Uncommon Bond

Chelsey Kraft
By Chelsey Kraft
Assistant Director of Communications


Sometimes, song lyrics may hit the nail on the head, capturing perfectly the bond between two people. In this case, it is the story of the uncommon bond between a college basketball coach and a pre-teen girl. A bond that not even death can break.

“Oh my heart is tangled all around you.
When you've got trouble I've got trouble, too.
Oh my life is arm in arm with you.
When you've got trouble I've got trouble, too.”

That is the chorus to Liz Longley’s “When You’ve Got Trouble,” a song for which University of Oklahoma women’s basketball coach Sherri Coale and McKenzie Horton shared a love. A song that happens to perfectly describe the essence of their relationship.

“We had a very special bond about this perfect little song that sort of encapsulated Kenzie and her journey and our relationship and all those things that she had a passion for – words and music and art and people and love. That’s who McKenzie was,” Coale shares.

McKenzie passed away on June 18 just over a week after her 13th birthday, following a battle with cancer. But the friendships she built with members of the OU family are without a doubt everlasting.


McKenzie

Making a Connection

When she was sick, Horton developed close relationships with members of the OU Athletics family, especially student-athletes from the football and women’s basketball teams. One of her most significant bonds was with Coale.

While attending an OU football game in 2013 through the Special Spectators program, McKenzie met head coach Bob Stoops and some of the players. But McKenzie’s mom, Brandy, says that Coale is the one who really caught her attention that day.

That same year, McKenzie attended the annual “Pink Out” contest. Prior to the game, she and her family went to the locker room to meet the players and sat in Coale’s desk for a while. Then, McKenzie was offered a chance to open the locker room door and high five the players as they ran out onto the court.

“To add to her excitement, she went hand-in-hand with the woman who had stolen her heart and become a hero in her eyes – Coach Coale,” Brandy shares.

From then on, Coale and her Sooners continued to be a part of McKenzie’s life, visiting her regularly at the OU Children’s Hospital. They became so close they felt like relatives to McKenzie and her family.

“Coach Coale and her team were initially just women that we saw on the TV or who came to the hospital to see children that were sick,” Brandy explains. “We never dreamed that those women we watched would soon become known as ‘our family’ and people we would come to call friends and speak to on a daily basis with or sit down across the dinner table with and share stories, pictures, laughter and tears with.”

Coach Coale and her team were initially just women that we saw on the TV or who came to the hospital to see children that were sick. We never dreamed that those women we watched would soon become known as ‘our family’ and people we would come to call friends and speak to on a daily basis with or sit down across the dinner table with and share stories, pictures, laughter and tears with.
Brandy Simpson, McKenzie's mother

Visits from Coale were common, and McKenzie’s mom, Brandy, says each one was valued by her and her daughter.

“McKenzie and I were both so honored that someone who has so many things on her plate each day would take the time to come see a little girl battling cancer and actually do it because she had a heart for that child, not because she was doing it for show,” Brandy says.

For Coale and her program, it is important to strive to impact people through the platform as an OU team by finding a way to be involved that is not superficial but rather deep and meaningful. One avenue for this is by visiting the children’s hospital and then staying connected with the kids and families they meet there, rather than just going and forgetting they were ever there.

“To me, uncommon bond means that we are willing to get our lives all tangled up in each other and wind ourselves around people, one another first as teammates and partners in the journey but with our fans and our supporters and those Special Spectators like McKenzie that we have the good fortune to develop relationships with as a result of this platform,” Coale explains.

McKenzie attended as many OU women’s basketball games as she could, as many as her physical health and her family’s schedule would allow. Even when she was not able to come to games, Coale says that McKenzie watched on TV or checked the score later, staying plugged in even when she could not physically be there.

Coach Coale and other members of the OU program frequently called, texted or sent pictures and videos to McKenzie to check in on her, send her love and brighten her day, Brandy says. These small acts had a big impact on her daughter.

“There were some days those small details are what she needed to push her to the next moment or next day’s treatment,” Brandy states. “Having them as a support system was just what the doctor ordered and helped her to keep going even when she knew she couldn’t go another moment. She would get something that would say, ‘Hang in there Mac’ or ‘Thinking of you today,’ and she would smile and push on.”


Living Life to the Fullest

Anyone who talks about McKenzie has no shortage of adjectives to describe her personality, outlook on life and talents.

“There aren’t enough words to describe McKenzie in one lifetime,” Brandy says of her daughter. “She was and still is beautiful, a breath of fresh air, brave, loving, caring, thoughtful and giving. She is amazing, kind, priceless, glowing, adorable, hilarious and spunky. She’s strong, courageous, genuine, artistic, imaginative, inspiring, spontaneous and extraordinary. She is a leader and she is a champion.”

Some of McKenzie’s hobbies were both snow and water skiing, riding horses, working cattle with her papa, drawing, singing, playing piano and guitar, making videos and taking selfies with her friends and watching her Rush Springs Redskins and Oklahoma Sooners play a variety of sports, whether it was from the stands or on her living room TV.

“She loved life and lived it to the fullest. She lived each moment whether good or bad, you would never know because she was always seen with a smile across her face,” Brandy says. “She wasn’t going to let one moment of living pass her by. She lived such an amazing life in 13 years, but this little warrior packed a lifetime of memories in the four short years while she was battling cancer.”

McKenzie possessed many talents and passions, and Coale says she thinks McKenzie instinctively knew she had to cram a life into just a few years, adding that “she probably lived more fully than many of us in the short amount of time she had on this planet.”

Her passion for the guitar is why Coale introduced McKenzie to Liz Longley’s music in the first place, knowing she would appreciate Longley’s use of the instrument in her songs.

McKenzie immediately fell in love with the song “When You’ve Got Trouble,” so much so that when she got home after hearing the song for the first time, she pulled out her guitar and started learning to play it so she could play the tune for Coale and Guy Austin, women’s basketball’s director of operations, the next time she saw them, Brandy remembers.

The greatest thing Kenzie gave me were moments. When we sit here and talk about her, I see facial expressions. I hear tone of voice. I hear word selection of just the right type at just the right time. There was a sharpness about her that was intentional and I appreciate that so much.
Sherri Coale, OU head coach

Coale recalls the sharpness McKenzie possessed, often chuckling and responding with “Well, I’ve been better” in response to the question of “How are you doing?” during the later stages of her life.

“She just always had a way of sizing up a situation or circumstance and always making everybody who was trying to make her feel better feel better themselves,” Coale says. “We were the ones who always left feeling encouraged and uplifted and better about ourselves and life in general just because of the perspective that she had and the ability that she had to make you feel.

“Kenzie was an old soul in a young body,” Coale continues. “She had a wry wit. She had a joy for life and a passion for people. She had an insight I thought that was just so far beyond her years. She saw what the rest of the world didn’t see. She could see through barriers and past obstacles right to the inside of people and to the inside of situations. It gave her extraordinary perspective. 


Creating a Lasting ImpactMcKenzie Selfie

Brandy is thankful for the lasting impact Coale and other members of the Sooner family have had on her and her family.

“Coach Coale, Guy, the basketball girls and the football boys are truly remarkable people. Each one holds a special place in my heart and in the hearts of my husband and children, and especially in Kenzie’s heart,” Brandy says. “She adored each one and loved them all as if they were her own. They all walked on water in her eyes and in mine and we know that God places people in our lives for a season and then he places others that are there for a lifetime. This special group of people, they are part of our lives for a lifetime. We love each to the moon and back.”

Brandy adds that every time she and her family look at the Oklahoma logo, they will remember how their lives are forever changed because of the love the Sooners showed for her daughter.

“I will think of how these men and women of the Sooner programs came to love my little girl and care for her and sit in our living room and sing to her, even though she slept while they sang,” Brandy shares. “Or how they spent her final hours sitting with her just to be with her because they loved her and how these strong men and women carried my baby girl’s tiny body that was encased in a precious box to its final resting place. These people are forever a part of my life, and I am forever grateful for all they have done for us and I will never be able to thank them in my lifetime.”

And just as McKenzie was impacted by members of the OU family, so were they touched by the little girl with the big personality and constant smile on her face.

“The greatest thing Kenzie gave me were moments,” Coale says. “When we sit here and talk about her, I see facial expressions. I hear tone of voice. I hear word selection of just the right type at just the right time. There was a sharpness about her that was intentional and I appreciate that so much. The photos that I have with her, the collage of the different stages of her journey (that she made for Coale) through this illness – the artistic representation not just the picture itself that she drew but what it represents and the thought and the concept behind it – all those things to me are tangible reminders that take me back to the thing that I just have in my mind, which is the essence of McKenzie Horton.”

As far as the bond Coale and McKenzie built, it is one that will never be broken.

“The bond that Coach Coale and Kenzie shared, I will never understand, but it was a bond that not even death could separate,” Brandy says. “The love of one bald, beautiful child affected so many and in turn, those people changed our life for the better.”

“Oh my heart is tangled all around you.
When you've got trouble I've got trouble, too.
Oh my life is arm in arm with you.
When you've got trouble I've got trouble, too.”

Lyrics that capture the journey of a young girl and describe the relationship she built with so many, including a basketball coach. Lyrics that are the reflection of an uncommon bond.

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