LAFAYETTE — Some August day nearly 50 years ago, a seed was planted on Verot School Road.
There was no way Garry Brodhead, then 8 years old, could’ve had any idea what was going to transpire over the ensuing decades when he first saw the pretty girl with dark hair and dark eyes who was moving in next door. Fate doesn’t work that way. How could he have possibly conceptualized the profound depth of the joy and the heartbreak that would follow when Andrea Doucet crossed the pasture between their houses to say hello?
“I remember the day they drove up, and she comes across,” Garry said. “You can tell, she’s just beautiful. She was the prettiest little girl. And that was it: We were boyfriend and girlfriend.”
The seed was planted. The roots took hold, and for some 50 years they expanded to the point where they’re nearly indistinguishable from the soil. Those roots are as strong now as ever, even though Andrea is no longer around to provide the type of loving care and devotion that came to define her.
This is a story with a fairy-tale beginning and what seems like a sad ending. But the tears shed in the six months since Andrea Brodhead died aren’t the ink that pens the final chapter. This story, her story, keeps going, because those roots keep growing deeper and wider, reaching new places and new people in new ways. That was Andrea’s doing.
First, there was Garry and there was Andrea. And then, later, there was basketball.
PART I: Life
On Saturday, four framed Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns uniforms were illuminated at center court, waiting for the PA announcer to introduce the women who wore them. Their families were there — siblings, parents and, in one special case, a daughter — for the last time they would step foot on the floor of the Cajundome as athletes. They are all Lafayette-area kids. Three of them went to St. Thomas More, and the other went to Lafayette High. There was one family member missing for all four.
The lady who was there to care for them when they were sick, feed them when they were hungry and give them shelter when they needed it.
“I always called her my second mom,” said guard Keke Veal, who was in the fourth or fifth grade when she met Andrea and ate many a meal in the Brodhead home. “She was a phenomenal woman.”
All four of the seniors — Veal, Brooklyn Arceneaux, Kia Wilridge and Adrienne Prejean — shared that connection. They honed their skills as youngsters in the Lafayette girls youth basketball program started and nurtured by Garry and Andrea. They are now key players on the Ragin’ Cajuns team coached by Garry.
“That played a key role in what we all are today,” Veal said.
The basketball side of things is not necessarily what Garry and Andrea Brodhead had in mind when they started the girls Biddy basketball program in Lafayette all those years ago. The overriding goal was to develop the people, not the skills. And they made sure, no matter the age or circumstance, that they were there for the kids when they needed the help.
Arceneaux is one of those kids, but maybe she wasn’t a kid. She was thrust into adulthood when she found out she was pregnant before what would’ve been her sophomore season in college.
When Garry and Andrea looked at Arceneaux, it was like they were looking at themselves in a time capsule. They were virtually inseparable from the time they met on that summer day on Verot School Road. They went to Milton Elementary together. They dated throughout their time at Comeaux High, where Garry ran track and Andrea was homecoming queen and an all-state volleyball player. They were married when they were 19, both students at UL-Lafayette. Like Arceneaux, they had their first daughter, Ashley Richard, when they were still in college.
Ashley was the reason the Brodheads got so active in youth basketball in the first place. She wanted to play, and they needed a place for her to play. Several years later, Ashley became girls basketball coach at St. Thomas More — a very good one at that, winning a pair of state titles. It was Ashley who coached Arceneaux at STM, and it was Ashley who introduced Arceneaux to Andrea.
“My first memory of (Andrea) was, ‘Oh my God, this woman is beautiful,’ ” Arceneaux said. “She’s a beautiful woman, she’s very caring and she welcomed us with open arms from the beginning. It was amazing to see how caring a person she was and what we could’ve learned from her, what we were going to learn from her and how to be a person, how you should treat other people.”
When Arceneaux was pregnant, she saw just how much Andrea could give.
“My sophomore year when I didn’t play, when I had my daughter, she opened up her house to me because her and Coach Brodhead were (once) in the same situation as me,” Arceneaux said. “I kept that with me when she left. This woman was amazing. She opened her house to anybody.”
Sacrifice — whether it was her time, energy or personal space — is a constant theme regarding Andrea. When she and Garry were newlyweds, she was running a dress shop — named Andrea’s, a business her parents got started for her when she was 18 — and Garry owned a successful farm that produced pickles for Burger King.
Garry said the business pulled in a substantial income, but he longed to make an impact on the community. He had met St. Thomas More basketball coach Danny Broussard a few years earlier at a local bar, and they hit it off talking basketball. Broussard recognized the itch. He said he drove a bus to Garry’s farm to talk to him about coaching, and Garry rode up to meet him on his tractor with open ears.
“I was like, ‘Man, I’d really like to coach and go make $20,000 a year,’ ” Garry said. “She was like, ‘Well, if that’s really what you want to do, let’s do it.’ ... She could’ve easily said no. It takes a strong woman.”
Once Garry’s coaching career started, the pair began to get active in the youth basketball community. Garry did the easy part: He coached the girls, focusing on fundamentals. He taught them how to jump-stop and play tenacious defense. Andrea drew the tough assignment: She handled the logistics — organizing finances, finding gyms to play in, submitting bids to host tournaments — all while she tended to her dress shop.
The Brodheads started with 24 girls, and that number eventually swelled to more than 200. The girls teams Garry coached started to compete on a national level, with Andrea setting up everything to actually get them there. When the boys teams were about to get shut down, Andrea shouldered that burden as well, adding another few hundred kids. She decided to sell her shop, which had been open for 30 years, so she could devote herself to the kids full-time.
“I think the public has no idea — no idea — what Andrea would do,” Broussard said. “Everything from getting these kids’ uniforms to making arrangements when we went to the Biddy world tournament in Orlando — she made all the travel arrangements, got all the parentstogether, she had everything already lined up — everything, man. She would take care of every, every detail. People don’t understand the time that takes.”
Even so, with all the time she devoted to the operations she was running, she never surrendered her humanity to her schedule. That’s what has left a lasting impression — not the uniforms or the trips to Florida.
Wilridge, a Crowley native, remembers a day she got sick at school. She needed to leave, but her parents were at work and couldn’t pick her up. It was Andrea who offered to care for her until her parents finished.
Arceneaux was one of several kids whom Andrea invited into her house with open arms. There also was Brooks Donald Williams, now women’s basketball coach at McNeese State, who spent a summer with the Brodheads as a child. So did Tina Roy, now a senior on the South Carolina women’s basketball team.
Beau Brodhead, Andrea and Garry’s youngest child, had a St. Thomas More teammate who lived on the other side of town and struggled with transportation to and from school. Broussard coached the boys and lost track of how many times Beau’s friend stayed at the Brodhead home.
“He would just tell me, ‘She’s like my second mom,’ ” Broussard said. “That’s just how she was. Whenever a kid needed help, she was going to go out of her way to do it. You just don’t find that in this day and age. People want to take, take, take — and she was always give, give, give.”
To strangers, basketball is the visible part of what Andrea left behind. To those who knew her, it’s something more visceral. It was unconditional love with no desire for recompense or attention.
And that’s what has been so hard to grasp for those who knew her. How could they ever repay her for what she did for them? What could ever be enough?
One thing that was not on those four jerseys gleaming in their frames on center court Saturday: a circular black patch, sewn over the right breast, with the stark, white initials “AB.” Those patches were reserved for game day uniforms this season — a season dedicated to Andrea, their second mom. That small patch and the emotions associated with it were difficult to carry at times, a realization Garry just made recently.
There was a moment earlier this season when the Cajuns were struggling. Garry was at a loss, so he sought help, reaching out to baseball coach Tony Robichaux for a fresh approach. Andrea had long admired Robichaux, sometimes dragging Garry to Robichaux’s speaking engagements.
“It was like we didn’t have any more energy,” Garry said. “I couldn’t figure it out. I know they’re tired. (Robichaux) started talking about emotional tiredness.
“He said, ‘Coach, one thing you don’t realize is these kids have a big burden on them right now. They’re playing for your wife. They don’t want to let her down. Those kids are playing for your wife right now.’
“He said, ‘You have a burden, too. You want to keep her legacy going, too.’ ”
PART II: Death
April 2012 should’ve been a happy time for the Brodhead family. Garry had just accepted the job running the Cajuns women’s basketball program, a position the son of Lafayette wanted so badly.
He had grown sick of hearing people in town say the program would never amount to anything. He wanted to prove them wrong, and he knew he could. After all, his family had been the architect of the area’s girls basketball awakening.
Then, two weeks after he was hired, Andrea found a cancerous lump in her breast. This was her first bout with the insidious disease.
She won Round 1 by knockout.
“We went to M.D. Anderson (Cancer Center in Houston), she was cured — a double mastectomy,” Garry said. “Did chemo, and shoot, the chemo never touched her. She never got sick.”
It took about a year and a half for Andrea to be cleared. Ashley resigned from her coaching job at St. Thomas More to help take care of her mom. Things went well as Garry’s Cajuns teams started to build some steam.
But cancer is a resilient beast. Her sickness laid dormant, gathering strength for years. And when it came back, she was powerless against it.
Garry knew something was wrong when he and his wife went to the 2014 New Orleans Bowl football game and Andrea fell into coughing fits and developed back pain. Brodhead had a friend whose wife had these specific symptoms before her cancer returned. He got someone from M.D. Anderson on the phone only to hear a physician’s assistant insist Andrea was cancer-free and that she should consult a local physician for what was probably something else.
If only the news could’ve been that good. Dr. Kathryn Strother, a friend of the family, performed a CT scan and delivered her findings to Garry when he was traveling with his team to its Sun Belt Conference opener against Arkansas-Little Rock on Dec. 30, 2014.
“We were literally driving up to Little Rock; it’s 9 o’clock at night,” Garry said. “She called and said, ‘I’ve got some bad news. The cancer has spread into her lungs, her liver, her spine. It looks like it’s in her hips. It’s everywhere.’
“She said, ‘It’s terminal.’ ”
Garry immediately returned to Lafayette to be with his wife and family, leaving his assistants to coach the team in Little Rock. “It’s terminal” did not mean it was over, not at that moment. It only took a few days for Garry to persuade M.D. Anderson to take Andrea back.
Andrea resumed treatment at the Texas hospital, but even her renowned optimism could not endure. When she started having vision problems, a team of doctors flocked to her because that likely meant the cancer also was in her brain. It was. Garry couldn’t bring himself to tell her it was also in her spinal fluid. This time, there was nothing M.D. Anderson’s doctors could do.
Andrea’s final months were difficult for everyone. Garry stayed with the team at the urging of athletic director Scott Farmer. He said he was grateful for the opportunity to focus on something other than his wife’s sickness, but his team could see through his mask. They could hear his voice break in practice.
They felt it, too. She was their second mom.
“It was tough to see him in the shape that he was in and to see her, because we knew her and how strong she was,” Arceneaux said. “It was like, ‘Wow, is this really happening to Miss Andrea?’ They say you should never question God, but it was like, ‘Why Miss Andrea, of all people? Why?’ ”
Before the cancer, Andrea was at every game, but she stopped coming last year. This beautiful woman did not want to appear in public because of the way her illness was making her look. It killed Garry to see her suffering. He kept asking her to come, and so did his players.
“Before every game, she would text me a long message saying how she wanted to be there,” Veal said. “One day I texted her and said I think she should come, (that) everybody would be happy to see her.”
Then, a breakthrough. Andrea was given a trial drug, and she started to feel more like herself again. It was about this time last year, and Garry told Andrea he booked a room for the two of them in New Orleans for the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
They were planning to leave on a Tuesday, and she told him on Monday that she was coming along. Garry was smiling and cryingsimultaneously as he recalled telling his team that Andrea would be there.
“I didn’t tell the kids — the players — at all,” Garry said. “When I got in the locker room, right before the game — we were playing Troy, and Troy had beat us twice — I said, ‘Man, y’all’s favorite fan is here today. Your momma’s here.’ They all started crying.”
Andrea didn’t miss another game that year, and the Cajuns caught fire. They lost a hard-fought game to Arkansas State in the second round of the tournament but won four straight to win the Women’s Basketball Invitational title.
There’s a picture framed in the Brodhead home, one of Garry’s favorites. Front and center in that photo is a radiant Andrea, one of the Earl K. Long Gym nets around her neck, people celebrating in the background. For that captured moment in time, she was her old self. Beautiful and happy.
Less than six months later, on Sept. 10, 2015, Andrea couldn’t hang on any more. She was 56 years old when she died. In her last days, she let her husband know she regretted not having more time to spend with her kids and her grandkids, to see her son get married, to see her husband practice his passion one more time.
“That was one of the things she was struggling with at the end of her life,” Garry said. “She said she was waiting for this opportunity for me because it was important; she helped me to do it. Now she was going to miss it. She said, ‘I know y’all are going to win and y’all can be successful; I want to still be here for that.’ She said it’s going to be big-time.”
PART III: Legacy
The seed was planted so long ago. Its roots have touched a surprising number of people.
The three biological Brodhead children — Ashley, Blair and Beau — made a decision at their mom’s request last year not to continue running the Biddy basketball program. She didn’t want them to burden themselves in her name, and they didn’t see how they could possibly do it, anyway. Ashley had three kids, Blair had one and Beau was in college. Plus, all of them are eight years apart; they’re all so different, and they couldn’t manage to make it all come together like Andrea did.
“Then, at the funeral, we had so many people, so many players, so many coaches, so many parents that came to us saying what a legacy my mom had left,” Ashley said. “We all had the same idea. When we finally talked, we realized it’s more than basketball. We can’t not provide this for the area.”
It has been a collective effort in the first year without their mom. None of Garry and Andrea’s children has been blessed with Andrea’s single-minded drive to get things done. They marvel at the toil their mother went through now that they’re trying to replicate what she did.
But each of them had their own unique talent. They were puzzle pieces that combined to form an Andrea facsimile. The Biddy basketball program is humming along now under Garry and Andrea’s progeny — as best as they can make it go.
“We took what each of us was good at and made a Complete Andrea Project,” Ashley said. “It was amazing, the teamwork out of my siblings.”
Andrea’s hundreds of non-biological children have a made a commitment to keep her memory alive, too. The four seniors on the Ragin’ Cajuns women’s team will be carrying that “AB” patch around the court with them for their second mom this week at the Sun Belt tournament in New Orleans, in the same building where Andrea raised their spirits with her presence last season.
“This season, we used her as our motivation to keep going, to try and do and win for her,” Arceneaux said. “For the seniors especially, for the people that know her, it’s about doing it for her, because we know how much she loved us and believed in us.”
Those seniors likely won’t be the last to come through the Cajuns program with Andrea’s fingerprints on them. Andrea was involved with the Biddy program until 2014, and Garry said there are girls going through 10th grade now who spent nights eating Miss Andrea’s food and enjoying her company.
“There’s still more to come — way more young kids coming up in the area want to play,” Broussard said.
This is Andrea and Garry’s legacy. It started with a confident young girl walking across a pasture to introduce herself. With a young couple wanting to make sure their daughter got the opportunity to do what she wanted, then wanting to provide that opportunity for everybody else’s daughters and sons.
It didn’t end when Andrea died, because of the impact she had on those she left behind — on her own kids who all have a piece of her and on the others to whom she gave every bit of herself.
“I think the legacy for my wife is going to carry on through my kids,” Garry said. “They’re not going to let it die, because ... they’re going to talk about her.”
They’re going to talk about basketball, yes, but between the lines they’ll talk about sacrifice and determination. They’re also going to talk about love, because that’s really what this whole thing has been about from the beginning.
Beau recalled one of the last things his mom ever said to him: “Beau, continue to love, love, love. Love everybody, no matter what. Give people a fair chance.”
A seed was planted on Verot School Road nearly 50 years ago when Andrea Doucet said hello.
It still grows, even after Andrea Brodhead said goodbye.
Follow Luke Johnson on Twitter, @LukeJohnsonAdv.