Close family bolsters MU volleyball's Brittney Brimmage

Thursday, December 1, 2011 | 9:42 p.m. CST; updated 10:34 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 1, 2011
Missouri opposite hitter and middle blocker Brittney Brimmage walks across the court during the Missouri vs University of Texas game on Saturday night at Hearnes Center. It was Brimmage's senior night.

COLUMBIA — On the sideline, Brittney Brimmage stands with her teammates, bobbing her head and singing.

Brimmage, a senior middle blocker/outside hitter from East St. Louis, Ill., is third in the Big 12 Conference in attack percentage and has 8.9 kills per match. The Tigers will be relying on her Friday when Missouri (21-12) plays No. 17 Florida (24-5) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Friday's NCAA Tournament opener

Missouri (21-12, 7-9 Big 12)
vs. No. 17 Florida (24-5, 17-3 SEC)

WHEN: 5 p.m
WHERE: McLeod Center, Cedar Falls, Iowa

ONLINE: The match will be broadcast free on the Mizzou Network, which can be accessed online here.  

Missouri is 8-9 in NCAA tournament competition and 5-4 in the first round. The Tigers and the Gators have never met. In 2011, they played three common opponents. Missouri is 1-4 against those three while Florida is 3-1.

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As Brimmage continues singing, which she says helps keep her teammates loose, it is easy to see she enjoys her role as an important part of the Tigers' program.

But before Brimmage came to Missouri, she experienced some hardships. She grew up in a single-parent household with her mother, Cynthia Whittley, and two sisters, Ambrea and Kelly.

"It wasn't a horrible life. It was pretty tough, but we all made it through," Brimmage said of her childhood.

Brimmage said she has never seen or talked to her father, and her mother doesn't talk about him. So Whittley had to work extra hard to give the Brimmage sisters everything they needed. Sometimes, this meant that Whittley, a second-grade teacher in St. Louis, had to miss days of work to travel to her daughters' high school track meets or volleyball games where she volunteered as the scorekeeper.

"Of course, I wanted my dad to be there, but he wasn't, so therefore my mom was, like, totally independent," Brimmage said. "We were her main thing to be concerned about. We always came first. She put us ahead of herself." 

As a potential Division I college volleyball player, Brimmage could have been considered to be at a disadvantage because she didn't play club volleyball like many of her teammates and the players she competes against.

"By East St. Louis being a poverty-stricken area, we just did not have the fund resources to accommodate an AAU or club volleyball program," Hubert Butler, Brimmage's high school volleyball coach, said. "It was just too expensive."  

Although the Brimmage family struggled financially, Whittley said God made up the difference.

"The big thing that helped her to develop was God," Whittley said of her daughter. "We put God first. I raised them in church."

Brimmage said she put her trust in God to overcome some of the early challenges in her life.

"You know when you believe in something, you believe that something is going to happen. If you're going through a struggle, then you're gonna believe that God will bring you out of it," Brimmage said. "I mean it doesn't really matter what the specific thing is. I just know that there have been many instances, and I always believed God would pull me through."

One of these instances came during her freshman year with the Tigers. She had a condition where blood wasn't flowing properly to a bone in her foot, meaning the bone was slowly dying.

Brimmage wasn't left with much of a choice. She had an experimental operation performed on the dying bone, where a healthy tendon was removed and put in the bone. Brimmage said that without this procedure, there was a good chance she couldn't have played volleyball again.

Dorthy McGrath, Brimmage's aunt, was a second mother to the Brimmage sisters, and she attended most of their track meets and volleyball matches. If the Brimmage sisters were spending time with a relative, it was usually with McGrath.

Ambrea Brimmage, the oldest of the three sisters, said McGrath took them to Miracle Deliverance Temple, a church in East St. Louis. The Brimmage family still goes to that church when Brittney and Ambrea are home from college.

"We just had a real strong connection with her," Ambrea Brimmage said.

This strong connection made McGrath's death from breast cancer in 2003 harder for the Brimmage sisters to deal with. They saw her as the glue that held the family together.

"Everyone just always ended up over there (McGrath's house) because she was always having family gatherings at her house," Brittney Brimmage said. "If one family member was over there, then everyone else would end up over at her house. Her house was like the family bonding house."

That all changed after McGrath died. 

"It kind of did break the family apart and whither our faith a little bit," Ambrea Brimmage said.

Brittney Brimmage noticed that after McGrath's death there were not as many family gatherings and that some family members moved away from East St. Louis.

After McGrath's death, Brittney Brimmage was the one who helped the family through difficult times.

"When she died, I had to be the strong person in the room when everyone else was crying," Brittney Brimmage said. "I had to be the person who was there supporting them."

Later on, Brittney Brimmage admitted that she cried. However, at the time, she felt like it was more important to comfort the family, even if that meant hiding her emotions.

Whittley's voice lowered for a second when she talked about some of the tough times the family went through, including the death of McGrath. Whittley said her middle daughter, Brittney Brimmage, was the rock for the family.

"Her older sister is more emotional, but Brittney, even though she might have gotten emotional, she was the strong one who brought us together," Whittley said.

Ambrea Brimmage recalled how her sister was able to make the family laugh after their aunt's death.

"First of all, Brittney is goofy. She's crazy," Ambrea Brimmage said. "So anytime we were down about something, she would do something to make us all laugh and snap back to reality."

On one occasion, the Brimmage family was playing a board game in the dark because the power was out. So Brittney Brimmage thought it was a good idea to come up from behind them and say "Boo!" Her two sisters jumped at first and then turned around and laughed.

Through moments like this one, Ambrea and Brittney Brimmage grew closer to one another. They became so close that some of Whittley's friends started to call them "the Brimmage twins."

"We are like, 'We're not twins; we are 14 months apart,'" Brittney Brimmage said. 

Brittney Brimmage isn't sure when or how this "twins" nickname started. She laughed about how their mother dressed them like twins when they were younger. This wasn't just for special occasions like Easter or Christmas, either. She would pick out identical outfits no matter the occasion.

The Brimmage sisters joked about how their mother also had them play the same sports. Ambrea Brimmage said their mother knew an athletic scholarship was probably the best way to have her children get a college education. 

"I'm guessing mom wanted her to say, 'Hey, big sister did it, so I can do it too,'" Ambrea Brimmage said.

The Brimmage twins didn't end up playing the same sports in college, though.

Ambrea Brimmage, a senior at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, received a track and field scholarship and won the Sun Belt Conference Indoor Pentathlon title in 2010.

Sports were usually a source of competition for these sisters. After her older sister set a triple jump record of 37-10 at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Relays in East St. Louis, Ill., Brittney Brimmage set out to beat it. At the 2008 relays, younger sister finally beat her older sister's record with a jump of 38 feet. 

But what happened with the family was always what mattered most, difficult times or not, Ambrea Brimmage said.

"We were all that we had, a small little family," she said.

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