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The Girl With The Super-Sized Heart

by Steve Eubanks - March 17, 2014

Some weeks remind you that there are lots of special people in our game who have nothing to do with the tours.

LeeAnn Noble was one. A junior at the University of North Georgia, a 15,000-student military college tucked in the foothills of the Appalachians, Noble had been one of the first players signed to the relatively new women’s program in 2011 by Nighthawks’ coach Leigh Ann Hunter, who said, “I liked her golf game, but more importantly, I was drawn to her maturity, her positive attitude and how she carried herself.”

That maturity showed in many ways, not the least of which was the role Noble assumed in her third year. As better recruiting brought in better players, a young woman who had played every tournament as a freshman and sophomore suddenly struggled to qualify against her younger, stronger teammates. But rather than grumble or threaten to transfer, Noble embraced her new role as a mentor for the underclassmen.

“She had a lot of drive and determination and competitive spirit,” said UNG athletic director Lindsay Reeves. “But I think the biggest thing her teammates and the rest of the student-athletes learned from her was how kind and giving you can be. More than anything else, LeeAnn wanted to give back.”

She was the one who put an arm around a nervous freshman on the putting green; the one who told a joke to break the tension in a team meeting; the one who made the recruit feel like UNG was the place where she would fit in best. When freshman Shelby Hanna showed up for her first practice as a Nighthawk, it was Noble who invited her to play and made her feel welcome.

“LeeAnn had perspective,” Reeves said. “But I guess that was understandable.”

Her perspective was hard-earned. Noble never played golf until her teens. As a young girl she was a cross-country runner with dreams of becoming a track star. But at age 12, out sledding with friends after a winter storm, she couldn’t catch her breath. She felt faint and weak, as if she were drowning in a sea of air. Her parents assumed it was a respiratory infection. They weren’t expecting a diagnosis of idiopathic cardiomyopathy, which is a multisyllabic medical term for a dying heart.

She was fortunate. Her running had masked the symptoms but also kept her alive. Doctors found a little girl with a heart four times its normal size. She was given a battery of drugs and placed near the top of a transplant list.

“When I first got to the hospital it was awful,” Noble said last fall. “I was beyond scared.”

She didn’t show it. She didn’t cry or talk about what might happen if things didn’t go well. According to her nurses, her biggest concern was that her parents were OK.

Fewer than 400 successful pediatric heart transplants take place worldwide each year. Noble was one of them. She took up golf when the medications put an end to her running and played well enough to earn a Division II scholarship.

“You have to go through the rain to get to the rainbow,” she said often.

"All of our athletes are great, but there are always a few that stand out as special people. LeeAnn was definitely one of those." - Lindsay Reeves, UNG Athletic Director

“She wanted to come here to study nursing,” Hunter said. “She always talked about how the nurses cared so much for her when she was in the hospital and how she wanted to do the same thing for others.”

A Make-A-Wish recipient while she was on the transplant list, Noble spearheaded UNG’s fundraising efforts for the charity, part of a nationwide alliance between Division II athletics and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“Of our 220 student-athletes, she was one of the most active in that program and certainly the most enthusiastic,” Reeves said. “She was always designing posters, selling raffle tickets, getting others organized. She even met with a number of other Make-A-Wish kids and talked to them about her experiences.”

The parents of one Make-A-Wish kid told Noble that her encouraging words had inspired their daughter to have life-saving surgery. “That was an eye-opener for me,” Noble said. “That was the moment I realized that (nursing) was the direction I wanted to take.”

She never made it out of nursing school, but she still inspired. On Jan. 19, Noble had a cardiac event in her room. Unconscious, she fell and hit her head causing cerebral trauma. She never regained function. Monday, March 10, she passed away at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. Sunday, friends, family and teammates said goodbye at the Gainesville (Ga.) First United Methodist Church.

“She wanted to make everyone on her team, everyone she met really, feel happy and comfortable,” Reeves said. “All of our athletes are great, but there are always a few that stand out as special people. LeeAnn was deinitely one of those.”

One story typified a life cut too short. As she was being wheeled into the operating room for her transplant surgery, Noble looked up at her nurses and said, “I hope I get a kind heart.”

“And she did,” her college golf coach said in a voice on the edge of cracking. “She most certainly did.”

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