The ‘White Tornada’: Donovan plays the game with heavy, full heart

Published 1:09 pm Tuesday, May 15, 2018


On April 8, the world learned something about Karleigh Donovan.

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“Sorry, I sway a lot when I get nervous,” she said.

That was the unsolicited apology the redshirt junior slugger offered immediately after she gave a live, nationally televised interview on ESPNU following a dramatic 3-2 comeback win by Longwood University’s softball team over visiting rival Liberty University. Yes, she swayed, a little. But with tens of thousands of viewers watching her field unscripted questions alone at home plate via a headset, who can blame her?

Donovan earned that postgame interview by way of a game-winning two-run homer that propelled the Lancers to a series-clinching win over the Flames on ESPN’s flagship college sports network. It was a shot seen around the world — literally — and it made Donovan a household name for Lancer Nation and all others who tuned in that day. But despite the airtime she earned with that game-changing homer, there is more to the designated player from Dinwiddie that didn’t make the airwaves. Even during her three-minute interview with ESPNU commentators Cara Capuano and Leigh Dakich, Donovan had no opportunity to give a shoutout to two individuals whose memories she carries with her — literally — every game.

If Donovan could have done so, she would have flashed two pieces of jewelry that are just as much a part of her Longwood uniform as her batting glove and cleats. The first of those is a bracelet on her wrist imprinted with the words “Band Together for Trevor,” which she wears in honor of a family friend who passed away in 2012 when he was only 2 years old. The second is a more recent addition to her gameday attire — a dog tag that sits tucked underneath her jersey and rests close enough to her heart to pick up every beat. Engraved upon the tag is a jagged line and the scripted words “‘White Tornada’ — Love you, Poppy.”

It’s an homage to her grandfather, who coined the nickname ‘White Tornada’ for Donovan when she was an energetic, white-haired whirlwind of a child. His name was Poppy, and Donovan’s nickname is written exactly as he pronounced it in his trademark drawl. That slow, southern twang was in Donovan’s ear since nearly the day she was born, when Poppy and his wife, Donovan’s “Nanny,” adopted her as their granddaughter. They were Donovan’s mother’s unofficial adopted parents as well and treated their grandchildren — both Donovan and her brother — as if they were their own.

The font on Donovan’s dog tag is Poppy’s own handwriting, an everlasting reproduction of a heartfelt note to his adopted granddaughter. However, that note is the last Poppy will ever write to his granddaughter. It was etched posthumously. On Jan. 2, just three days before Donovan was to return to Longwood’s campus for spring semester and begin practicing for the upcoming season, Poppy passed away after a long battle with cancer. The jagged line on Donovan’s dog tag represents an EKG readout of his last heartbeat, the final moment of life for a man who Donovan says played a large role in making her into the person she is today.

“He kept me straight as I grew up and made sure I always respected everyone around me,” Donovan said. “He was one of those people that would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. He was such a kind soul.”

Poppy’s fight with cancer was long and, Donovan says, difficult to watch. She saw her grandfather’s condition deteriorate to the point where he became incoherent at times and couldn’t go anywhere without a ventilator. On visits to the hospital, she would walk the grounds with him only to see him tire quickly.

“It broke my heart to see him that way,” she said. But even after watching her grandfather slowly lose his foothold against disease, Donovan and her family received a glimmer of hope late in 2017. Poppy began responding to his treatments and eventually improved to the point that his doctors believed leaving the hospital was a possibility. Poppy told his White Tornada that one of his first stops when he got healthy would be Lancer Field to watch her play softball for the first time since high school.

“Poppy told me that he would make it out to see me play this year once he got better,” Donovan said. “I worked so hard to make sure that I would be good for the day he made it out to come watch me play.” But that day would never come. Poppy regressed, and after his long battle, he finally succumbed to the disease on Jan. 2. Three days later, Donovan returned to Longwood’s campus to join her teammates for the Lancers’ first practice before the 2018 season.

“[Lancers Head Coach Kathy Riley] called me the night before he passed away to check on me, and I explained to her how I thought things were looking up for my Poppy and that he was supposed to get out soon,” Donovan said. “But then I got the call from Uncle Kurt one morning telling me Poppy had passed away earlier.”

“Losing him was very hard. It still is very hard to cope with.”

The news was doubly hard to come to terms with for Donovan, whose success as a collegiate softball player was driven in large part by a desire to make her Poppy proud. She says Poppy was not a sports fan, and he saw softball as simply a hobby that his granddaughter was passionate about. However, Donovan began to change his perspective as her softball career unfolded, and she began helping Longwood win title after title after title.

“I would always tell him how hard I’ve worked to earn a starting role on Longwood’s softball team because Coach Riley didn’t really recruit me,” Donovan said. “I started off at Radford (University) and transferred, and Coach Riley was just willing to give me a second chance. I’ve had to work so hard to get where I am at because I have had three knee surgeries, one of which I wasn’t ever supposed to come back from.”

“Poppy and Nanny knew about all that, and they just told me to be careful and not hurt myself. I just wanted to show him that even after everything I’ve been through, I was able to play Division I softball.”

As Lancer fans have seen since she came to Farmville three years ago, Donovan has done much more than simply ‘play’ Division I softball. She is among the top hitters in Longwood’s lineup, which is saying quite a bit for a team that has won four of the past six Big South Championships. She was firmly entrenched as Longwood’s cleanup hitter and this season, across 54 games, batted .333 with 33 RBIs, helping Longwood to a 38-16 record and an 18-6 mark against Big South opponents.

She won three Big South Championships in three years and played a major role in making the Lancers contenders once again this season. And while Donovan has done much to contribute to Longwood’s success over the past four seasons, her teammates and coaches have done as much for her since Poppy passed. Her fellow Lancers welcomed her back to campus in the days following his death, and playing softball has served as a much-needed outlet for channeling her grief.

“Softball has kept me from going down a very dark road,” Donovan said. “Coach checks on me every now and then to make sure that I’m OK mentally, because she knows that it wasn’t easy for me to lose him. Having my teammates’ support also played a huge role of coping with losing him. My teammates are my second family.”

“It still gets to me some days that he’s gone, but I just try my hardest to make sure that I make him proud up in Heaven,” she said.

Donovan says Poppy is always on her mind, especially in moments like the one she enjoyed as she rounded the bases after her go-ahead home run against Liberty in that televised game on ESPNU. She believes he’s able to watch all of her games now and that he had a front row seat for that game-changing homer. Of course he probably had a great view of the postgame interview too. Surely, he didn’t mind the swaying. After all, he knows better than anyone that it’s hard for a White Tornada to stand still.

The ‘White Tornada’ Donovan plays the game with heavy, full heart. Longwood University redshirt junior softball standout Karleigh Donovan smiles while suited up in her game uniform that includes a key personal touch — a dog tag etched with an homage to her grandfather.