By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. — She's one of Auburn's legendary players in any sport. She helped Auburn to Final Fours. She's an Olympic gold medal winner. She was standout in professional basketball.
Ruthie Bolton had it all as a star basketball player at Auburn in the 1980s and as Olympian in the years that followed.
But she also had a bad marriage. And she had this:
"I remember the first time he hit me..."
Mighty Ruthie will premiere as part of ESPN Films' SEC Storied series at 8 p.m. Central time, on the SEC Netowrk on Sunday with a powerful story that chronicles her athletic success, bravely talks of the domestic abuse she endured in her first marriage and how she would become an advocate for women.
She and her former Auburn teammates and their coaches watched a screening of the emotional film Wednesday in Auburn. Afterward, someone thanked Auburn for showing it in a darkened room. There was hardly a dry eye in the house.
Bolton was a star on the court. "Basketball was my safe haven." Her home life was different.
"Every day that I woke up and no matter what he said to me, and he didn't hit me, I felt like it was a good day. It was a good day and an opportunity to make things right," she says in the film.
She remembered thinking that the same determination that made her a basketball star would make her marriage work.
"My strength became my weakness. I didn't know how to give up," she said.
But one day it was too much. She grabbed her getaway bag and left. She called former Auburn assistant coach Carol Ross.
"I kept thinking, how did we get to this place? How did this happen that I'm picking Ruthie Bolton up on the side of the road?"
The film begins with the basketball-playing Bolton sisters. There was Mae Ola, a star in her own right and one of Auburn’s top signees, and Ruthie, the little sister, winning state titles in Mississippi.
"All five of the starters were all first cousins or sisters,” Ross said in the film to laughter in the screening room. "They had the best cheering section of any high school team because it was all of the relatives. And there were a lot of them."
Ross said "Mae Ola played a beautiful game. All the big schools were after her."
She flew to Auburn in a private plane. Ruthie came on a Greyhound bus. But Ruthie Bolton soon proved to be a star, too.
It was her way. Brought up in a big family, their father was a pastor who taught patience. She was in the ROTC at Auburn, and the coaches didn't even know of her early-morning routine. She would serve as a first lieutenant in the army reserves.
"Ruthie wasn't motivated by ego," Ross says in the film. "Ruthie wasn’t about Ruthie. Ruthie was about everybody else."
She helped Auburn to Final Fours, paid her own way to the U.S. Olympic Trials, played for Team USA in the World University Games, played for her country in the Olympics, played in the WNBA and played overseas.
"Ruthie has been on fire from 3-point range..." you hear the announcer say over her Olympic highlights.
She won the gold.
"My dad was there. I know my sister Mae Ola wanted to play in the Olympics. It was my honor... to share it with my family."
That part was easy. At home, she wondered: "Why is this man I love... hitting me?"
Eventually, her family learned of the domestic violence. "There were a lot of calls to Coach Ross," Mae Ola said. "You just try to find that network, that support, that you can talk to, the people you can trust."
"I worried about her all the time," Ross said. "I felt responsible for her."
Ross picked her up on the side of the road that faithful night in the story told by directors Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern Winters. Carol Stiff, vice president of women’s programming at ESPN, says Bolton wanted to help others though the project.
"Ruthie was ready, and it had a lot to do where she was in her process," Stiff said.
The story became more revealing as the film was shot.
"I think really it set you free," she said turning to Bolton. "There was nothing else to hide. Because it was so important to Ruthie, we made the decision to include it in the film."
"I never lost my joy," Bolton says. "What made me feel worthy is my kids. Kids teach you about the simple things in life. They are like a breath of fresh air."
Years of reflection allowed her to begin speaking out.
"I'm glad God has blessed me to allow me to live through this experience and to share and tell about it.
"Ever since I spoke in San Diego about a year and a half ago... I feel like it's not about me, it's about empowering women. Since I spoke, women have come up to me and said, 'Thank you for giving me closure.' Some are going through it, some of their friends are going through. 'I feel like I'm not alone.'"
Bolton said she learned "people treat you how you allow them to treat you. I left home six or seven times, but I never called the cops. I was afraid what people would think, so I just kept it to myself."
She has spoken to WNBA teams. She’s talked to Auburn women’s team.
"Don't be afraid to not to be perfect," she told them.
"She's courageous," said Mae Ola. "She's showing strength."
TV dates for Mighty Ruthie
8 p.m. Sunday on the SEC Network
8 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN2
Watch the trailer of Mighty Ruthie here.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine