1 ranking sports podcast “Pardon My Take” Stoops showed his lighter side during the 30-minute interview.

“I run around with the dean of students, how about that? That’s my guy,” Stoops said jokingly on the podcast as he referred to Stroud, who was with him on the trip. “We may be throwing together a podcast to compete with you guys.”

Stoops talked about anything from Bruce Arians’ Kangol hat to how much sunscreen Steve Spurrier uses. He even threw down the hook’em horns sign with the guys.

“I think he enjoyed it,” McMillen said. “He was a bit more relaxed than he normally would’ve been.”

He was candid with Big Cat and PFT, explaining he had no idea how he was going to spend his retirement.

“I really don’t know,” Stoops told them. “I may come find you guys, I don’t know. I need to ride around in this van… This is sweet.”

https://twitter.com/BarstoolBigCat/status/879320759331676160

DAY 30: Presence missed

As all 10 head coaches gathered at the “Star” in Frisco, Texas for Big 12 Media Days, there was an obvious void felt throughout the Dallas Cowboys facility. For the first time in 18 years, the face of the conference wasn’t present.

“(Stoops) was a tremendous influence on his staff, on his players, on his university over a very long period of time, and he had a tremendous football teams and tremendous football players.” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in his opening remarks at media days. “The Big 12 is poorer for not having Bob Stoops any longer as a head coach in our league.”

Dominating conference play with 10 Big 12 Championships and 121 wins, Stoops was the premier coach of the league.

“He’s been highly successful, and he’s done things the right way,” Kansas State head coach and Stoops’ former boss Bill Snyder said at media days. “I appreciated the way he worked at things, I appreciated his approach to the game. He was a hard-nosed, aggressive player and coached the exact same way.”

While coaches and players reminisced over his legendary career, Stoops was off traveling while his prodige, Lincoln Riley, made his first debut in the spotlight.

“I learned a lot from (Stoops),” Riley said at media days. “He always had a great sense for the pulse of the team. He was very, very good to me in the last several years. Helped me to feel as prepared as I think you could in this position.”

DAY 56: Still around

Almost nothing was different about Oklahoma’s first practice of the 2017-18 season. Same schedule, same drills, same field, same quarterback–even the man in charge was wearing a visor. The only difference was that man in the visor wasn’t Stoops.

It was the first time since 1998 Stoops wasn’t on the practice field as head coach. But Stoops couldn’t stay away, returning to his stomping grounds on only the third day of Sooners’ practice.

“We all get excited,” left tackle Orlando Brown said back in August. “It’s nothing new. He’s not totally in there sitting at films and looking at the defense calling plays. He’s looking at it more from a spectator’s perspective. It’s pretty cool having him there.”

This isn’t the only time he’s made an appearance at practice. In fact, today, Stoops enjoys making regular visits with the team, occasionally sitting in on team meetings or roaming around during drills. He especially enjoys attending the quarterback meetings, something he rarely did as head coach.

“(Stoops) had never done that before,” McMillen said. “He thought that was really interesting to listen to Lincoln (Riley) work with those guys.”

Stoops isn’t around the team near as much, but still comes into the office four or five days a week, working out of a suite on the second floor of the east side of the stadium. He makes subtle appearances, trying to attract as little attention as possible.  

“He tries to be around without being invasive,” McMillen said. “(He’ll) pop in the office, say ‘hi’ to guys here and there. He still has a presence.”

DAY 85: Clarity

Two nights before Oklahoma’s season opener versus UTEP,  Stoops sat in his suite in Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, gazing down at Owen Field. He watched as his twin sons, Drake and Isaac, led Norman North to a gripping 49-43 victory over crosstown rival Norman High.

“Can watch it with a clear head,” Stoops said about watching his sons play.

Seniors in high school, Drake and Isaac have grown up as apprentices to a football mastermind. Both plan to play in college, combining for offers from Army, UCO, Ohio and Memphis among others. Despite his hectic schedule, Stoops tried his best to make the majority of their games, missing about half of them due to being on the road worrying about his own team. Now, in their final season, Stoops hasn’t missed a game.

“He doesn’t miss a game, and he can stay for the whole game,” Stroud said.

Today, Stoops has attended all of his sons’ games, sitting in the stands alongside all the other parents. Despite his hectic schedule, Stoops has always been this way, putting his role as a parent above his role as a coach, even if that was driving them to school everyday.

“He took his kids to school, he still managed to get to their games and make sure he was a part of their lives,” Stroud said. “He wanted to be dad. He’s not a celebrity to them, he’s dad.”

DAY 87: New perspective

In a small box with only about six chairs on the west side of Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, opposite of his new office, Stoops sat with Carol, watching his successor, Lincoln Riley, lead his former team to a 56-14 win over UTEP.

“We wanted to make it as comfortable to watch the game the way he wanted to watch it,” Castiglione said who arranged for Stoops to have his own space on game day. “If we wanted to cheer, he could yell, he could express himself and there’s no worries because there isn’t anybody there. We’ve made it possible where he could use that box all year long.”

It was an emotional day for Stoops, who had experienced 101 wins on that field. After being in control for 18 years, he found himself in unfamiliar territory, having no impact on the outcome of the game he had been a part of for so long.

“It was hard,” Stroud said, who sat with Stoops and his family for part of the game. “He was watching kids he recruited, he can see everything up there and he knows what’s happening. It was the first time he had been on the other side of it.”

Stoops would break down plays, analyzing every second of the game. He talked to himself Stroud recalled, pointing out moments when players made or missed assignments, but never criticizing how the game itself was called.    

“He’s still emotionally invested in this program and will be for quite sometime,” Castiglione said.

DAY 94: Confirmation

With 11:19 remaining in the game, and Oklahoma leading then-No. 2 Ohio State 17-13 in Columbus, quarterback Baker Mayfield scrambled around the 10-yard line before hitting running back Trey Sermon who bulldozed into the end zone.

Cut to the press box.

Stoops sat to the right of his daughter Mackie and Carol, watching his former team on the verge of completing one of the biggest upsets in program history, confirming he was right that Riley could keep them on the trajectory he created. As Sermon tumbled into the end zone, Stoops stood up, gave two Tiger Woods-esque fist pumps and began clapping furiously as if he had just finished watching Blake Bell hit Jalen Saunders in the back of the end zone to win Bedlam.

https://twitter.com/ESPNCFB/status/906707021138993152

After the 31-16 win, Stoops embraced his former players and coaches, congratulating them on a victory only a few believed would happen. During the game Stoops was calm, enjoying it without the pressure of coaching his team to a win.

“He genuinely took as much joy in seeing the team have that success as anyone did,” Castiglione said who also sat with him during the game.

As Riley walked up the tunnel in Ohio Stadium, Stoops bear-hugged his former offensive coordinator, slapping him on the back as if to say “I knew I made the right choice.”

DAY 122: Distance

As Mayfield’s pass intended for Mark Andrews fell incomplete on 4th and 4, sealing Iowa State’s 38-31 upset victory over Oklahoma in Norman, 1,013 miles northeast, Stoops sat with his son Drake watching Ohio play Central Michigan. Stoops decided to skip the Sooners’ home game that Saturday, traveling to Athens, Ohio, instead for his son’s official visit. He would later find out OU had lost at home, something he had only done nine times in his career, but also something he knows that comes with the job.

“By the time I had spoke to him, he had watched the whole game,” Castiglione said. “He’s still emotionally invested, so he was disappointed like everybody else was.”

It was the first time in 242 games that he wasn’t in attendance when Oklahoma played.

“He understands that those things happen,” McMillen said. “The expectations that we’re going to win every game every year, it’s just not reasonable.”

Typically, a loss like that would leave Stoops stressed for weeks, but not now. A tremendous weight has been lifted off his shoulders, a weight he carried his entire professional life.

“He’s not stressed at all,” Stroud said about Stoops’ retirement so far. “You could tell when things were weighing on him, but now he’s really enjoying life. He doesn’t have the worries or the concern of ‘Oh God, I should be doing this, instead of doing this.’”

DAY 143: There’s a first for everything

The past 18 years, Stoops spent most of his weekends patrolling Oklahoma’s sideline. This weekend, he experienced a whole new perspective.

As the halftime festivities began during OU’s match up with Texas Tech, The Pride formed the name “STOOPS” across Owen Field. Stoops and his wife rode around the stadium in the back of a golf cart, waving to a standing ovation. Earlier that day, Stoops served as a grand marshal in the homecoming parade, riding in the back of a horse-drawn carriage down Boyd Street. Twenty-four hours before that, Stoops was an honorary participant in Oklahoma’s Class of 2018 ring ceremony.

“I’ve never been to a ring ceremony, I’ve never been to a parade,” Stoops said with a laugh. “It’s just all so different.”

For the first time in awhile, Stoops was in the spotlight. He never enjoyed being the center of attention while coaching, in fact he hated it according to Stroud. He gave all the glory to his players in victory, and took all the blame in defeat.

“He was very moved, very humbled, very grateful, and I say this for both he and Carol, for being chosen as grand marshals for homecoming,” Castiglione said. “But at the same time he didn’t look for that attention… He’s perfectly happy letting everybody else have the spotlight.”

Current: Home

Today, Stoops can be found doing many things. Occasionally you can find him in his kitchen cooking his famous homemade pizza, some days you can find him at Pepe Delgado’s on Campus Corner eating lunch with two of his closest friends, Stroud and McMillen, and other days you’ll find him on the 18th green at Jimmie Austin practicing his short game.

He’s spending his time relaxing, but also keeping busy.

“It’s too different, too strange,” Stoops said at the ring ceremony. “That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I’m perfectly content with my decision. It’s too early to enjoy it.”

With coaching searches starting to ramp up, many have began to link Stoops to a host of jobs including Nebraska, Tennessee and Florida. He’s iterated over and over he has no intentions of coaching again, but still his name comes up.

“I don’t see him going anywhere,” Stroud said. “He’s got his house here. This is where he’s made his home for almost two decades.”

Stoops still claims he has no idea what he will do in the future. Maybe he’ll become a gourmet chef or coach middle school basketball like he’s always said he would. For now, he’ll continue to work for the university that he’s spent half his career with.

“He might tell you that he’s played a lot more golf than he’s ever been able to play,” Castiglione said. “There are so many ways that we are grateful for Bob, so many ways that he’s been an enormous influence on so many good things here… To try and predict what’s next, it would be pure guess-work.”

No matter what Stoops does for the rest of his retirement, his legacy in Norman will always be remembered.

“That south end zone,” Stroud said. “That’s the house that Bob built.”

Trey Sermon finds strength faith, family

Natoshia Mitchell lay in her bed in Bayfront Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, watching the Denver Broncos play the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII. The previous day, she had given birth to a baby boy, An’treyon “Trey” Sermon.

“This is going to be you one day,” she remembers telling the 7 pound, 3 ounce boy as she held him up to the TV on Jan. 31, 1999.

Today, 18 years and 215 pounds later, Sermon has become Oklahoma’s featured running back in his freshman year.

The son of a single mother, and the uncle to his sister’s 6-year-old daughter, Sermon has grown up shouldering a lot from a young age. Bearing tattoos with the word “Trust” on his right bicep and “God” on his left, his faith helps with the weight of his life. Giving a prayerful bow each time he scores, Sermon has become a reverend of sorts, turning football into his sanctuary, family and friends into his disciples and Sooner Nation into his congregation.

Unlike the long, often tedious speech given in a church on Sunday, Sermon is a man of few words who typically delivers his message in a palace on Saturday.

“Have faith in God in everything you do, just trust in him,” said Sermon, who has been nicknamed “the minister” and finds strength through faith and family. “Leave it up to him to know everything is going to work out.”

Hardships

Mitchell is a mother who has suffered unmeasurable pain. Experiencing the death of three children, she’s conquered a lifetime of tragedy in her 44 years. Writing an autobiography in 2012, titled “When My Soul Cried,” Mitchell poured out her life, reflecting on abusive relationships, her parents’ deaths and raising two kids on child support.

Through it all, she’s put her kids first and herself second. Mitchell’s toughness and resiliency has made her Sermon’s rock, shaping him into the man he is today.

“I attribute a lot of his success to the strength of his mom,” said Billy Shackelford, Sermon’s coach at Sprayberry High School in Marietta, Georgia. “His mom is a phenomenal lady. She brings both bags of tricks: she’s tough, but also nurturing and loving.”

Her fortitude has become his motivation.

“It’s really inspiring because she did go through a lot and just to see how strong she was, it kind of makes me want to be just as strong as her and to be able to support her whenever she needs it,” Sermon said.

Raising both Sermon and his older sister, Oneisha, for the majority of their lives as a single parent, Mitchell says she always tried to do what was best for her children. Sermon and his family moved multiple times when he was child, before eventually ending up in Georgia when he was 11-years-old.

The move was tough on Sermon he says, but his mom demanded a better life for her kids.

“I wanted something different for them. I wanted them to see life other than Florida. So I just stepped out on faith and brought them here,” says Mitchell, who now works as a financial analyst at Parallon after going back to school for her degree in 2005. “I stopped everything in my life and just focused on both my kids.”

Revival

Coming to OU as an early enrollee, Sermon has always had a niche for exceeding expectations. At just 5, Mitchell signed Sermon up to play flag football. Having the tendency to tackle more than pull flags, Sermon soon was forced to play tackle with older kids.

During his time in Georgia, Sermon ranked as one of the top prospects in the prospect-rich state. However, Sermon stayed humble, not forgetting his roots.

Two years after moving to Georgia, Sermon’s sister, Oneisha, had a baby girl. At 13-years-old he became a father figure to little Amia, helping anyway he could.

“She (Amia) loves him,” Oneisha said, who attends Kennesaw State in Georgia. “When he left, it was very devastating for her. She’s adjusted to it now, but he’s a really big help especially when it comes to disciplining her. Whatever I need he always has my back. You would think they were brother and sister. He’s been there since day one for her.”

Sermon, who’s dad still lives in St. Petersburg, continued to emerge as a standout player at Sprayberry, rushing for more than 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns as a senior. His decision to attend Oklahoma wasn’t easy, with schools closer to home such as Georgia, Alabama and Florida bidding for his commitment.

“He felt like it was home,” Shackelford said of Sermon’s decision to come to Norman. “They were jovial, they loved on him, they teased him and gave him a hard time. Those players and coaches did a phenomenal job recruiting him.”

Sermon is 852 miles from Marietta, but his family understands his decision to chase his dream.

“It was tough in the beginning because we’ve never been apart,” Mitchell said. “But I knew he was going for his dream and knew he was happy, so I was happy.”

Balancing the struggles of everyday life and football stardom, Sermon flipped the script, becoming the superhero his mom has for so long been to him.

Success

Sermon has burst onto the scene in his first season, leading the Sooners in carries, rushing yards and tied for the most rushing touchdowns. He’s Oklahoma’s new workhorse, walking in the footsteps of Sooner legends like Billy Sims, Adrian Peterson, DeMarco Murray and recently Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. Stepping into that role — especially helping to fill the void left by Mixon and Perine’s departures to the NFL after last season — doesn’t faze Sermon.

“He’s an overachiever, he sets the bar high,” Mitchell said. “It doesn’t surprise me.”

Not even half way through the season, Sermon has made his presence felt.

“That’s a grown man,” defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo said after Sermon’s late game heroics resurrected OU at Baylor. “You all saw him. (Defenders) bouncing off him, spinning off, (he’s) getting extra yards — he’s not playing like a freshman right now.”

But despite those high expectations and praise, Sermon has remained humble. His calm demeanor and soft spoken personality off the field counter his loud, tenacious play on the field. His style takes bits and pieces from former OU greats. He’s patient like Mixon, physical like Perine and quick like Murray. He say he mirrors his game after Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, critiquing his craft any chance he gets.  

His faithful work continues off the field, too, where Sermon’s become a member of Everlasting Baptist Church in Norman. Almost every other day, Sermon talks to his mom over the phone, and before every game they read Scriptures, praying together.

“I’ve always told him be true to yourself and always be honest with yourself, and with that strength will come,” Mitchell said.

Having to watch him the majority of the time on TV, Mitchell and Oneisha have made only one game — UTEP — but it’s a game Sermon will never forget.

“It was really big for me,” Sermon said. “For her to come all the way out there and see me play in my first college game, it was a really big moment.”

It might have been just the first in a series of big moments to come, each realizing a dream his mother had for him 18 years ago.

“Trey always wanted to be that kid that made me proud,” Mitchell said. “I’ve cried tears of joy. To see him live out something he said he wanted to do at a young age…

“It’s special to me.”

 

Q&A: How Riley Eden balances school and his dreams

Most college students have a job, some even have two.  But Riley Eden is not your average college student. He has two part-time jobs on top of owning an ice cream shop in Edmond, Oklahoma that employs 20 people with special needs.

The University of Oklahoma public relations major has had the dream of opening an ice cream shop for a while, and now owns and operates “The Super Scoop.” The shop has exceeded all expectations, welcoming visitors from all across the country. Now in his third year of college and fourth month of owning his dream business, 21-year-old Eden is trying to find balance between school and his goals.

George Stoia: When and how did this idea of “The Super Scoop” first originate?

Riley Eden: My Sunday school was the inspiration for it, my Sunday school class. It’s a class for adults with special needs at Crossings Community Church. We have “Wings” in Edmond, which is a community for adults with special needs. It’s a day program where they go and do different jobs at different locations throughout the day such as learning how to email on a computer or learning to do their laundry, mow their yard, clean dishes, make food — stuff like that. So we have that, but we have a lack of job opportunities, like actual real work places instead of modified work environments for people with special needs, and so it was a need that I saw. Just by getting to know the people I saw in Sunday school class, that’s just kind of how it got started — just seeing a need and trying to fulfill that.

GS: Why ice cream?

RE: It originally was going to be coffee. But to be successful, you have to have knowledge of your product a little bit, and I don’t really know a ton about coffee — I’ve never been a big coffee drinker. Every now and then I will, but not like every day, but I do eat ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner — I’m joking. But no, ice cream is a thing where it’s been around for a long time. Coffee is easy to make too, but ice cream is hard to mess up. That was another need that I saw. Downtown Edmond and the surrounding areas didn’t really have a local ‘mom-and-pop’ ice cream store — a small town ice cream store. There are coffee shops around, but not small ice cream shops. And it’s really easy to make, it’s easy to keep up with for the most part. When you’re as popular as our store has been, it’s really hard to keep up with quantity and stuff, but ice cream is something easy for people with special needs to deal with as well. They can scoop it, a lot of them can make it, (and) so that’s why I chose ice cream.

GS: What have been the biggest challenges you and the business have faced so far?

RE: The first three weeks we were open were the three hardest weeks of my life. The first three weeks of Super Scoop it was really fun and I was living it up you know, but it was really, really hard because of how busy we were. Just keeping up with all the logistics and everything. That was a big challenge that we faced. During those three weeks, we were making ice cream constantly all day from — my mom would go up there at seven or eight and starting making ice cream, and then would make it all day until we closed basically to keep up with how much ice cream we were selling. That was some of the big challenges we faced, just keeping up with logistics.

GS: How do you balance that? School and owning/running a business?

RE: It’s definitely difficult. My parents help me more than I could ever express or thank them enough for. They’re a big help, and my little brothers. My little brothers — if I need something, they’re over at the store in hardly no time. So that’s a big thing, and another thing is I work as a tour guide at OU and I work at Apple as well. Those are things that my parents have been willing to sacrifice their time to allow me to achieve those dreams as well. Working at Apple has always been a dream of mine, so just basically family and friends helping me through the whole thing is really the best way to put it.

GS: This has obviously taken a lot of your time and commitment. How important is it to you to keep the Super Scoop going?  

RE: It’s critical. If we for some reason stopped the Super Scoop, we’d be putting 20 people with special needs out of a job, and that would kind of lose hope of having another location or anything like that, which eventually is something I’d like to work toward to create as many jobs as we can. So I feel like that would kind of take that away if that was the case.

GS: What’s been your favorite part so far?

RE: Definitely just the joy of the Super Scoop. Seeing the special needs people accomplish everything they’re accomplishing, and just trying to mold to a work environment that hasn’t been modified — working in a real ice cream shop and all that kind of stuff.

GS: What’s the future hold for Super Scoop?

RE: My goals are to have more locations and create more jobs, and that kind of thing. Who knows what direction were headed for now. That’s my goal, to be able to have more locations and stuff like that. As well as being mobile and getting out in the community, and being able to go to people instead of them having to come to us. Maybe having like a truck or something like that, I’m not sure yet.

GS: And for Riley Eden?

RE: My goal, personally, would to be to make sure the Super Scoop stays a success and then to be able to achieve my own dreams at the same time. The Super Scoop is one of several dreams that I have, so I’m just kind of going down the list right now, and being able to achieve all those dreams would be awesome.

Essay: My cool aunt

BY GEORGE STOIA, JMC3023

My aunt always gave the best Christmas presents.

Each year, I always anticipated something special, but I’ll never forget what she got me in 2007. I was 11, and my excitement grew every second, wondering what was coming this time around. I finished opening my presents from my parents and siblings and prepared to make my favorite trip of the year — the 45-minute drive from Tulsa to Bartlesville to see my aunt, and 20 other relatives.

I passed the time in the car listening to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” while playing the guessing game with my little brother, a game we played every year, about what our aunt got us. As we arrived at our grandma’s small red house on Fleetwood Place, a sudden warmth came over my body as I saw my aunt’s red Mazda CX7 sitting in the driveway. I walked in the door of my father’s old home, hearing a familiar voice yell my least favorite nickname from across the room.

“Georgie!” my aunt yelled as she ran to give me a hug.

For a split second, I didn’t care about what she got me for Christmas or that she added an “i” to my name. I didn’t care because I was back with my best friend — my Aunt Tooter.

That evening I unwrapped an oddly shaped present from her to find a lime green skateboard with black stripes, which could also transform into a scooter. I immediately attempted to ride the skateboard, failing miserably. I never learned how to ride, nor did I care to learn, but man that thing was cool.

Now 10 years later, and three years after her diagnosis of Frontotemporal Degeneration Dementia (FTD), I can bear to be with the woman I once adored for only five minutes. She’s no longer the woman I once knew. In fact sometimes I don’t even recognize her.

***

FTD is a rare form of Alzheimer’s usually diagnosed to middle age men and women, slowly taking over the victim’s brain. The average victim has a life expectancy of 7-8 years.

Before, Tooter could make an empty room feel cramped with her contagious laugh. She was the voice of every family discussion, usually validating her dislike for Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones. She always had something to say, no matter the topic.

Today, we consider it a good day if she mutters a word.

Working as a marketing executive for AT&T in San Antonio for the majority of her life, she was a massive Spurs fan, and loved her Sooners. A former softball player at OU, she bought football season tickets each year, making sure she made the trip to Norman six Saturdays each fall.

Today, she sometimes doesn’t even get out of bed.

Buying my older sister her first cellphone in fifth grade without my dad’s knowledge, Tooter was the cool uncle my siblings and I never had. She was the first person I called when my parents wouldn’t buy me a phone in middle school, telling her I was buying the first ticket to San Antonio to live with her instead.

Today, I can barely build up the courage to drive 45 minutes to visit her.

***

I wish she could see the man I’ve become today. I’ll never forget not being able to tell her when I was accepted to OU or when I covered the softball national championship or when I attended the OU-Ohio State game. She’s missed so much of my life — a life she cared dearly about.

When I see her today, I don’t see the woman that I so admired. I don’t see the woman who surprised me at my junior high football game. I don’t see the woman who dared me to ride the “Steel Eel” roller coaster at SeaWorld when I was barely tall enough. I don’t see the woman who convinced my dad to buy me my first phone. I don’t see the woman who promised to take me to New York when I graduated from high school.

I don’t see the woman who bought me that lime green skateboard in 2007.

I see a woman who doesn’t know who I am. A woman who can’t speak. A woman who needs help going to the bathroom. A woman who has gone through depression. A woman who has been diagnosed with one of the rarest forms of Alzheimer’s known to man.

A woman who I still love.

I used to ignore the fact that my aunt would never be the same. I’d brush it off like it was no big deal. I’ve watched my family be torn apart about what to do with everyone’s favorite relative. I’ve watched my dad struggle day-in and day-out, trying to find a solution to why his little sister is the way she is.

There was a point where I didn’t want to see her — I didn’t want to face reality.

But that woman is still my hero: the person I aspire to be. I can no longer ignore my aunt or the obstacles she faces because I know if we were to switch places, she would make that 45-minute drive to see me.