My Mom, My Hero

May 12 2017
Photo by
Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune

When I was born, my mom was 19.

Kathy: This was back in Fort Worth, Texas. I had been on the track team in high school, and by that point it wasn’t surprising that I had gotten pretty good. You see, I have eight siblings — including four brothers. So if I wanted to have fun growing up, I had little choice but to be good at sports. I’d always play tackle football with my brothers and some neighborhood kids out on a patch of grass near our house in Irving, and my only hope of survival was to be faster than everyone else. So, you know, I got fast early. And from that point on, everything I did was in full-sprint mode. If I played pickup basketball at school, I sprinted up and down the court. If I was playing soccer, I’d be going full speed. I did everything fast. By the time I got to high school and joined the track team, I was very comfortable.

Just run fast? With no one trying to clobber me? That’s all I have to do? For real?

Sign me up!  

David arrived after my senior year. I had spent that year at a high school in Fort Worth, but my first three years I went to school in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas. I was the only white girl on the sprint team there, and I ran the anchor leg on relays. I also played volleyball, basketball and softball. But track was my thing. It allowed me to go fast … and to never look back.

David Nelson

When I was four, my mom enrolled me in preschool. I don’t remember too much about that time. I was so little. I vaguely recall running around and kicking the soccer ball on the playground and having fun. But that’s about it.

Kathy: After David, I had two other boys — Daniel and Patrick. I was divorced and raising them as a single parent. Those kids became my world. I had stopped running track by that time, but, you know, I was still running. Always running. And fast, too.

There was no other option, really. If me and the boys were going to have our three meals a day and a roof over our heads, I had to make things happen. There was no time to chill. This wasn’t some TV show or Hallmark movie where you know everything is going to work out in the end. Either I was going to make it happen for us, or we were going to be in big trouble. All of us — me and the kids.

Following high school, I started working as a phys ed teacher at the preschool that my boys went to, and I attended community college part-time. It was great to be around them so often, but those days were really nonstop. We’d all wake up extremely early, I’d get the boys their breakfast, and then we’d hurry off to school. They’d all be running in different directions, so every morning was an adventure. Then, at school, I’d be in charge of a different group of super active four and five year olds every 45 minutes.

When I was finished for the day at work, I’d try to get in a college class, and if I had any leftover time before picking up the kids from school, I’d try to squeeze in a quick workout at a local weight room where my boss helped train football players on the side. Then it was back home with the kids for as much normalcy as I could muster. Everything about my goals and aspirations at that point revolved around my children. It was: What can I do to make their lives better? How can I make sure they’re set up for the future? How can I be the best mom I can be? My dreams … my dreams were for them.

 And there’s precious little time to dream when you spend your entire day just trying to get by.      

After the race, my friends were so impressed. My mom was the star of the neighborhood. We all wanted to be like her.

David Nelson

When I was 7, I saw my mom run fast for the first time. This guy from the neighborhood would always come by our house, knock on the door and then challenge her to a race. I thought it was the weirdest thing. I didn’t get what was going on. She’d always turn him down, and he’d just kind of storm off. Then one day, I was playing street hockey with some of my friends and Mom walked out the front door of our house and raced that guy right there in the street. We had to stop our hockey game for it. They figured out where the race would start and marked off a finish line, and then … they raced. And, you know what? She straight smoked that dude. It wasn’t even close. That’s the first time I realized my mom was a badass athlete. Even at that young age, I remember being amazed by how graceful she was, and at how effortless she made beating that guy look. After the race, my friends were so impressed. My mom was the star of the neighborhood. We’d all challenge each other to races … and we all wanted to be like her.

Kathy: Oh my gosh … I had forgotten all about that silly man. That guy was ridiculous. He was always like, “I heard you’re fast. I bet I can beat you in a race.” Just that same thing … over and over again. I only gave in because I couldn’t put up with it anymore. I guess some folks in our town knew that I had run in high school, and that I had won a bunch of races. Maybe people didn’t believe it was true. I don’t know. But no one ever challenged me to a race after that. And that guy just kind of stopped coming around. So it ended up working out O.K.  

When I was 10, my mom moved us to Oklahoma. I wasn’t expecting that. And I wasn’t all that crazy about Oklahoma. But it was no big deal. I remember that I was playing a lot of soccer at the time. I didn’t start to get serious about football until high school, so soccer was my main focus. As long as I could still play, it was all good. The other thing I remember from that time period is our van — a beat-up, old GMC Safari, with air conditioning that would go out on the really hot days. Other than that, everything just kind of blurs together.

Kathy: My boss at the preschool ended up helping me with some workout plans and training sessions because I wanted to stay in shape. After a while, we started working out on the running track, and the first time he saw me sprint he pulled me aside. “I really think you could do something at the college level running like that,” he told me. I kind of waved him off like, “You realize I’m a 26-year-old woman with three kids, right?” But he said he wanted to make some calls. A couple of weeks later, I had a scholarship offer from the track coach at Oklahoma Christian University.

David was in third grade at the time, and my youngest was in kindergarten. I didn’t know what to think of the offer at first, but my boss made the point that it was going to be nearly impossible for me to finish college going to school part-time. This way, I could get my degree and set up my family for a better future.

I could’ve kept on doing what I was doing — earning a steady paycheck, scraping by, doing my best to provide for the kids. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that doing so would just be setting up those kids for lives filled with many of the same sorts of struggles that I had faced. I wanted something more for those boys. And I knew that in order to get us there I’d need to take a chance and bet on myself.

So we packed up all of our belongings, hopped in that Safari minivan and moved to Edmond, Oklahoma. I didn’t realize it until we got there, but the school had decided that we were going to live in an old dorm building that was being turned into guest housing. This was during the summer, so the building was completely empty. We had one whole side of the place to ourselves, and they gave us four rooms with a bathroom in the middle. At first, we lived out of an ice chest — I’d refill the ice every day to make sure the lunch meat stayed cold and fresh.

I started taking classes and practicing with the track team almost immediately. There was a babysitter who watched the boys while I was away, and then I’d get home from practice and be totally, totally spent. I’d want to just throw myself on the bed and pass out. But I’d walk into the dorm room and see those little faces just so excited for their mom to be home, and to have some time to spend together. They would’ve just finished watching the Goofy Movie three or four times, and they were ready to go. So, you know, I sucked it up and I jumped right in and played with them. Or I took them to soccer practice. Or to basketball. Or to some school event. Whatever needed to get done, I did. And then I would fall asleep like nobody’s business at the end of the night.

Kathy Belcoff

When I was 11, I used to go to college classes with my mom sometimes. I loved it. I’d take notes and try to learn things that people in my school wouldn’t know. Every once in a while, the teacher would call on me. People on campus realized that our situation was a little bit different, so they did what they could to make us feel welcome. The other cool thing was that I went to all of my mom’s track meets. My brothers did, too. The coach would give us all stopwatches and have us take times, and then we’d write them down in a very official way. After a while, he started inviting us on the bus for away meets. We had our Oklahoma Christian warmup gear, and we were riding along with a bunch of college athletes. Me and my brothers always had the biggest crushes on my mom’s teammates, so that was a huge perk. I’d have my Walkman on, and I’d just be bobbin’ my head trying to fit in. I thought I was the coolest kid in the world back then. And once we got to the track … we were so into it. Sometimes, at the beginning of races, we’d be in the infield trying to run alongside our mom as best we could. But she’d leave us in the dust so fast. Other times we’d be at the finish line screaming for her. And every single race, she was just beasting those other girls. She was unbeatable — an All-America sprinter. So, for us, when we introduced our friends to our mom, it was never just like, “Hey, this is our mom.” It was like, “See the scoreboard? See that name at the very top. That’s our mom!!!

Kathy: So, actually, yeah, I take back what I just said above. I didn’t simply fall asleep after spending time with the boys after school and practice. I always had to study for class first. On most nights, I’d need to stay up super late in order to get my work done. A typical day would be: school, practice, playtime or shuttling off to soccer games, dinner, the kids’ homework, getting them all to bed, and then, sometime around 11 … I would be able to dig into my own homework. I’d be up until around three in the morning, and then the alarm would go off at six … and I’d do it all over again.

There were no days off. And I couldn’t hit the snooze button. When that alarm sounded, I had to get moving. It was like, O.K., everyone, brush your teeth. David, where are your shoes? Patrick, go get your backpack. Daniel, don’t forget your banana. Grab your lunches, guys. And on and on until we hustled out the door.

Every once in a while, when they weren’t feeling well and stayed home from school, or had an off day that I didn’t, I’d drag them to class with me. I didn’t have any other choice. But by that point, I was starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel. I was working toward a college degree. And I was raising three truly wonderful kids in a community where they were being treated well.

Oklahoma Christian was an ideal place for us. It wasn’t just the teachers who showed the boys kindness. It was everyone on campus, really. They were so popular at that place. My teammates loved them. During our meets, the kids would bring their backpacks onto the infield and empty out a bunch of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures, or Power Rangers, and my friends on the team would go right over and play with them.

And believe me, I loved having my children around. When I was running, I could always hear these little voices yelling out for me — especially at the indoor meets. Just these precious, little-kid voices saying, “Go Mom, go!” or “You can do it, Mom!” That was all the motivation I ever needed.

I was never running just to run. I was running for a reason. More than anything I was running to get somewhere. I was running to make a better life for my kids.

Kathy Belcoff

When I was 13, my mom was a three-time All-America track athlete. She had set (and still holds) school records for three indoor distances and for seven outdoor races. She was the talk of the athletic department … the whole campus, really. And then she decided to stop running track. I didn’t get it. It seemed like a terrible idea to me. Like, she was the very best at what she did. And she was coming up on her senior year. It would’ve been the capper on an amazing college career. There would’ve been tributes and ceremonies at the school for her. And then to just give it all up? I remember thinking she was crazy.

Kathy: My goal all along — my dream, actually — was to go to college so that I could carve out a better life and put my boys in a position to be successful. Just getting us to Oklahoma Christian was a huge part of reaching that goal. The kids loved it there. And while I was doing everything in my power to raise them as best I could, I was able to keep moving forward with my education. My hope was always to specialize in physical therapy. I wanted to help people feel better and be more healthy. And I knew physical therapy was a field that would allow me to earn a good living — to provide for my family, my everything. But Oklahoma Christian didn’t offer a physical therapy degree. So I found a nearby school that not only had a program, but had one of the best programs in the country … and I took a shot. I filled out all the forms and figured I’d see what happened.

When I got accepted to the University of Oklahoma, my decision was not a difficult one. The funny thing about it was that I got the acceptance letter right after a track meet. Our team van dropped me off, and I still had that adrenaline flowing from the races. As soon as I opened the envelope, I knew everything was about to change for us. And I knew my time as a competitive runner was about to come to an end. I loved to run. And I was good at it. But I was never running just to run. I was running for a reason. More than anything I was running to get somewhere. I was running to make a better life for my kids. And I understood that you can’t run forever.

When I was 14, I got it. I understood. It sunk in that Mom was doing this for us. That she was making a sacrifice because she wanted the best for her kids. Before that time, honestly, my whole focus had been on sports. I tried really hard in school as a kid because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to play soccer. If I came home with a C on my report card, I wasn’t allowed to practice or play sports. So I got all A’s. But it was just a means to an end. After talking to my mom about her decision, and hearing her explain everything, things changed for me. That was the first time I’d ever seen someone willingly give up sports, and having fun, in order to get an education and build toward something down the line. It showed me that sometimes you really need to think ahead — that life can’t be all about having as much fun as possible in the moment.

Kathy: I never wavered when it came to that decision, and I haven’t regretted it for a second since. With that opportunity to earn my degree from Oklahoma, I knew I was set up. That WE were set up. Running track that last year of college would’ve been fun. But I was almost 30  at the time. I wasn’t looking to do things just for fun. I was a serious person, with serious commitments, and I knew what I had to do.

In the 17 years since, I’ve been working as a physical therapist, carrying out my dream in a very rewarding field. And Daniel and Patrick have each given me beautiful grandchildren. I still have the same passion for running, but it’s no longer as much about speed. 

Oklahoma Christian University

When I was 25, my mom was inducted into the Oklahoma Christian Athletic Hall of Fame. My brothers and I were there, and a bunch of other family members and friends, as well as my mom’s former teammates and coaches. She gave a speech that night, and she never once talked about herself. That’s kind of her thing. She’s is not someone to brag or call attention to herself. She just goes about her business. She lets her actions speak louder than her words. At that ceremony, it all finally really sank in for me. I was old enough to fully understand and appreciate and reflect on what me and my brothers had been a part of — on how incredible our mom is. Up there at that podium, in front of a crowded room, on her night … she talked about us. She talked about her boys, and how much we meant to her, and how everything she had accomplished in life wouldn’t have been possible without us. I was blown away by that. I am truly in awe of my mom. I don’t know how else to put it, really. And her selflessness has inspired me in more ways than she will ever know. The compassion and kindness that my mom has always shown, going all the way back to when me and my brothers were growing up, made a gigantic impact on me. It is a huge part of the man I’ve become. The example she set for me throughout my life played a big role in my decision to found the imME Foundation to support and assist orphans in Haiti and around the globe. My mom helped me realize that one of the most important things you can do in this life is work to figure out what you were meant to do with the time you have been given on this earth. She instilled within me the courage to challenge myself, and to question expectations about what I was “supposed” to do. Ultimately, she empowered me to determine for myself what was going to bring me happiness and fulfillment … even if it meant leaving the game of football.

Kathy: Honestly, all of that is very, very sweet, but I was just doing what a mom is supposed to do. I was just trying to be the very best mom I could be. But I have to say: I could not be more proud of my son for taking a chance, and sacrificing something he loved doing, in order to devote himself to an issue that he cares deeply about. Seeing him work to make things better for future generations makes me so very proud.  

When I was 29, just a few months ago, my mom ran in her very first marathon. She was part of a team participating in the New York City Marathon as a way to raise money for imME. Now, mind you, long-distance running is not her thing. She’s a sprinter. And she only had a few months to train. But we raised $32,000. And guess what: She ran the race in five hours and 12 minutes, the fastest time of anyone on the team. Some things never change.

Kathy: I really should’ve broken the five-hour mark. I’m still kicking myself about that.

When I was 30, I wanted to pay tribute to my mom, my hero, for Mother’s Day, by telling the world about what an amazing, inspiring woman she is, and how much she has meant to me over the years. I hope that came across here. I love my mom more than I could ever put into words. And I am so proud to be her son.

Kathy: I love you, David. Your journey has only just begun.