For Karen McCaa, the pain from a variety of ailments is present every day.
But for about two hours each late afternoon or evening the past five months, the Columbus native has experienced a joy that has gone a long way in masking that pain. She’s having the time of her life as an assistant girls basketball coach for her alma mater, Columbus North.
“But I guess the blessing in it is that it’s brought me home to my Bull Dogs,” McCaa said. “Being able to be with this team through the season has been very special for me and very healing for me. The kids have been incredibly supportive, and I love them with my soul.”
Saturday night, McCaa will have a chance to experience a state finals. North will play Homestead at 8:15 p.m. at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in the Class 4A title game.
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For most of her adult life, McCaa, 44, had been a guidance counselor in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and motivational speaker across the country. But in the fall of 2010, she was diagnosed with Addison’s Disease. She’s also had Lyme Disease and a few other ailments, although some of those have gone away.
Three weeks ago, McCaa spent a couple days in the Cleveland Clinic, and last week, received news that she has a rare muscle disease called Stiff Person Syndrome, which affects only one in 1 million people.
“There’s not really a cure for those things, but they try to manage the pain,” McCaa said. “They can slow the progression, and they can help control it, but there’s not really a cure for connective tissue diseases or for the Stiff Person Syndrome.”
Joining the family
Last fall, after leaving a treatment facility in Nevada, where she had undergone two surgeries, McCaa moved back to her hometown of Columbus.
North coach Pat McKee had recruited McCaa to Butler University when McKee was an assistant there. McCaa, a 1989 Indiana All-Star who ended up playing at Eastern Illinois, also had attended Butler camps, so McKee had some familiarity with her.
Bringing McCaa on board was a no-brainer.
“We created some opportunities for her to interact with the team last season toward the end,” McKee said. “Then she said as she gets healthier, she’d like to be more involved, and I said, ‘That would be great.’”
McCaa’s main role is that of a motivational speaker. She talks to the Bull Dogs in the locker room before each game and sometimes at practice.
“A common theme that I talk to them about before each game is being poised and powerful,” McCaa said. “First, I have a little bit of a motivational, inspirational message, some sports psychology to help them get dialed in and focused, and then we get on our knees and ask the Lord to bless us in our efforts.”
“She’s a professional counselor by trade, so she’s been very good at reading the pulse of the team and I think delivering a message that is on point in helping them be as focused as possible,” McKee said.
McCaa has developed a bond with the North players, especially McDonald’s All-American Ali Patberg.
“Ali is like my soul sister,” McCaa said. “We’re so much alike, it’s unbelievable. Her mom, Julie (Davis), has been a phenomenal friend, and when I first came back, and I did not have a place to live, I stayed with them a couple nights a week for maybe a month, and we became family.”
“Since I’ve gotten to know her, every day, she challenges me to be a better person,” Patberg said. “I’d say we probably wouldn’t be where we are right now without her. She talks to us about being a good teammate and believing in ourselves. She’s kind of pushed that for us and has been amazing for us.”
Talking to Speidel
A licensed minister, McCaa’s work hasn’t been limited to the North girls team.
Since Bull Dogs senior standout Josh Speidel was seriously injured in a car accident Feb. 1, McCaa has been traveling to Indianapolis once or twice a week to read devotionals to and pray with Speidel, who remains in a coma.
When Speidel’s parents were at North for its Senior Night celebration, McCaa and Speidel’s pastor, Chuck Coleman, stayed with him at the specialty center where Speidel is making small gains. As McCaa and Coleman held a radio near Speidel as his name was announced, McCaa said he broke into a sweat.
McCaa also said she took along a piece of basketball net for Speidel.
“I wanted him to be able to feel that in his hands,” McCaa said. “The coach and the counselor in me was thinking ‘I believe he can hear us, and I wonder if he can feel this.’ I said ‘Josh, my Bull Dog brother, you’re going to get better, and I want you to feel this net because I believe some day, in some way, you’re going to cut down net again. I think God has big things for that young man.”
Slowing the pace
When McCaa was in Iowa, she worked with various groups, including football and basketball teams and show choirs. She has also worked with athletes from Nike the past few summers in St. Louis, doing leadership and motivational sessions; talking to kids about leadership, character, morals, ethics and leading a life of honor; and sharing her faith with them.
“The common theme there is being able to perform when the pressure is on,” McCaa said. “Whether you’re on a stage, and you’re performing in an auditorium in front of 10 judges and 3,000 people, or whether you’re on a basketball court, and you’re trying to hit a free throw with 10 seconds left or whether you’re a quarterback and you’re trying to read a defense and someone’s trying to hit you, how do you keep your poise and focus?”
McCaa realizes she can’t keep up as hectic a pace as she did before her illness.
“There’s been a huge grieving process going through the loss of not being able to be an athlete anymore and do the things that I used to do as an athlete,” McCaa said. “Being able to coach and work with multiple teams and multiple athletes and being out on a speaking tour, that’s not a reality right now.
“In life, things are going to knock you down, and when they do, you get your knees, and you get to your feet and you come back,” McCaa said. “You keep getting up, and when tough things happen, you look at it as an opportunity to grow in faith. I think sometimes when tough things happen to us, we need to look at it from the light of, if anything brings us closer to, then in the end, it was a blessing.”
McCaa suffered a slight setback Wednesday when she had to go to the hospital for an IV infusion. The Bull Dogs’ regional championship victory at two-time defending state champion Bedford North Lawrence the night before had drained her physically.
But she isn’t complaining.
“It’s been a great ride with these kids,” McCaa said. “I think the world of them. Being home at my high school where my dad coached, and I spent so many hours as a young athlete, this is part of the happy ending right here, just making it back to being with the kids.
“They’ve made our school and our community so proud, and I couldn’t be more proud to be part of such a great group of people.
“I do believe in happy endings,” she said. “Dreams do sometimes come true if you believe that they can happen to you.”
Name: Karen McCaa
High school: Columbus North
College: Eastern Illinois
Occupation: Assistant girls basketball coach at Columbus North
To help: The Karen McCaa Foundation