NASHVILLE – Catana Starks had played rounds of golf only for fun when she was asked to recruit and coach Tennessee State's first men's golf team.
The school was joining the Ohio Valley Conference in 1986 and, as part of the move, decided to drop the men's swimming and diving teams Starks was coaching.
During the next 17 years, she often drove the golf team to competitions. She even stopped at an outlet mall once and purchased suitable uniforms. Starks had grit. She hung out with area golf pros and became determined to make her players the best golfers in the nation.
The Hollywood-ready story of America's first African-African woman to coach a NCAA Division I men's golf team is being told in From the Rough, with an Oct. 5 screening at the Nashville's International Black Film Festival. Taraji P. Henson, an Oscar nominee for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," stars as a fictionalized version of Starks named Cassandra Turner.
Starks, 66, says the movie portrayal is humbling. She hopes it's a recruiting tool for TSU to attract more students — even some golf talent.
"It's an honor to be respected that way," she said. "The movie was tastefully done. I think it portrays what I am trying to convey to other African-American females: You can coach men's sports and be successful."
Former TSU golfer Sam Puryear, now director of golf at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina, says the recognition is long overdue. He was recruited to TSU's golf program in the late 1980s.
"When I first got there, she didn't know anything about golf," he said. "I watched her develop in golf, and she was learning the game and putting people and things around us, for what she didn't know.
"A lot of what we learned on the golf course was life lessons that I still carry with me now. I learned a lot of mental toughness from her."
Starks coached golf at TSU for 17 years. She produced Puryear, the first African-American men's head golf coach in any major conference. Former player Sean Foley isTiger Woods' swing coach, and Robert Dinwiddie, an All-American at TSU, is a member of the European Tour.
In 2005, Starks led the Tigers to a win in the National Minority Championship, a tournament for golf teams from historically black colleges and universities. It was the first time TSU had won the tournament, and it also was Starks' last year coaching.
TSU Athletics Director Teresa Phillips said Starks could coach any sport, mainly because of her love for athletics.
"Before women were strong in college athletics as we are now, Catana was already coaching men," she said. "She comes from the old-school style of coaching where coaches are teachers. She loves her students, but she's a pretty tough professor."
With a limited number of African-American players available to compete at the collegiate level, Starks recruited and assembled an unlikely roster for a historically black university: a core of European, white and black players who had golf as their main commonality.
"Playing good golf, to me, never equated to a color," Puryear said. "It didn't matter who she brought in; we just wanted the best players.
"There were a lot of things we had to endure. You would go to tournaments and didn't have all the financial wherewithal, but she always made a way. She was there for us like a parental figure. She didn't cut you any slack on school."
Today, Starks hits the greens only for recreation. A proud TSU alum, she heads the school's human performance and sports sciences department. Education has always been her first priority, and she dedicates countless hours to her students. The retirement from coaching gives her more time to spend with her family — a son, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
"I was most proud of being able to help young people develop," Starks said. "I enjoyed it so much. I decided to retire (from coaching) because I wanted to permit someone else to try this. I still stay in contact with my guys."
From the Rough is scheduled for a Feb. 3 release and also stars Tom Felton from theHarry Potter series and Michael Clarke Duncan, an Oscar nominee for The Green Mile.
Michael Critelli, a movie producer, first heard of Starks' story several years ago and later tapped Pierre Bagley to direct the film. The two are co-founders of Gyre Entertainment.
"She was a trailblazer and had courage to go outside of the school and bring in a number of nonblack players to a historically black school," Bagley said. "It had all the hallmarks of a great script. Once I met her — you know she's a leader and inspires people. She went out and did this and was good at it."
The movie was filmed in New Orleans, transforming Dillard University, a historically black university, into Tennessee State. With a budget of just under $7 million and an all-star cast, the tax credit Louisiana offers filmmakers was attractive, Bagley said.
"The key points of this movie are true, of how she bought this group of kids together from all over the world." Bagley said. "Dr. Starks was flexible to understand that we needed to kind of Hollywoodize her story so that we could make it attractive enough for people to want to buy a ticket and want to see this story."
-- View the film's trailer at www.fromtheroughmovie.com