During one of his final staff meetings as Virginia Tech's athletic director, Jim Weaver revealed how much pain he was enduring, how Parkinson's disease and two failing hips had not only fast-tracked his retirement but also compromised basic, daily living.
Weaver then paused and gazed at Sharon McCloskey, a department staple for 30 years.
"I know you understand what I'm talking about," he said.
Yes, she does.
But today, less than a year removed from a stem-cell transplant, McCloskey is pain-free, a second row with cancer in her rearview mirror. She took over as interim athletic director Jan. 1 confidently, firmly, and gracefully, and, most telling, with the universal support, trust and admiration of co-workers.
No wonder, for McCloskey has done it all for her alma mater, all the while embodying the selfless, family aura that permeates Virginia Tech athletics.
She's cut the grass at Lane Stadium, coordinated football recruiting and, for the last 18-plus years, worked tirelessly as senior associate athletic director. She served as interim AD prior to Weaver's 1997 hiring and in 2012 was inducted into the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame.
"Sharon's been in it at the bottom level all the way to the top," said associate athletic director John Ballein, a close friend of McCloskey's. "So she knows inside-out the workings of our program. … She's a loyal, trustworthy person."
McCloskey appreciates such sentiment, but don't believe for a minute that as the interim she'll be stampeded like some helpless substitute teacher.
"I think people know how I operate," McCloskey said. "I don't mince words. I don't tell them what they want to hear. I tell them what I know to be the way it is. I follow university regulations, and NCAA and ACC, and if you're going to skew off of that, then we're going to have a problem. …
"I'm not going to come in here and in a month's time make sweeping changes. There will be no personnel (decisions), anything like that. I remember the last time (as the interim), I had people lining up, asking for promotions and raises. I was like, 'Uh, that's not going to happen. You'll have to see the new director.'
"It makes common sense. You want to wait until you have a new director in place and see what their vision is."
McCloskey, 58, does not aspire to be the new director. Seventeen years ago, she did.
Dave Braine, who twice promoted McCloskey, had resigned as AD and accepted the same position at Georgia Tech. McCloskey interviewed with Virginia Tech's search committee, but university president Paul Torgersen chose Weaver, then Western Michigan's athletic director.
McCloskey declined Braine's offer to join him in Atlanta — city life does not appeal to her — and stayed in Blacksburg, hopeful that Weaver would retain her.
"I think when you get into one of those job searches, you have to be prepared not to get it," McCloskey said. "I think I took it a lot better than people expected."
McCloskey had little time for disappointment as Weaver leaned on her early and often on matters ranging from personnel to finances. When quarterback Michael Vick became a national sensation in 1999 and 2000, Weaver appointed McCloskey to sift through the endless requests from fans, media and charities.
The Weaver-McCloskey bond morphed from professional to personal two years ago when McCloskey was first diagnosed with stage IV, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. If anyone could appreciate the challenges of juggling a stressful job with a serious health crisis, it was Weaver, coping with Parkinson's since 2004.
"We commiserate," Weaver said, "but both of us, I think, have fought to rise above our medical problems. … I have the utmost confidence in Sharon."
Though treatable, McCloskey's cancer had spread throughout her body. She underwent months of intense chemotherapy and missed six weeks of work.
The entire Tech community rallied to her side.
Ballein and women's soccer player Kelly Conheeney designed "No One Fights Alone" wristbands and distributed them to Hokies athletes and coaches. Ballein organized a note-writing campaign. Torgersen and Braine, both retired and living in Blacksburg, were at her beck and call, as were women's basketball coach Dennis Wolff and his wife.
McCloskey returned to work in good health and gradually regained her strength. But last year the cancer returned, and a tumor pressing against her sciatic nerve caused the worst pain McCloskey has experienced.
"I mean to tell you, it would take three people to help me move," she said, "and then I would have to go in the hospital for chemo."
Chemo for Christmas. That was McCloskey's 2012.
Three months later, she underwent a stem-cell transplant at the University of Virginia. McCloskey knew little about stem cells and wondered if she were betting her life on a medical Hail Mary.
"I thought it was considered sort of experimental," she said. "But it's kind of the standard now, and it wasn't that bad. … It sounds really awful. People are looking for a scar. 'You had a transplant? Wow.'
"What they do is hook you up to a machine that's like dialysis, and they run your blood through this machine, and it collects stem cells. … When they get enough — for me it took a day-and-a-half — they freeze them."
McCloskey spent the next several days undergoing outpatient radiation before returning to the hospital for a week of chemo to wipe out her bone marrow. Doctors then reintroduced her stem cells into the bloodstream, rebuilding her immune system.
There was no actual surgery, just an IV. The lone misery was packing her mouth in ice for eight hours to prevent infection.
With Lisa Rudd, Tech's associate athletic director for financial affairs, assuming her senior women's administrator role, McCloskey took the spring and much of summer to recover. She returned to work Aug. 5.
"I wanted to come back part-time," McCloskey said. "But you can't come back part-time in this business. You say, 'I'm going to go in for two hours,' and six hours later …"
Back full-time, McCloskey was her matter-of-fact self. She treasured the support of friends, family and co-workers, but the office was no place for musing. There was work to be done.
"If you can't admire, and sometimes be in awe of, her toughness and her good humor in dealing with the circumstances of her health, then you're missing the boat," Wolff said.
McCloskey's pioneering career is equally remarkable. A 1979 Tech graduate from Falls Church, she worked as a student manager for women's basketball and on the stadium grounds crew. She joined the athletic department full-time in 1984 as a football receptionist, and four years later coach Frank Beamer made her Division I football's first female recruiting coordinator.
The leader of the department's march toward gender equity, McCloskey presently oversees football, women's basketball, women's soccer, sports medicine and strength and conditioning.
One of her strongest advocates is Wolff, whose 2011 hiring created quite a stir in women's basketball circles. An accomplished men's coach, as both an assistant and the big whistle, Wolff had never coached women, and here Weaver was handing him an ACC program.
"She may not totally have agreed with how I was hired," Wolff said, "but that didn't stop her from giving me a chance. For that I'm going to be forever grateful. … My wife and I will be friends with her for the rest of our lives."
This fall was among the most rewarding times of McCloskey's life. She not only resumed work but also watched the women's soccer program she helped start in 1993 reach the NCAA tournament semifinals for the first time.
Trips to Cary, N.C., for the ACC tournament and NCAA College Cup tested her endurance — nagging numbness in her left foot makes prolonged walking problematic — as will this second tenure as interim athletic director.
Tech aims to hire Weaver's successor next month, but McCloskey is prepared to serve as long as needed. She's relaxed and guides a department that, thanks to Weaver, runs smoothly and figures to attract quality candidates.
As in 1997, McCloskey hopes the new athletic director will keep her on the team. If not, she's emotionally and financially prepared for retirement and extended time at her nearby home on Claytor Lake.
"I feel great," McCloskey said. "I went to the doctor last week, and he basically said, 'Get out of here, you're not sick.'"
Far too aware that cancer can return, McCloskey remains vigilant. She continues physical therapy on her foot and yearns to discard her leg brace and lose handicapped parking privileges.
"I keep real positive," McCloskey said. "I don't think about it as a negative situation. I feel like I did everything I was supposed to do. …
"It's been a long road, but I'll tell you what, I feel like I'm on the downside of the mountain. I went up the hard side, and now I'm cruising down the other side."