By Mike Tenney
Debbie Sokol is now a member of the Houston ISD Hall of Fame. And how Bellaire High School’s first true volleyball superstar got there is summed up in two words that have become a mantra for modern women achievers: She persevered.
As a young girl growing up in Illinois, there were no opportunities for her to play the game that would vault her to heights she could only imagine. She doesn’t like to think of herself as a pioneer, but that is truly what the 5-foot-10 playmaker was when she began playing for the Cardinals in 1972.
She said going into HISD’s second-ever Hall of Fame class was something she never imagined. “I’m just so honored,” she said. “Have you seen the names of the people that were also inducted as members of this class? There are some very famous people on that list, and to be mentioned in the same conversation as some of those people is a real honor.”
Sokol is one of 14 individuals, including such former NFL luminaries as Michael Singletary, Jacob Green and Dave Elmendorf, recently inducted in a ceremony at Delmar Stadium. For those well-known athletes, even back in the 1960s and 70s, recognition came much easier. They were on national television every Sunday in the fall and in the press throughout the week between games.
There was no such publicity or outpouring of support for Sokol and the other three female HISD Hall of Fame inductees. the former US Olympian (who never got the chance to compete in the Olympics as well), that makes her induction into the same Hall where everybody knows your name even more gratifying.
“We played in an era where there were not a lot of opportunities for girls athletics,” said Sokol, a 1974 Bellaire grad. “We didn’t have an avenue to all the things female athletes have today. Certainly the media coverage they receive today — while it still isn’t up to the level that men’s sports receive — wasn’t there at all. We didn’t have professional leagues to aspire to play in like the WNBA. But we just put our heads down and quietly went about our business and tried to play the best we could and hope someone would notice and start paying attention to us.”
She began playing volleyball at Bellaire HS as a 15-year-old sophomore in 1972, the same year the NCAA enacted Title IX, calling for no discrimination in athletics, with females suddenly entitled to the same opportunities as their male counterparts. But Sokol said enforcement was a long time coming.
She never played organized sports until her family moved from Illinois to Bellaire when she was 15 years old — a very late start, compared to the girls playing now. She didn’t wear a real team uniform (“we just wore white T-shirts and shorts back then”) or have a real volleyball coach (“our first coach at Bellaire was an aerobics instructor”) until she began playing volleyball at the University of Houston. And during her four years as a Cougar, where she would become a team captain, while the U of H volleyball team had two top-five finishes nationally, there was still no real coverage to bring the program into the spotlight.
Sokol was also a member of the U.S. national team, which was preparing in 1980 to play in the Summer Olympics in Moscow. But that chance was taken away when then-President Jimmy Carter ordered a boycott of the Olympics due to Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan.
Sokol vividly remembers how she found out. It was a Friday and she was standing in the parking lot at old Melcher Stadium at Rice when she got the word the USA wasn’t going. “That was tough,” Sokol said. “We were considered the favorites and we were going to get the opportunity to compete on the world stage, so to not get the chance to play in those Olympics and represent your country was very disheartening. And then we started thinking, do we practice for four more years as a group to get to compete in Los Angeles in 1984?” They didn’t, and Sokol moved on.
She managed to parlay her performance on the court into a job on the sidelines, moving three miles crosstown to become the first head volleyball coach at Rice University in 1982.
“I was a journalism major in college, but when I graduated I didn’t have a job in journalism lined up, and so I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Sokol said. “I had never thought about coaching, but then I found out that Rice was starting up a volleyball program, and I was fortunate enough to get the job.
“It was a new challenge, starting up a volleyball program at a major university, and I went right to work. I loved my time at Rice and really enjoyed coaching there. Had I not gotten that job at Rice, I’m not sure what I would have done.”
She directed the Owl volleyball program for 13 seasons, and was named the Southwest Conference Coach of the Year.
She said it is thrilling to see how far women’s sports in general have come in the past 50 years and to see that Title IX is in full force, with women’s sports now a big part of college campus life. “It’s great to see all the avenues that girls have now, ” Sokol said. “There are all kinds of youth leagues available that give young girls a chance to start playing early. And they’re available in a number of different sports, so young girls now can really find a sport that they like or can even play multiple sports, which was certainly not an option when I was growing up.”
Sokol said the condition and training aspect has also now come to the forefront, meaning women playing college and professional sports today are bigger and stronger than recent generations.
“High school and college teams have trainers and coaches and a program for their athletes to stay in condition. It’s a year-round commitment for athletes now. Back in the day, it was a year-round commitment for the athletes, but it was a commitment you made to yourself because offseason programs and training programs just weren’t available to girls. Now even in small towns like the one that I grew up in Illinois, if that town specifically doesn’t have some type of girls program, there’s still one in the area that gives girls the opportunity to play.”
She is retired now and has been giving private lessons and working in private camps for the past few years. Still Sokol believes that getting into the HISD Hall of Fame is the culmination of all those years in the game. She’s proud of the progress she’s seen in her lifetime and what this latest honor represents. “I’m thrilled to be in the Hall of Fame because I know how hard I worked and where I came from, and I’m really glad that girls and young woman wanting to play sports no longer have to deal with all those issues.”