By Matt Welch
Times West Virginian
“It’s nine hours and 13 minutes. Exactly.”
That’s what Ava Fullenweider said when asked how long it takes her to get from her home in New York to Joe Retton Arena on the campus of Fairmont State University, where her grandson, Shammgod Wells, plays basketball.
She knows the trip well. But, of course, so would you if you made it several times a month.
Fullenweider retired from her job as a high school principal to take time off to watch her grandson play basketball at the collegiate level, a deal the two of them made when he was in high school.
“We made a deal a couple of years ago that when he went to school and started college that it'd be about time for me to retire and it just happened to be that time,” she said. “I retired July 1st and he was in the summer school session and I told him I'd be down here to support him.”
You may have seen Fullenweider, or Miss Ava as the basketball team calls her, at basketball games, both men and women. She sits in the crowd like anyone else, waving her pom-poms or holding signs to show her support of the teams.
For her, basketball is more than a sport. It’s a family. And that’s the message she conveys to the young players she comes in contact with through the journey of Well’s start at FSU.
“I think that it's important,” she said, keeping an eye on the women’s game going on at Joe Retton Arena as we spoke. “I not only embrace Shammgod but all of the fellas playing and it was like that in high school. I come with my pom-poms, ask how they're feeling, if there's something I can do for them. I go out to the dorms and check on everybody. Like Caleb (Davis) was sick so I got to talk to him and pep him up.”
Davis said that the time spent with his roommate’s grandmother has been special to him, with his family being hours away in North Carolina.
“Lately she just talks to me about getting healthy. She tells me to pray a lot,” the freshman point guard said.
And even though Davis talks to his mother every day on the phone, he still appreciates when Miss Ava checks in on him.
“I like it a lot. You always need someone to talk to. She acts just like my mom so she reminds me of my mom,” he said.
Fullenweider has been around basketball for most of her life, welcoming in Wells’ father, God Shammgod, and informally adopting him into her family along with later being heavily involved in her grandson’s life on the hardwood.
Now, though, both father and son are in school and remain in athletics as Shammgod is an undergraduate student assistant coach at Providence, where he played his college ball.
“Big Shamm was with me for a long time. I kind of adopted him. I go to his games, too,” the 60-year-old Fullenweider said. “We all went up there to the UMASS game when Shamm was home to see his (dad’s) team play. It's really important to support him, too. I want Shamm to know that it's important to support each other. I spread myself thin but I love what I do.”
Learning from his grandmother, Wells has been very understanding of the need to support others and gives of his time freely, she said.
“Little Shamm is so giving. He says, ‘Grandma, Dad needs you because he wants you to look over his paper. And make sure you do that before you come down here,’” she said. “There's definitely no jealousy. That's hard to do.”
And Wells knows that his grandmother would do the same thing, as she spends time with other players on campus, not just her grandson.
“She's the team grandma. If anybody on the team needs anything or needs help with anything, they can call her and she'll help them. She wants to be that person that's there for everyone,” Wells said. “Everybody loves her and, truthfully, I feed off of her energy. When she comes to me before the game, she's just the most fired-up person and that's where I get my energy.”
It’s true that Fullenweider cheers to the best of her abilities, telling player to make their free throws, to make a good pass or to play together as a team.
“She's great. She's very energetic. During the games she's the main one cheering,” Davis said. “She's the loudest one. She should be in the student section.”
But it’s not just the players who take notice.
Second-year Fairmont State coach Jerrod Calhoun said he’s been aware of the presence of Fullenweider from the time he started recruiting Wells.
“When we recruited Shamm, he was still available and it was late in the year. He fell in love with Fairmont and he said he had to talk it over with his mom, dad and grandma,” Calhoun recalled. “You can tell Shamm’s grandma was someone who was very special to him.”
Fullenweider remembers the recruiting process very well, but it wasn’t just basketball that she and her grandson had to confer about.
“The first thing I did was I went online and saw who graduated, what was the percentage. And what he wanted to do was criminal justice, so I wanted to make sure he gets an education. I want him to know that what he wants he has to work for it,” she said.
Fullenweider said that her first trip to campus, though, wasn’t until after Wells had already accepted the offer and had enrolled in school. But being the former principal that she is, she made sure to check the campus out for herself.
“I'm a retired principal so education is extremely important to me,” she said. “When I first came, I came during the week so I could see what the library was like and get a feel for the school. Even the people here, even though I don't have the padded seats, they'll ask me to sit. So even they embrace me. I like that it’s tight knit.”
And now the tight-knit community that is Fairmont State University has welcomed her in just as they welcome in several thousands of students each semester. And for her grandson, who is nine hours and 13 minutes away from home, a little piece of home has been brought to Fairmont, confirming even more why he fell in love with the Friendly City in the first place.
“When I played at home, she came to every game and now she comes to the games. That just makes me feel like I'm meant to be here,” Wells said.
Fullenweider, too, knows the importance of that support and she hopes the team can grow in that support system for each other.
“Support is important. A lot of times when kids are away so far, they do get lonely. And it's important for them to have someone to talk to, and I want to make sure to leave the door open to talk, not to be judgemental or scold, but to listen,” she said. “I let them know that grandmas can listen.”
Email Matt Welch at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @MattWelch_TWV.