Role Model

I was 12 years old when my mom thought something might be wrong.

It was an ordinary summer — hot, sticky — just outside of Chicago. I was a typical kid — energetic, playful — enjoying the months between seventh and eighth grades. My life revolved around two things: sports and school. The former came naturally to me. Whether it was basketball or soccer, every athletic endeavor was like breathing. I didn’t have to think about it. My body and mind operated together, almost independent of any thought.

Imagine yourself walking — down the street, from your couch to the kitchen, or even from your car to a store entrance. You don’t have to think about each step. Your body just takes over. That’s what it’s like when I have a ball in my hands or when I’m on the court. Every movement and action is fluid.

School wasn’t as automatic. I listened to my teachers intently and loved to learn, but it seemed to take me far more time and deliberate thought than my classmates to complete simple tasks. Homework? That took hours.

My mother, a teacher, noticed.

One day, she told me that she was taking me to a facility for some tests. There would be cards, some colors, puzzles. This will be fun, I thought. I was young. These were games to me and I love a challenge.

We arrived at the facility, checked in and got started. A couple of specialists told me to relax and answer everything as best I could. We went through flash cards, color tests, numbers and puzzles. I remember laughing and enjoying myself but still not understanding fully why I was there. The tests got harder. I was confused. It might sound strange, but my mind felt … broken. Something wasn’t right.

Days later, my mom got the test results back. She sat me down. A stack of paperwork neatly organized into folders separated us. I stared at the pile. What’s going on? I thought.

She told me I had dyslexia.

I still didn’t understand.

She explained that it’s a learning disability that affects someone’s ability to read. That I comprehend letters and numbers differently. Suddenly it made sense why, even though I understood concepts, I’d always had trouble when it came to organizing words and numbers on paper. This is why math isn’t my friend! I thought. I’d always enjoyed school, especially math, but getting through the work could be a struggle. I’d get frustrated during classroom assignments. My friends would be done in 15 minutes, and I’d still be on the first couple of problems. Teachers even called me lazy.

But that one word hung in the air: disability.

What are my friends going to say? Is this going to change what they or my teachers think of me? How they treat me? At that age, you’re so invested in other people’s opinions of you. Think about the social implications of having a disorder that manifests in everyday tasks like reading or writing and also requires special treatment, yet it’s unseen. An invisible disability. I was afraid people would think I was stupid.

How could I — someone who genuinely enjoyed learning and who wanted to do well in school — have this? What would it mean for the rest of school? College? It seemed unfair.

Adolescence is hard enough without a learning disability. It affected almost every aspect of my life. I tried to hide it. I was ashamed. You can only go so long before your friends start to suspect something. I was part of a really close circle of guy friends — we literally grew up together. I’d already disclosed my disability to the school faculty. I was actually the first person at my school to share a diagnosis, thanks to my parents, so we’d begun trying different specialized learning plans.

My friends knew something was up. Finally, I told them why I was getting the extra help. I was dyslexic. It took some explaining, but they couldn’t have been more supportive. Why was I so afraid?

Even as I figured out what learning strategies worked for me, every day at school was tough, and I took out all of my aggression on the basketball court. I lived in the gym because that was the one place I was absolutely confident. I felt at home there. I worked for hours on my shot, on my handle, on my passing and on my defense. I imagined game situations. Hitting big shots. And then I’d do it again the next day. And the next. It was my sanctuary.

And then it clicked: the work ethic I had in the gym, the emphasis on repetition and visualization, was something I could apply to my studies. I developed strategies for overcoming my disability.

On the court, if I got beat on defense, I made sure it wasn’t going to happen again. If I couldn’t get through a book in three weeks, I was still going to finish it. Believe me, no book is going to sit on my dresser having gone unfinished. That confidence to never quit learning came from basketball.

College was sort of the great unknown. I wanted to play basketball at the Division I level and graduate from college, and I was excited by scholarship offers. I was also excited just to be a student. In fact, the first thing my mother and I did when deciding on which school I’d attend was develop a full-fledged plan with the school to ensure my academic success. If a school didn’t accommodate my academic needs, they were struck from the list.

One of the first meetings I had at Notre Dame wasn’t even about basketball — it was with the academic office and basketball relations to strategize on a plan. We discussed individualized learning plans, and everything fell into place. Throughout my entire academic career, Notre Dame made sure that I had all of the learning materials I needed and more. They made sure I was on top of my studies. I even made academic honor roll. In many ways, I’m more proud of that than any award or accomplishment on the court.

Fast forward from that hot summer 10 years ago, and here I am, on the morning of a new life adventure: the WNBA. It’s always been a dream of mine to play professional basketball. And even though I am leaving early, I will absolutely get my degree from Notre Dame and look forward to the day I can hang it on my wall.

My path has been full of challenges, and frankly, I’m not sure if I’d be here without my disability. That was a driving force for all those hard, long hours in the gym. It motivated me to prove I could be successful. My achievements are a testament to my own hard work and the support and sacrifice from those around me, and hopefully now, a source of inspiration for those who struggle with or know someone who struggles with any sort of learning disability. I want to use my platform as a professional athlete to help erase the stigma and motivate people to pursue their dreams regardless of the roadblocks they face.

After being diagnosed, it took time to figure out what worked for me, but I did. And if I close my eyes right now, I can see the back of my future jersey: Loyd. I won’t know what the front will say for another few hours, but the title I want to carry above all others?

Role model.

Photographs by USA Today Sports