Muffet McGraw’s phone rang at 2 a.m.
When the suddenly-awakened Notre Dame women’s basketball coach answered, she heard the voices of her friends, Dave and Eileen Woods.
Big supporters of the Irish women, the couple was in Germany visiting their son, a trauma surgeon at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, who had just begun treating one of McGraw’s standout players, Danielle Green, a left-handed guard who had scored over 1,000 career points, grabbed 500 rebounds and then a few years after college suddenly joined the Army.
“They put me on the line and I said, ‘Hey Coach, you know how you always were on me to use my right hand? Well, now I have no other choice!’ ” Green recalled with a bit of a laugh. “She didn’t know what to make of that.”
Attached to the 571st Military Police Company, Green had been on a rooftop, guarding an Iraqi police station outside Baghdad when a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) crashed into a nearby wall. The explosion took her left arm just below the elbow.
But since that traumatic incident in May 2004, she has lived up to that promise to her old coach.
She is using her right hand in more ways than anyone could have dreamed.
Along with handling her job as a field examiner for the Veterans Benefits Administration, she became an avid golfer and most recently has been training to make the U.S. Paralympic cycling team.
She also plays softball with the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team, which will play two games Saturday at Wright State’s Ron Nischwitiz Baseball Stadium. There will be a 1 p.m. game against military all-stars from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and a 3:30 game against all-stars from the Dayton Legends Softball Club.
The games (tickets are $5) are fundraisers for both the new Fisher House being built on the grounds of the Dayton VA Medical Center and Honor Flight Dayton.
While Green continues to show herself to be a gifted athlete, the pursuit where her right hand — actually her entire being — really gets put to the test is in raising her 3-year-old son Daniel, a kid full of strong character and boundless energy.
As I talked to her by phone from her South Bend home, she was in the midst of giving Daniel a bath.
“’Whoa! Whoa! You’re not ready to get out yet are you?’ ” she admonished her rambunctious son who was squealing in the background. “Sit down and relax!”
Returning to our conversation, she started to laugh: “I love him to death — he’s my absolute world — but there are times I’m like, ‘Could you just be that goo-goo, da-da guy again?’ ”
Although he hasn’t shown an interest in sports yet, she said he’s “trying to play the piano. I taught him Hot Cross Buns, but now I can’t get him off that song.
“We read a lot, too, and he’s taking swimming. And he’s started to sing the Note Dame fight song.”
I’m not sure how far along the boy is, but maybe he’s gotten to the lyrics:
“What though the odds be great or small
“Old Notre Dame will win over all.”
One day he’ll realize his mom has lived those lines again and again and again.
‘Peace and closure’
“Yeah, most of my life I’ve been told I’ve been an inspiration to others,” Green said. “It started, I guess, with my family background growing up on the south dide of Chicago and still being able to earn a scholarship to Notre Dame.”
With her mother often hindered by substance abuse, she was raised by her grandmother. She ended up taking two trains and a bus every day to attend Roosevelt High School on the north side of Chicago and that got her to South Bend, a place she said she’s always dreamed of ending up.
It took her a while to feel comfortable there, but she soon found a home and after college had a brief tryout with the Detroit Shock of the WNBA.
She went back to Chicago, began to teach, eventually married a longtime educator and coach and then joined the army.
“I wanted to do my small part for history,” she explained. “I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself.”
She deployed in January of 2004 and was hurt four months later.
Once she was carried to safety, a fellow soldier returned to the roof where he searched through seven inches of sand and debris and found her severed left hand. He removed the wedding band and engagement ring and brought them to her, sliding them on her right hand.
That act would have symbolic resonance throughout her life.
Whenever times were dark and broken, she has managed to find something sparkling and significant to carry her forward.
“That’s probably part of the fabric of my life,” she said. “I just believe there is more to my life than I’m experiencing at the time. When I had a crappy childhood, I was like, ‘One day I’ll be an adult and maybe I can control my own situation a little more.
“In Iraq I remember thinking there is something else out there bigger than myself.”
Back home, she and her husband began to carve out their life and then he died suddenly of a heart attack in 2011.
“It was tough the first couple of years,” she admitted. “But finally something told me to leave Chicago and once I got to South Bend I started to heal. You’re never able to put it behind you, but you’re able to find some peace and closure.
“I certainly wish my husband was still here, but if he was then Daniel probably wouldn’t be — at least not THIS version of Daniel.”
Green said she manages to cope because “I’ve kind of trained myself not to look backward, but instead to look forward.”
She said along the way she often has relied on the lessons of sports.
“Just how you learn to work with teammates, well I’m part of a team now,” she said. “Along with my little boy, my 76-year-old dad lives with me. That’s my team now.
“As for overcoming adversity, you certainly learn that in sports. If you lose to Connecticut, you’ve got to bounce back. That’s how I dealt with Iraq and losing my husband and even just recently with a family situation that could have been a tragedy.”
She was talking about Daniel’s father who is now getting treated for a problem that arose. Since he had been helping her with her cycling training, that has been put on hold for now.
And yet it has opened the door for more involvement with the WWAST and it’s the reason she’s coming into Dayton today with her son and will play Saturday.
Finding a purpose
“I’ve never been asked that question before,” she said quietly.
I’d asked her what was the most rewarding, her efforts with Notre Dame or WWAST?
“Well, Notre Dame is way up there,” she finally said. “It’s really competitive. You’re competing against each other to win a starting spot, then trying to win a national championship.
“We’re not playing for any kind of title with WWAST. Instead, we’re playing to make a difference in lives. And I possibly could play for 10 or 15 more years.
“So with softball there’s the potential to have a greater impact overall. All of us inspire and give hope and show people what can happen if you never give up. In that way you are a champion.
“When I look at it like that, I have to put this on the pedestal of pedestals. It’s at the very, very top. But Notre Dame is close by.”
She said each of her teammates — both veterans and active duty soldiers from all service branches who have sustained injuries resulting in amputations — has a story to tell and lessons to impart.
As she was talking, Daniel began to sing at the top of his lungs.
“Oh my goodness you’re loud,” she chided. “Hush now, Daniel. Hush!”
With that, she remembered a moment immediately after she sustained her war injury.
“When I was hit in Iraq, I lay there and one of my prayers was, ‘Lord, I’m not ready to leave this earth yet. I don’t have an offspring.’
“And then there it was 10 years later and the Good Lord Upstairs blessed me with a baby boy. My son has given me purpose and meaning and a reason to work even harder than I did before.”
And on this day her work was just beginning.
“Oh my goodness, look at this bathroom!” she said to him. “You’ve got water everywhere.”
And with that she ended our conversation so she could dry off her son and then clean up the room with her right hand.