Cindy McConkey: ‘Playing in the big leagues now’

Cindy posing with HGTV’s “Cousins Undercover” at a 2014 fundraiser for Rebuilding Together Knoxville at Scripps headquarters in West Knoxville. At left is John Colaneri with his cousin, Anthony Carrino.

Cindy McConkey, groundbreaking sportswriter, public relations professional and non-profit manager, passed away at age 58 last month after a four-year battle with biliary liver cancer. An avid athlete and outdoor enthusiast, she commented proudly to her husband just 10 days before her death that she had played tennis against a 30-year-old that day “and kicked her ass!”

Cindy was like that. Fiercely competitive. That fact led broadcaster Hallerin Hilton Hill, who was the emcee at her memorial service at Fellowship Church last Saturday, to observe, “Cindy had cancer. But cancer never had Cindy. Death cannot bench her. She’s playing in the big leagues now.” That made us all smile.

So did this observation by her colleague Larsen Jay. Cindy had revealed on the CaringBridge journal site last month that she was in liver failure and was going into hospice care. She said her doctor gave her more or less two months to live. She died two days later. “It’s the only time she’s ever been early to anything in her entire life,” Jay said.

He is the founder of the non-profit Random Acts of Flowers, which recycles flowers and bouquets for delivery to the needy and others in health care facilities who might not otherwise receive them. He related how he had gone to see Cindy when she was senior vice president of corporate communications for Scripps Networks Interactive. He was asking for Scripps’ financial support through a sponsorship. She repeatedly turned him down because his organization did not align with her company’s core mission for its charitable giving. He found it ironic that, six years later, following her retirement from Scripps, she would end up at his organization as chief operating and marketing officer. She believed in the group’s mission, but, as long as she was with Scripps, she made decisions based on the company’s goals rather than her own.

Cindy with her husband, Gary Cox, at the 2014 Rebuilding Together Knoxville event.

Cindy was the first female sportswriter to be allowed in a Southeastern Conference men’s locker room when she and I both were reporters for the old Knoxville Journal. Her sister, Nancy Nolen, said that was not surprising. “She was always a tomboy,” Nancy said at the memorial service. “We both played with dolls, but Cindy preferred G.I. Joe to Barbie!” Nancy said Cindy, the youngest of six siblings, played tackle football with her three brothers. “She never outgrew her love of sports and competition,” her sister said.

Marty Brown, whose family lived next door to Cindy’s family for 23 years, said the two families often shared meals together. After one chicken dinner, they teased Cindy because when they looked at her finished plate, they had never seen a chicken bone so clean of its meat. She said it was because she was the youngest of a big family and it was necessary to eat every bit of meat you could get. Brown said she lived her life that way, too. “She didn’t leave any meat on the bones,” he said.

Cindy’s best friend was Carol Eimers, with whom she shared a love of the mountains and of hiking. Carol spoke, too, on Saturday of her best friend and their mutual love of the outdoors. She closed by quoting Dr. Seuss: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

Cindy always liked being on the Blue Streak, and she would “pitch” me on ideas to get Scripps Networks in the blog. Here are some photos from over the years.

Actor Jeff Bridges, center, with Cindy and Chuck Scofield of the Share Our Strength organization at a fundraiser for the group in Washington, D.C. Cindy called this month in 2011 the “May of Madness” because it was so crazy busy.

Her daughter, Kendall, also got married that month, accounting for a lot of the flurry of events. (Photo by Katherine Birkbeck Photography.)

Susan Brown and Cindy at Symphony in the Park in 2016.

Lori and Joe Hickok and Cindy at the Blackberry Farm Biscuit Brunch in 2014 in downtown Knoxville. It was part of the annual Biscuitfest.

From left, Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, Cindy and Carol Weller at Cherokee Country Club in 2012 for the Women’s Fund luncheon.

Cindy and Gary at Cherokee Country Club for the Evergreen Ball in 2011.

Cindy with Richard and Dawn Ford at the Knoxville Area Urban League Equal Opportunity Awards Gala in 2011.

From left, Cindy, Kathleen Finch, Peyton and Chris Lambton from the show “Going Yard” at the First Lady’s Luncheon in Nashville in 2013.

From left, Annette Brun, Cindy, Susan Brown and Sandi Swilley at a Leadership Knoxville event at Scripps Networks in 2013.

Before she died, Cindy told Hallerin Hill that she wanted recording artist Chris Blue, whom Hill manages, to perform at her memorial service.

The performer sang “Amazing Grace” at the service last Saturday.

Hill hosts a weekly TV show called “Anything is Possible.” He said the episode featuring an interview with Cindy was one of his favorite among his 400 or so episodes. Here it is:

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