The following story, written by Dom Palumbo, was originally published on UTsports.com.
College is a span of time often described as the "best four years of my life" by many who are fortunate enough to attend. The experience is almost always what the individual makes of it. There are classes to attend, social gatherings to be a part of, clubs to join and a plethora of other opportunities that can fill a young person's life. Each event is designed to shape, mold and grow individuals into who they want to become, while leading them on a path for future success.
Lady Vol for Life and former UT All-American softball player Meghan Gregg is a prime example of someone who squeezed every ounce out of her college experience.
Gregg's story begins on her family's peach farm in Williamson, Georgia. She grew up in a family of all boys, helping her parents run their 60-acre farm, chucking peaches around with her brother and finding early joy in baseball and tee-ball.
"Well, besides throwing peaches-I guess that's probably where it started-really, I just started playing baseball with my brother," Gregg said. "I'm in a family of all boys, so really, I was thrown into all-boys sports all the time. I didn't actually start playing softball until I was nine, I think. I played rec baseball and tee-ball and was a boys' baseball pitcher at one time."
Her parents almost immediately saw her ability, placed her on a local softball travel team and allowed her to continue to improve and dominate much of the youth softball circuit.
"Softball really isn't big around (my hometown)," Gregg said. "Which is why I started in baseball. My parents saw that I was pretty good, so they found a few small travel teams around here. I started with the Southside Lady Pistols. We had no organization at all. We were just a bunch of girls thrown together and having a good time. We ended up going to big tournaments and beating organizations that were supposedly top notch, and that was a lot of fun. We were this no-name team coming from middle-of-nowhere Georgia and beating everyone.
"That's how it started for me. After that, I started joining bigger teams and really had to travel a lot. The closest practice to me was about an hour and a half away, just because there isn't much here. Softball has really built up now, which I'm really happy about. But when I (was playing youth softball), there was nothing. There was rec ball for each county and all-stars. So, we had to broaden our spectrum with that a bit."
Her prowess on the field began to earn her the wandering eyes of some of the best softball programs in the country. As a sophomore, she gained the attention of Tennessee softball co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly.
"I remember I was in Chattanooga, Tennessee, at a showcase event. My coach came up to me and said, 'Hey, have you heard of the Weeklys at Tennessee?' I said, 'I think so.' He said, 'Well, they want to talk to you.' So, we got a recruiting visit setup. At the time, I was a sophomore in high school.
"(During the visit, the Weeklys) took me to a football game, showed me around campus and I got to meet Pat Summitt, which was and still is the highlight of everything. I went to their practice in the women's basketball practice facility, and I shook her hand, met her and it was the coolest thing ever.
"What really got my attention though, was how much Tennessee athletics put into women's sports. You can't find that at many places. Whatever the guys had, the girls had. I knew that was mostly because of Pat Summitt, but I loved how Ralph and Karen followed suit with Pat. They supported the other women's programs but also held us to a really high standard.
"I also liked how important grades were. I know that sounds really nerdy, but I've known what I've wanted to be from when I was little, and if they weren't going to let me take the classes that I wanted to take, then I wasn't going to go. I asked them, 'What if I have labs, what are your thoughts on that?' They said, 'We're going to make it work.' And I was like, 'Well, I like this.' After my first unofficial visit, I committed."
Gregg, a lifelong University of Georgia fan, was set to come to Rocky Top to don the Orange & White. She chose to major in Kinesiology with a minor in Pre-Pharmacy - a difficult program to take on, while also attacking the rigors of being a collegiate student-athlete.
In her freshman campaign she posted an impressive .314 batting average, slugging 13 homers and tallying 51 RBIs, while starting all 64 games in the Lady Vols' journey to its seventh Women's College World Series appearance.
While that journey was memorable, one key moment that will always stick out for Gregg, was when she received a peculiar email about a new and innovative program Tennessee was set to begin that next Fall.
"I remember when I had gotten the email, we had just gotten on the bus for a road trip," Gregg recalled. "I sat down, checked my email and I saw this email that outlined VOLeaders-I had never heard of it-and it said something about the end goal being a trip to Brazil. I just thought it was one of those emails where you sign up, give them money and then you never go. I remember walking up to Karen at the front of the bus and saying, 'Hey Karen, I got this email...' I told her about it and she said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'So, it's a real thing?' She said, 'Yeah.' Then she pretty much told me everything that I had already read in the email, which I didn't believe at first. I couldn't believe an experience like this could exist and how could UT possibly do this?
"So, she explained what it was and how the interview process worked and how people were picked and everything. That was the first time I realized how big of a deal this was. I remember going through the interview process and just being so nervous, but feeling like I was a part of something bigger than myself."
Entering her sophomore year, the normally quiet and reserved Gregg-who is known as "Turtle" by co-head coach Karen Weekly-walked into the VOLeaders classroom and was immediately forced to try to come out of her normal shell.
"When I started, I was this scared little girl," Gregg said. "Being with Draya (women's basketball LVFL Andraya Carter), she was this huge freak athlete who knew how to talk to someone like boom! And I was sitting there like, 'Oh my gosh, she just said hey to me, what should I say back?' When I got there, I was in my little turtle shell. Karen called me Turtle, because I just rarely came out of my shell. I led by example a little bit, but I just wasn't there.
"I was very green going in, but I went in there and everyone just saw everyone else as equals. I use Draya a lot, because she was the person in our class. But just being able to sit in a room and have a conversation with everyone was amazing. We were always on the same page, and it made it easy for me and I became more comfortable coming out of my comfort zone and shell."
Throughout that year, and specifically during that ensuing softball season, Gregg used the skills she gained in VOLeaders to strive for continued on-field success.
"VOLeaders really opened my eyes to being able to use your team to help you," Gregg said. "When I was down, the biggest thing I worked on from VOLeaders was (that others) didn't know I was down. If I wasn't pumping up the team, there was someone on the team I was looking to, to pick me up. (It's about) inclusion, really. I used that to be able to lead the team, while looking at those to my left and right to uphold that high standard for themselves, too."
After a bit of an abrupt end to the Lady Vols' 2016 campaign in the NCAA Regionals, Gregg's year culminated with a life-changing experiential learning trip to Brazil with her VOLeaders cohort.
"When we got there, the whole year just came together," Gregg said. "I was able to use all that we learned in class. I found my weaknesses, and we got down to some nitty-gritty stuff and being able to do that, I was totally able to be myself when I was in Brazil. I mean, we went there to learn, more than we went there to teach a sport. We were there to understand how important sport is to others. It's hard to put it all into words, and I still get chills when I talk about it now."
Following that life-changing trip, Gregg returned to Knoxville to continue and finish what would become an illustrious career. She helped lead UT to back-to-back super regional appearances-coming within a whisker of heading back to Oklahoma City in both 2017 and 2018. When Gregg concluded her time as a student-athlete in 2018, she ranked in the top 10 in eight different offensive categories for the Orange & White, cementing herself as the program's all-time leader in home runs (57), RBIs (263) and slugging percentage (.718). She was the 2017 SEC Player of the Year, a 2017 and 2018 NFCA All-American and she was named the 2018 Senior Class Award winner.
While being a beast on the field, Gregg was continuing to thrive in the classroom. With the help of her coaches, the Thornton Center staff and an endless amount of support from her fellow Lady Vols, Gregg was given every tool she needed to succeed, despite her difficult schedule.
"(Keeping up with everything) was probably the most stressful part, but my planner was my best friend," Gregg said. "If I didn't have that thing, I would be lost. Also, Caitlin Ryan (in the Thornton Center) was my lifesaver. She always had my back, whether it was her coming on the road to proctor us, or setting up a proctor at other schools. I very vividly remember going to Arizona State and taking my organic chemistry exam at their athletic facility and just thinking, 'Man, this stinks.' But, I said, 'They're figuring it out for me, so I just have to do it.'
"I remember the night before that exam-Ralph likes to take us to his brother's house who lives out in Arizona. So, I remember they threw me in his office to study while we were eating dinner. So, that was hard. But I will say, anytime I needed something, whether it was a tutor, or if I just needed time, needed to leave practice early or get there late, I did it and there was never any backlash. If I ever asked for any extra reps because I missed something, they would do it. It was one less thing I had to worry about, which made it really nice."
She did all of that to follow a dream that transcended her success on the softball diamond. Her grandfather, Chuck Byars, was not only a skilled, southpaw quarterback at the University of Georgia, but he became an extremely successful pharmacist following his time in Athens.
"Growing up, he was my man," Gregg said. "So, knowing that he was a pharmacist-he was always who I looked up to-and knowing that he did that, made me want to be in the medical field since I was like 10."
In following in his footsteps, everything Gregg had learned and worked toward as an undergrad, culminated in what she coined "the most difficult test I've ever taken in my life." The Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT) is the Pharmacy School equivalent to the SAT, testing a student's proficiency in key areas of study that they will need to succeed. It is a test with an immense amount of information that for many take up to a year to study for.
"I went to Caitlin, first to talk with her about planning it, and then she got me a PCAT study book, which I swear to you was 50 pounds. I started looking through it, and it was everything I had learned in college down to the specifics. I just had to sit down-that's why I say my planner came in handy-because there were X number of chapters and I had to devote every day to a chapter. Highlighting, reading, re-writing, making note cards, doing all of that to get through the book and then going through those study notes again."
Following her graduation in May of 2018, Gregg had a number of pharmacy schools to choose from before ultimately deciding to return home and attend the University of Georgia, just like her Paw Paw, Chuck. She is entering her third year of classes this Fall before beginning her work rotations in the Fall of 2021. In between challenging semesters of school, Gregg has returned home each break to help out on the farm and to further grow the family business where the peaches never stop getting ready. As she nears the completion of pharmacy school and eyes the prospect of becoming a certified pharmacist during a global pandemic and a new-age civil rights movement, she continues to draw upon her experiences at UT for guidance.
"VOLeaders opened my eyes to how important togetherness and inclusion really are, and how quickly things fall apart without it," Gregg said. "We can see it in our country right now. And we saw how important togetherness was while we were in Brazil. So, seeing that, seeing all different walks of life throughout this experience has humbled me and has made me better equipped to see everyone's opinions and views. My eyes have been completely opened to things I never thought of before college. Being in VOLeaders has opened my mind to all of that. I'm more open-minded, and I truly see how important inclusion is. Some people don't see that. They don't see that on both sides of the spectrum, and I wish people could have this same experience that I had so that people can see that it's okay to disagree and still love each other and be together."
Gregg always knew she wanted to become a pharmacist, but never did she know just how much her four years on Rocky Top would impact her holistically.
"Pharmacists are some of the most trusted healthcare workers in the field, and really in any field," Gregg said. "Being able to talk to people and listen is really important. I learned to listen and how to hold a conversation. I learned to hear different thoughts and how to see diversity in a different light, and I'm really happy I had that opportunity. In healthcare, you're helping everyone. There isn't a certain 'type' of person you're helping. You're helping any person who is sick, any person who needs help, and I think I'm able to listen more and be able to better see what I can do to help whoever is in the room with me."