We’ve all been there. A thoughtful invitation arrives from an unexpected source. You’re flattered, really would like to attend, but already have a commitment for that date. You wonder how your declining it will be taken. You feel bad.
Jerry Tuckwin, longtime coach, athletic director, teacher, advocate for Haskell Indian Nations University, recently found himself in that situation.
His experience was different from most in that the house from which the invitation was extended doesn’t often hear the words “no thank you.” The invitation came from the White House, from President Barack Obama, via a staffer.
The man on the phone early this month, Tuckwin related, said, “We just realized we invite champs from the NBA and WNBA, and we’ve never honored Native American coaches.”
The staffer informed that the White House wanted to honor Tuckwin, most notably a former track and field coach, and Phil Homeratha, the beloved women’s basketball coach who recently retired because he is suffering from advanced cancer.
A follow-up phone call from the staffer, Tuckwin said, involved a change in the date and a conflict. That, coupled with Homeratha’s health, meant the men couldn’t make the trip.
“Phil has Stage-4 cancer, and I took him into the doctor’s to see if he could make the trip,” Tuckwin said. “The doctor said, ‘No, that’s not going to happen. Can’t go.’ He’s just not capable of a trip like that at this point. It made me think if Phil can’t go, I wouldn’t want to interrupt my family trip.”
Tuckwin and wife Terry, surrogate parents to so many homesick student-athletes making a transition from life on the reservation through the years, had planned to vacation in Canada with Terry’s brother. Twice in past years they had to cancel that planned trip because Jerry had a heart attack once, open-heart surgery another year. They didn’t want to disappoint him again.
Tuckwin said he didn’t know whether he and Homeratha would be honored in absentia or other coaches would be recognized instead.
“I feel really bad,” Tuckwin said. “I told him it was quite an honor for both of us, and we would have loved to have done it. I think he was surprised. He just said, ‘OK,’ and that was the last I heard from him.”
It’s too bad the timing didn’t work for both worthy men. Oh well, it’s not as if Tuckwin hasn’t already had a memorable summer. About 25 of his former athletes gathered in Albuquerque recently for a reunion to honor their former coach.
“It was great to see those guys, some who came here barely speaking English, now so articulate, so successful, just to see that growth,” said Tuckwin, who no longer works for the athletic department, but teaches casino-management classes at Haskell’s business school.
Tough topping that as a source of pride for a coach, even with a trip to the White House.