Taner Fowler swinging, and missing her dad
Taner Fowler grew up cheering for the University of Kentucky, just like her dad. She developed a decided distaste for the University of Louisville, more or less a requirement for citizenship in Big Blue Nation when you live in Morganfield, Ky., a small town about 10 miles from the Ohio River in the northwest corner of the state that is home to both schools.
As it is in so many college rivalries, loyalty in Kentucky is passed down like a family heirloom from one generation to the next.
But Taner also grew up playing softball in the Bluegrass State, and a trip to play in a travel-ball tournament at Louisville's Ulmer Stadium when she was 12 years old was all it took to convert her to the supposed enemy's camp. She couldn't help it; she loved everything about the campus and the stadium. That visit was all it took for her to set her sights on someday wearing red and black, something she did through 52 starts as a freshman catcher and designated player last season for the perennial Big East contenders.
As much as Dan Fowler liked the Wildcats, he didn't have much choice once his only child put on that uniform.
"All of our friends are Kentucky fans still," said Taner (pronounced Tan-ner). "So during the last [Louisville-Kentucky] football game, he was cheering against UK and everyone was getting so mad because that kind of transformed him a little bit."
That football game was played last Sept. 17. Little more than a month later, Taner had just taken an exam at school when she noticed a missed call and a voice message from her mom. It was a small thing, but it immediately struck her as odd -- her mom worked during the day and, besides, she knew her daughter was in class. A text message followed: Taner needed to call home right away. There was an emergency.
On Oct. 31, 2011, a truck lost control on a road near Morganfield. According to news accounts, it tipped and slid into the path of oncoming traffic, into the path of the truck driven by Dan Fowler.
Just 39 years old, he died that day, survived by his wife, Donna, and his daughter.
Dan got his daughter started in softball, even coached her in those early years of T-ball. His background was more in baseball than softball, but he learned the subtle differences between the sports and sought advice from people with more knowledge and more experience to help Taner. He handed over the official coaching reins as she got older, but he was always close.
"After every game, no matter if it was a good game, he would always find one thing [to improve on], like with my batting -- usually with my batting," Taner said. "He was more on me for hitting than anything. We would always go over my at-bats and what I could have done different or better at my at-bats."
Far from chafing under the paternal scrutiny, she loved it, sought it out. On the day her father died, she had texted him in the morning, too proud about positive results from a conditioning test to wait to tell him. It isn't always the case in a sport where the "softball dad" is an archetype with its share of negative connotations, but she wanted to be pushed every bit that he pushed her.
A father might be able to force a daughter to be a perfectionist in a sport. But to love the very frustrations of perfectionism is something that comes only from within.
"Every once and a while she'll start laughing about something, and she just giggles like a young kid," Louisville coach Sandy Pearsall said. "She loves being on the field playing. She's an easygoing kid. She probably gets frustrated with herself sometimes. She wants to do well, so she's always pushing herself on the field to be better."
That passion gave Taner something to look to in the days and weeks after her father's funeral. An only child, she felt some responsibility to stay home, felt that people there needed to see her be strong, her mom included. Yet she also believed Dan would have wanted her to return to school and get back to softball. And while she is not by nature one to pour out her emotions to people, when she looked to her teammates and coaches, all of whom had traveled across the state for the funeral, she knew there was support waiting for her back in Louisville in the simple routines of the sport.
"When I first got back it was kind of hard to focus just because everything was so recent," Taner said. "After practice he would always call and ask how it went, so the first practices, with him not calling, that was rough. And the first few games were rough because, you know, he wasn't there. But other than that, it was kind of like a stress reliever. It was my time to get away.
"I would just go to the cages and just hit by myself."
In her second plate appearance in the season opener against Michigan State, she drove a ball over the fence in left field for a two-run home run to break a tie in what turned out to be a 4-1 win.
It was a moment of catharsis, in the way moments can be in sports, where rules and scoreboards give us more control over happy endings than it seems we have in real life. For Taner, the immediate emotion was relief as she circled the bases, confirmation that all the work of the offseason, including the hitting work with Dan the previous summer, would pay dividends. For coaches, teammates and even fans, it was a chance to share joy with her instead of offer sympathy. All of those things matter. And as Taner started the season on a tear, hitting another home run in the second game on opening day and five in her first 14 games as the Cardinals raced out to the best start in program history, the smiles she wore on the field were real.
Softball didn't fix everything. A hit couldn't put her dad back in the stands. Sometimes, such as after a big win against Kentucky that she couldn't share with him, softball even makes his absence hurt that much more.
But all those emotions, the pain and the poignancy, are part of a process.
"She's never missed a beat through this whole thing -- her grades, everything she's done, she's taken care of every part of as a college student and an athlete," Pearsall said. "There are certainly some kids who would not have handled things well, and that's just the kind of kid she is. She's strong, she's got a great sense of humor, she's got a great base of support back home and here.
"She's an unusual kid in a lot of ways."
Ranked in the top 10, Louisville appears headed for one of 16 national seeds in the NCAA tournament and an opportunity to host a regional at the stadium that swung a daughter's loyalty all those years ago. The Cardinals are there in part because the sophomore standout ranks among the top 10 in batting average, home runs and RBIs in the Big East. And yet she concedes with a chuckle that, breakthrough season or not, Dan would have found a few examples with which to remind her that there is always room for improvement.
There is nowhere she is more clearly her father's daughter than on the softball field. There is nowhere she misses him more.
"It's always fun," Taner said of softball. "It's just sometimes it gets emotional because that was something me and him shared."