By Rhiannon Potkey
Parked on the outfield grass surveying the scene from her wheelchair, Dawn Bowser was overcome with emotion.
Cancer had robbed Bowser of many things over the last few months, but she wouldn’t let it take away this experience.
Bowser watched as her daughter and nieces interacted with the Tennessee softball team, their eyes widening as they received autographs and posed for pictures.
“Special Welcome to Dawn Bowser from the Lady Vols” flashed in front of her on the scoreboard.
Bowser and her family spent Easter weekend at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium watching Tennessee play Georgia. It was a dream fulfilled for the mother of three from Pennsylvania who is fighting for her life yet again.
Five years after beating breast cancer, Bowser was told in January the cancer had returned and spread to her brain, lungs, kidney and ribs.
Bowser had been planning and saving money for months to make this trip with her family.
Although she felt weak and struggled with pain last week, Bowser insisted on on still going. As soon as she finished radiation treatment on Friday, the family packed into cars and made the 10-hour drive from their home in Knox, Pennsylvania – yes Knox – to Knoxville.
Being in the stadium surrounded by the people she loved, the game she loved and the program she loved was the best medicine for Bowser.
“It’s everything,” Bowser said, choking back tears. “It’s been a pretty amazing experience. The way the team has embraced us is special.”
Bowser made the trip with her husband, Tom, youngest daughter, Natalie, 12, twin sister, Debbie, and Debbie’s family – husband, Tim, and four daughters.
The Bowsers have long admired the Tennessee program. Tom has attended clinics to hear UT co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly speak, and his nieces have participated in UT’s slapping camps.
“Ralph and Karen represent all the things we try to do as coaches for our travel teams. They put God first, family next and then team,” Tom said. “We try to run our teams exactly like they do. We love the leadership the players are being shown on a daily basis.”
The family started discussing the trip to Tennessee last year. But Dawn, a former All-American swimmer at Clarion University, began experiencing a persistent cough in August and underwent numerous tests.
In January, the family was rocked with the news Dawn’s cancer had not only returned, but metastasized. The doctors decided to treat the cancer in the brain first before they begin treating other parts of her body.
“She is a battler. She missed only one day of work when she had the breast cancer, but this time it’s a little tougher on her body,” Tom said. “She is strong and she is trying to push through, but she keeps getting weaker.”
Tom wanted to make the trip a bit more special for his wife, daughter and nieces, so he emailed the Weeklys asking for a possible tour of the clubhouse.
They provided him with that and much more. With the help of Melissa Brown, UT’s director of team operations, and Kelsey Bacon, the assistant director of fan experience, the family was given the VIP treatment.
Dawn was wheeled onto the field after Saturday night’s series-opening victory, and the family took part in Tennessee’s post-game huddle.
The Weeklys gave Dawn a hat with personal messages written on each side, and the players spent nearly 45 minutes talking with the family.
“They live in a big pond here, but they only need to put one little ripple out to make a difference. It’s just one little motion, but by the time it gets out to the edge, the whole body of water has been affected,” Tom said. “The Weeklys may not even realize the lives they have touched, but I have shared their messages with hundreds of girls.”
Along with the physical and emotional strain, the cancer is taking a financial toll on the Bowser family.
Tom is a school band teacher, and Dawn was laid off from her job last year when her company downsized. She began working at a Subway inside a gas station, but had to quit once her cough made it too hard to work.
Their oldest daughter, Marina, and her college roommate’s family are arranging a spaghetti dinner fundraiser on April 21 near their hometown to help pay the medical bills, and other groups have donated money.
“We have just been so blessed with great friends and a great family and an entire softball community to support us,” Tom said. “There are people in every denomination out there telling us they are praying for us. That really gives us strength to keep fighting every day.”
Once Sunday night’s game ended, the family piled back into the cars for the long trip back to Pennsylvania. The parents had to return to work on Monday and the kids had games and practices to attend.
Knowing her hair would soon begin falling out, Dawn stocked up on Tennessee hats and a scarf from the gift shop to wear during treatment.
“The last 48 hours has put more smiles on her face than she’s had in months,” Tom said. “We’ve all been crying tears, but these are happy tears because of how special this experience has been.”