Tears rolled down Charliss Ridley’s face as she leaned on her crutches and clung to her mother.
After transferring from Indiana to Missouri, taking a semester off from basketball, and then coming to play at Columbia College; Ridley injured her knee, tearing her ACL before the season even started in an event for the Show-Me State Games.
It was August 2003.
Not only would she have to miss half of her first season as a Cougar, but now her mother, her best friend, was leaving her to go back home to Indiana.
“She was just bawling because she knew I had to let go of her,” her mother, Iris Ridley, said.
Now, a year and a half later, Charliss Ridley’s mother will be watching as her daughter takes the floor with the Columbia College women this morning in the first round of the NAIA National Tournament against Lee (Tenn.) University.
Charliss Ridley is the team’s leading scorer and a two-time America Midwest Conference MVP.
Her knee has since healed, and she doesn’t need to lean on crutches anymore.
But she still clings to her mother’s support, and cherishes the bond they’ve shared over the years.
“We talk everyday, sometimes four or five times,” Charliss Ridley said.
It was her mother who encouraged Ridley to stick with basketball through all the bumps in the road.
And without her mother’s urging, she may not have tried the sport at all.
A skinny 9-year-old walked out to the free-throw line. She stared up at the basket. Everything looked so unfamiliar. She had never been on the court before.
Then she sank shot after shot.
Charliss Ridley was the champion of her grade school free-throw shooting contest. Her gym teacher put her in the contest after Iris Ridleyencouraged the teacher to “do something to get Charliss into basketball.”
Before then, Ridley had wanted nothing to do with it.
“No, I want to dance, I want to play Barbies. I’m not into playing basketball,” she said.
After winning the regional contest as well, she agreed to try the game out.
“OK, maybe I’ll play,” she said.
Iris Ridley said she knew her daughter was born to play basketball.
A varsity player herself, in high school at Minneapolis North in Minnesota, Iris Ridley experienced her daughter’s ability firsthand.
“She beat me for the first time when she was 12,” Iris Ridley said.
Charliss Ridley kept on winning through high school, eventually earning a college basketball scholarship.
She chose Indiana, and played in 18 games her freshman year, averaging 4.5 points. She dreamed of playing in the Big 10 since junior high.
“I wanted to make Indiana a force in the Big 10 while I was there,” she said.
Instead, she left the Hoosiers after her freshman year. Ridley said problems with the coaching staff, specifically head coach Kathi Bennett, made her realize it would be best for her to play basketball elsewhere.
For Charliss Ridley, it was devastating to have her best laid plans falter.
“One night I was just so sick to my stomach thinking, maybe it’s not in God’s plan for me to play anymore,” she said.
That’s when she called her mother, who comforted her and reassured her that there would be a place for her.
“God had given Charliss special talent in basketball, and I believed he would find a place for her to use it,” Iris Ridley said.
Seeing her mother’s dedication to her faith inspired Charliss Ridley in her own faith. They share a common belief in God’s plan, which helped them after dreams were dashed at Indiana.
A few weeks later, Missouri coach Cindy Stein offered Charliss Ridley a scholarship.
After sitting out for a year per NCAA transfer regulations, she got to play again in 2002.
She saw action in four games and quit the team in December.
“Some of the girls on the team didn’t like Charliss because she was different,” Iris Ridley said. “She was committed to her beliefs and she didn’t want to go out and party.”
Ridley loved the university and to take classes during winter semester. But basketball again hadn’t worked out.
She didn’t want to lose another year of eligibility by transferring to a NCAA Division I school and thought her career might be over.
When Charliss Ridley went home for winter break in 2003, she sobbed the whole way in the car.
Her mother was determined to find her a new place to play basketball.
She looked on the Internet and clicked on Columbia College, a NAIA school in Columbia with a successful basketball team and business school.
“I was going bananas,” Iris Ridley said. “I started screaming, ‘I’ve found a school for you, Charliss!’”
Charliss Ridley wanted to stay in Columbia, and she had many close friends at Missouri. Her mother thought it was the perfect solution.
It took a little while longer to convince her daughter, but after meeting coach Mike Davis and watching the team play, Charliss Ridley was impressed.
She decided to come to Columbia College and graduate with a business degree in May 2004.
Ridley went on to average 19 points a game for the Cougars in the second half of the season in 2004, after missing the first half due to her torn ACL.
She was the first Cougar to be selected as a second-team All-American.
“Charliss has exceeded all our expectations coming in here,” Davis said. “And this is home for her now.”
Despite earning her degree last year, Ridley stayed on at Columbia College for the 2004-2005 season, earning a triple major in management, international business, and marketing.
“I’m going to go back and help them win a title,” Charliss Ridley told her mother.
She has come a long way from the little girl on the free throw line, from the sobbing young woman in the car, from the injured athlete staggering on crutches.
Yet through all her hardships and struggles, Charliss Ridley has relied on one constant in her life.
A woman who has believed in her daughter and been there for her through everything.
“My joy is giving,” Iris Ridley said. “I was so happy to have her, I was just crying.
“I always knew through our lives we were going to affect the world."