June 12, 2008
By Adam Lucas
When Rob Wooten went to one knee, opened the box, and asked Katie Thomas to marry him, she didn't say yes.
The Tar Heel relief pitcher had been planning for this day for two weeks. He'd kept the ring out of sight of everyone, secure in his room. He'd lit candles, he'd arranged roses. But on the chosen day--December 15, 2007--Katie didn't see the flowers. She just saw the glittering ring in her boyfriend's hand, and she knew exactly what it was.
Her eyes widened and her heart skipped a beat, and all she could say was, "Is that my mom's ring?"
The ring did indeed belong to Markie Thomas, Katie's mother. It was a gift the previous Christmas, and it was gorgeous.
And now, if Katie could ever stop crying, if she could ever stop thinking about the past 38 days--"I had gone from one day having the perfect life to the next day having the worst day of my life, and I had to know that things weren't ever going to be OK again," Katie says now--it was going to be her ring.
She knew she wanted to say yes. And she would, eventually. As soon as she stopped thinking about the heartbreaking--and heartwarming--events that had landed that ring in the hands of the man who was seconds from becoming her fiancé.
If you're a Tar Heel fan, this has happened to you before. An arch-rival is playing in a televised game--any sport. Said arch-rival, say Duke, loses. Instantly your phone rings, and it's a Carolina buddy wanting to revel in the glory of the loss.
Rob Wooten had that buddy--his girlfriend's mom.
That's the kind of fan Markie Thomas was. Wooten and Katie Thomas, a Sanford native, had started dating in 2005. Sometimes years run together and get jumbled. Not for Wooten, who was a loyal Carolina fan long before he ever became a Diamond Heel when he enrolled in the fall of 2004. He knows exactly what year he started dating Katie. "The same year we won the national championship," he says, and he's talking about Roy Williams's 2005 basketball Tar Heels.
Katie wasn't quite as committed to the Tar Heels, but her mother--a 1973 graduate--was fanatical.
"They would call each other during games," Katie says. "At the end of last season Rob and I were watching a game together. Duke was playing Clemson. Duke made a shot to win it but there was something funny with the clock and Rob's phone rang right away. I heard my mom say, `I can't believe that happened.' And Rob said, `They cheated.' That's the kind of fans they both were."
It's hard not to appreciate that kind of fandom. At some point, we've all made that call. You're not watching the game with someone, but you know they're watching it, too. No need to ask if they saw it. You know them, and you know they were as exasperated as you were.
In 2006, Katie had taken virtually every dollar of her babysitting money to buy a plane ticket to Omaha to watch the 2006 College World Series. Her father was skeptical. Her mother was excited: "I'd do it," she said to her daughter. When the Tar Heels made a return trip in 2007, Markie Thomas joined her daughter in Omaha. She wanted to see Katie's boyfriend pitch at Rosenblatt Stadium, yes. But she also went because she loved the Tar Heels and that's just what fans do.
On Nov. 7, 2007, Wooten was sitting in class when he received a text from pitching coach Scott Forbes, a Sanford native: "Call me right now."
Wooten's first thought: "What did I do?"
He stepped into the hall to call Forbes and heard his coach say, "You need to come by here." At the same time they were talking, Wooten missed a call from Katie's sister and a call from Katie's best friend. Three calls in the span of five minutes. That's when he knew something was wrong.
What Forbes knew, and what was quickly making its way through the close-knit town of Sanford, was that Markie Thomas has been on her way to work that morning at the same dentist's office where she had worked for 34 years. Somehow, her car left the road and slammed into a tree. She died instantly at the age of 54. In the ensuing days, Sanford-area florists would run out of flowers and 1,500 people would turn out for her funeral.
When he finished his conversation with Forbes, Wooten prepared to go see his coach.
"I got my stuff and left class," he says. "My sister called and she was crying. She told me what had happened. Life stopped right then. Katie didn't know, because she was at work. I called her best friend back in about 10 minutes, and I could hear Katie screaming and crying in the background. That was by far the worst moment of my life. I could hear her, but I couldn't imagine what she was feeling. It was awful."
Wooten left Chapel Hill immediately and drove straight to Sanford. He wouldn't leave for nearly two weeks.
"What Rob did for me that meant so much was that he never tried to tell me things were going to be OK," Katie says. "People say a lot of stupid things when something like that happens, and soon you get tired of hearing it's going to be OK, because you know it's not going to be OK. Rob understood that."
Shortly after the funeral, Katie's father approached Wooten. He asked the question that has shaken the hearts of even the most stout of males over the generations.
"Do you and Katie have any plans for the future?"
Right then, every possible answer rattles through your mind. Is he saying he wants there to be plans? Or maybe he doesn't want there to be plans? Maybe right now he needs his girl and doesn't want me to take her away.
The couple knew they wanted to be together. But Wooten knew he wanted a steady job, wanted a way to provide for his wife. He was just a college senior with a fairly uncertain professional future that could involve living anywhere in America and would likely include a significant amount of bus rides.
As it turned out, Katie's father wasn't trying to be intimidating--he was trying to be helpful. He wanted Rob to have the ring Markie had been given the previous Christmas, the one that was an upgrade on her original engagement ring.
"I had been thinking a lot about it," Wooten says. "Right then, that ring started burning a hole in my pocket."
With the help of Tim Federowicz and Federowicz's girlfriend, he began planning the proposal. Katie never suspected anything. For 38 days after her mother's death, she grieved. On Dec. 15, the clouds finally lifted. It wasn't that Katie stopped feeling sad. It was that she remembered it was OK to be happy. It was one month, one week, and one day after Markie's death.
"All I knew was that we were going out to dinner that night," she says. "I tried to convince him we didn't need to go to Chapel Hill, that we should go somewhere close to home because for that entire month, I never wanted to leave home. But I remember thinking that day when I was getting ready for dinner that I wanted to tell Rob thank you for everything he had done. I didn't want to thank him for anything more than being there for me, because he didn't have to do that."
When he proposed, with that ring, there were tears--and eventually there was a "yes."
Slowly, life moved on. Two months later, Wooten was standing on the third-base foul line in Boca Raton, Florida, listening to the national anthem before Carolina's season opener against Florida Atlantic. He closed his eyes, said a brief prayer, and suddenly felt a strong presence he hadn't expected.
"I felt Katie's mom there so strongly," he says. "And when the anthem was over, I went straight into the dugout, grabbed the Sharpie that Coach Fox uses to make out the lineup, and wrote her initials on my hat."
That's where they've stayed for the remainder of the 2008 season. The Tar Heels have a host of different uniforms, and on every one of them, you'll find the initials "MT" just above the brim of Wooten's cap.
Katie wasn't in Boca, so she didn't see his uniform alteration. It wasn't until the Tar Heels played a home game that she wandered down to the fence after the game to exchange their usual postgame greetings and saw her mother's initials staring back at her.
"That's just like Rob," Katie says. "He didn't do it to impress anybody. He didn't tell anybody he did it. He did it because he wanted to and because she loved him like he was her own son."
Katie picks dresses and samples cake without the mother of the bride. She goes to work every day in the same dentist's office where her mom worked for over three decades. Occasionally, a patient will wrap her in a hug without saying anything, and she knows what they are thinking.
The wedding date has been set for October 25, 2008, which as Rob can tell you without hesitation, "is the day we play Boston College at home." Like Markie Thomas, he's the type of fan who has the football schedule committed to memory four months before the first kickoff.
She's also the type who might have tried to squeeze in both a football game and a wedding on the same day. The thought makes Wooten smile.
"You know what?" he says. "She just might."
A scholarship has been established at UNC to honor the memory of Markie Thomas and provide funds for students who have demonstrated high standards of excellence in the dental school. Contributions can be made to:
Dental Foundation of North Carolina
UNC School of Dentistry
CB# 7450 1090 Old Dental
Chapel Hill, NC 27599
FOR: Markie Thomas Wicker Dental Hygiene Memorial Scholarship