By Martin Savidge, Pamela Kirkland and Scottie Andrew, CNN
Updated: Fri, 15 Oct 2021 15:12:56 GMT
Debbie Blount is, for the most part, your average college undergrad, trying to make it through the semester amid piles of homework and a packed after-school schedule.
She enjoys her history classes but struggles with statistics, a subject she calls the "bane of [her] existence." She just declared a major -- interdisciplinary studies -- and spends much of her time off-campus studying. And when class runs over, she scrambles to switch shoes, grab her golf bag and head to the green to join her teammates in women's golf -- her favorite part of the day.
But just one year earlier, she had been fretting that she wouldn't fit in among classmates some 40 years younger.
Blount is a 63-year-old sophomore at Georgia's Reinhardt University and a beloved member of the women's golf team. She's got a few decades on most of her classmates, instructors and head coaches, but they don't see her as a motherly or grandmotherly figure. Instead, they see her as a friend, a role model and a reliable teammate with an exceptionally straight drive.
As one of the oldest student athletes in the US, her friends call her "Ancient Eagle," after Reinhardt's mascot. "Ancient" may be a gross exaggeration of Blount's age, but she likes to think she imparts some wisdom on her young teammates.
"It's a game, we're in this together ... we're really lucky to do this," she said of the things she keeps in mind while playing. "There are a lot more serious things in life than playing golf, and I think they're picking up on some of it."
She pursued college golf after her husband's death
College wasn't in the cards for Blount when she graduated from high school in 1976. Her parents nudged her toward becoming an X-ray technician, telling her it would be a stable career. They were right, she said, though she had a hunch she would've made a good P.E. teacher, too.
But before she set her mind on becoming an X-ray tech, she discussed the possibility of college with a guidance counselor, who suggested only one school -- Reinhardt University in Waleska, Georgia, not far from where Blount grew up.
"Reinhardt was always in the back of my mind," she said.
Golf, initially, was not. Blount first got onto a golf course at age 33 -- after she met her husband, Ben. Her husband loved the game, and she wanted to spend more time with him, so she picked up golf as a hobby. But Blount, ever the athlete, felt herself get a "little driven." She made up for lost time with constant practice, eventually competing in some local championships. Golf became part of her weekly routine.
When her husband died after a years-long illness, she moved to Vail, Colorado, to teach skiing full-time. But when her father died a few months after her husband, she found herself rudderless.
"I was a little bit lost," she said.
After their deaths, she came across a 1970s yearbook from Reinhardt University, where her husband's mother had worked at a dorm -- another sign "calling to Reinhardt," she said.
"I found myself looking through those yearbooks, wondering if it would've been me."
Meanwhile, her golf game was getting stale. She lost a championship competing against her friends at her golf club. She asked a young caddy at her club where he played. Reinhardt University, he told her.
"There it is again," Blount thought.
The idea of starting school at 62 was daunting at first. Blount wasn't sure if she could keep up with full-time classes -- but "the golf was calling," she said, so after meeting with a Reinhardt coach and showing off her skills, she committed herself to starting over as a college freshman.
She's been with the team now for a year. While it would be easy to complain about her packed school schedule or the get-togethers she's canceled after a long day of practice, Blount said she's just grateful for the opportunity -- one she earned with skill and grit.
"I'm getting to live the dream," she said. "I look around here and I can't believe I get to do it."
She fits in with her younger teammates
During a recent Monday afternoon practice at the driving range, Blount was relaxed and giddy with her teammates, all of them in their late teens or very early 20s. She made them giggle and cheered them on (at a golf-appropriate volume). "The girls," as she calls her younger teammates, considered what matching accessories they'll wear to their next tournament.
"We're gettin' sharp," she said of her swing at one point. "But my last name's Blount, I can't be sharp."
Blount missed a putt during a drill, shrugging it off with a smile. She believes positive thinking is the key to success, but maybe she wasn't thinking positively enough for that putt.
She talks about her younger teammates with the same effusive love she uses when she talks about her dear friends at her golf club. Blount never had children, but she said being around the group of close-knit young women so often shows her what it might have been like to have a daughter around their age. Their parents write Blount notes, thanking her for the "wisdom" she's brought to their team, she said.
Blount said she was afraid she "wouldn't bring anything to the team," but those fears were unfounded. Lauren Welte, a player Blount praised as an impressive leader, said the 63-year-old is an "incredible" addition to the team. Welte wasn't initially thrilled about playing alongside a sexagenarian, but after trudging through 18 holes together in the pouring rain -- their first time meeting -- she was completely sold.
Different folks have different takes on what makes Blount such an essential member of the Reinhardt team. Skills-wise, though she doesn't send the ball quite as far as her teammates on her first play, Blount "hits it the straightest out of all of us," Welte said, and often shoots in the mid-80s.
Evans Nichols, the 26-year-old head coach of the women's golf team, praised the "good energy" she brings to the team, a living reminder that "golf is a lifelong sport." And while younger players may lash out after a bad play, Blount is a symbol of stability, said Bill Popp, Reinhardt's vice president for enrollment and athletics, a role model for students who haven't honed their emotional game yet.
Motivating the young women on her team to improve their game has given her an idea of what she'll do when she graduates. Though she may still "ride off into the sunset" with her boyfriend and "do the retirement game," she thinks she'll probably end up coaching young people -- maybe as a graduate assistant at Reinhardt.
For now, though, she's thinking about the short-term: She's just been nominated for homecoming queen. She's already recruited the girls to help her find a dress for the event, a request they happily accepted.