COLD SPRINGS — Regina Willoughby never thought she'd see the day.
The wife of Cold Springs varsity boys coach Tim Willoughby, Regina has watched numerous outings inside of Jesse George Gymnasium, and the atmosphere has never disappointed.
A packed-to-the-rafters crowd waiting to raucously cheer on the Eagles? Check.
A storied venue playing host to a tremendous county rivalry? You bet.
A bevy of fans on both sides proudly displaying their purple attire? Well ... not usually ... especially on the home side.
But Friday's basketball games against Fairview took a rare backseat to something far more important and emotional to each and every person in attendance — and Cullman County was well-represented.
Regina was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer on July 27, and the road since has been anything but smooth.
However, with November being Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, the aforementioned communities teamed up — if only for a brief moment — to serenade Willoughby with love and support in between varsity clashes. Members of Fairview's hoop squads gifted Regina and Tim a single rose, while players from Cold Springs offered additional and more personal mementos, including a signed framed photo and platter, among other things.
Tears were shed, applause was given and hugs were shared.
It's a moment Regina won't soon forget.
"I didn't think I'd ever see this place without the Blue and Gold," she laughed. "Never. But that's just a testament to this fine community. And it's not just Cold Springs. It's Cullman County. I get cards, texts, emails, calls. People praying for us. I can't tell you how touching that is ... to live in a community like this that cares. West Point, Holly Pond, Fairview, Vinemont, Good Hope, Hanceville, Cullman. When you have support like that, I know I can feel it. I feel that peace when people are praying."
And Regina has more encouragement than she could've ever imagined.
Whether it's people driving her to doctor appointments or bringing her food or cleaning her house, Willoughby knows she's one blessed individual ... in spite of all she's dealing with at the moment.
"We've always been independent," she said. "But you have to let other people help you. And, buddy, let me tell you ... that help has been amazing. It's so heartwarming. I hope one day I can repay them. When things get bad, you have to just rely upon family and friends. But more than anything, you've got to rely on God and believe in yourself."
The resounding support hardly comes as a surprise to Cold Springs coach Tammy West, who's seen it time and time again during her long tenure with the Eagles.
West was one of many in attendance who had to wipe away the tears.
"Tonight is why I've been here for 26 years," she said. "This place is special. They pull together for everybody. This isn't the first time we've gone through something like this. Everybody loves everybody and is willing to help everybody. I love seeing everyone out here in purple tonight. It's just great. We respect and love Regina and Tim so much."
Willoughby began her teaching and coaching career at Pinelong Elementary in Cartersville, Ga. — where she first laid eyes on Tim — and has since moved around to Cold Springs, Cullman, Curry and St. Bernard.
Along the way, she started the softball program at Cold Springs and also coached basketball, bowling, tennis and volleyball.
She was also the sixth-grade P.E. teacher of Fairview coach Mary Lauren Hartline.
"Coach Willoughby, she's a special person," Hartline said. "Ever since I've been coaching, she's been so kind and just very supporting. I'm blessed to be a part of this. And I hope she will make a full recovery."
Known as "Rowdy Regina" to her former Cullman Middle School colleagues and "Gina" to those closest to her, Willoughby is actively involved with the church (Livingston Chapel) and is a leader at Chapel Hands Mission House, a place near and dear to her heart since its inception five years ago.
The soon-to-be grandmother of three is one of Cracker Barrel's best customers — she doesn't cook and has absolutely zero desire in learning how — and begins every story worth telling with, "Hey, listen."
She was also her husband's bookkeeper and sidekick every season on the basketball court and even took home the jerseys for a good old-fashioned washing after each contest until her recent diagnosis.
Now, it's Tim who takes care of Regina.
The former has assumed a new role as the latter's primary caregiver. He gives his wife of 31-plus years shots twice daily for her condition and administers antibiotics through her IV as well.
Though Tim offered to give up coaching in light of their unfortunate circumstances, Regina would have none of it.
"This has been our lives for 30-something years," she said. "Our kids have grown up in gyms. And here's the thing ... it was important to Tim to coach. He wanted to be with me all the time, but he needed his own life. He needed those kids as much as those kids needed him. When he quits coaching, we're just going to be two old people sitting around the house and only doing nothing. And that ain't us. If we didn't have somewhere to go on Tuesday and Friday nights, we'd be lost."
Though the initial news of his wife's condition "hit him like a punch," an emotional Tim said he was able to heed Regina's wish and return to the court ... but only after finding out the situation wasn't as dire as originally thought.
"When you first hear that from the doctors ... that she wasn't going to have much time ... when you hear that, everything just changes," he said. "It's a body blow, and your world is turned upside down. I didn't see how I could do it. There was such an overwhelming hopelessness inside of me. But a couple days later, we found out things weren't as bad for Gina. And then all you can do from that point forward is take it one step at a time and one day at a time. Whatever happens to any of us in this life, hope can always be restored."
Regina is presently undergoing chemotherapy — her last round came on Thursday — at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Georgia, a place she "can't speak highly of enough."
"If my treatments weren't working, I couldn't be here tonight," she said. "It was a shock, and the picture painted wasn't really always the brightest. But God opened up a door for us here at the Cancer Treatment Centers. There's no negativity, and my doctors and nurses couldn't be better. I really think I'm winning this battle. I hope I'm ringing that little bell this summer. I can see it now. I'm amazed by them."
Added Tim: "We started hearing stories from pancreatic cancer survivors there, and it really gave us hope. Gina's just doing so great. Her attitude is great. She's handling this better than I ever could."
Regina only exudes positivity, even if nobody would blame her for doing the exact opposite, especially on the much tougher days of her life when the sickness can almost become too much to handle.
Talk to those around her, though, and most can't tell much of a difference in the 59-year-old superstar.
Regina is always encouraging people through her illness and still goes out of her way to help out someone in need.
And though she's never been a woman who's sought attention, she couldn't help but smile and cherish every single moment on Friday night.
The outpouring of emotional support and kind words she's received since that dreadful day in July is a big reason why she won't ever let the tall and unenviable task of defeating cancer stand in the way of enjoying what life still has to offer.
To put it frankly, she simply won't let it win.
"You have to have goals," Regina said. "They may be honoring me tonight, but there are two men who live nearby who are cancer survivors. And there's a teacher at Fairview who has cancer as well. The first thing they tell you is to go about things with a positive attitude. You have to take the good with the bad. Sometimes, I'm mean and have bad days. But I say to myself, 'I'm going to beat this.' I want people to know there's always hope for you. You can't ever give up. Never give up. And with everyone so thoughtful and lifting me up in their prayers, I know God is going to lead me through this."