By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - If you could describe it, Marliss Gruver could make it.
Chris Hooshyar, associate head coach for Auburn's women's tennis team, once envisioned a piece of fitness equipment he wanted, something to help the Tigers warm up.
"I'll have it back to you soon," said Gruver, director of operations for Auburn's tennis program.
Hired as a part-time administrative assistant in July 2015, Gruver's role rapidly expanded.
"Very quickly we found out that Marliss could basically do anything and everything we asked her," said head coach Lauren Spencer. "There were times where Chris and I tried very hard to find things she couldn't do."
They were unsuccessful. From hemming uniforms to screen printing, Gruver became the team's go-to artist in addition to her traditional ops director duties like travel logistics.
"Her arts and crafts room in her house is like the second coming of Hobby Lobby," Spencer said.
Gruver endeared herself to Auburn's student-athletes.
Her biggest strength was that she cared about everybody," Hooshyar said. "I think the reason the girls liked her so much, and why we felt so highly of her, was because you could tell that it was genuine. Therefore, you gravitated toward her because of who she was.
– Chris Hooshyar
"Her biggest strength was that she cared about everybody," Hooshyar said. "I think the reason the girls liked her so much, and why we felt so highly of her, was because you could tell that it was genuine," Hooshyar said. "Therefore, you gravitated toward her because of who she was."
"She was really supportive of our team," Spencer said. "She really did embrace the Auburn Athletics family. I think she had tickets to basically every sporting event. She loved sports. The girls got to know her really well, especially the juniors and seniors."
Auburn's freshmen did not have the pleasure of knowing Gruver as well. By the time they arrived this fall, she had been diagnosed with the cancer that ended her life on Nov. 29.
'She perked up immediately'
Five days before she died, Gruver welcomed a visitor, a former co-worker from a quarter-century earlier when Marliss was the marketing coordinator for the Phoenix Suns.
"She perked up immediately when he went in there," Spencer said. "That was the best we had seen her in weeks."
Hours before Charles Barkley Appreciation Night, on the day before his statue unveiling at Auburn Arena, Barkley and Gruver talked about golf and fishing, and the time she pulled his daughter's baby tooth before a Suns' game.
"It was fantastic that she was able to have something before she left that made her feel happy," Spencer said.
It is with a heavy heart that we announce the passing of our beloved Director of Tennis Operations, Marliss Gruver. After battling Cancer, she is now at peace. Here is the last picture we took of her & her very special guest last Friday. #AuburnFamily pic.twitter.com/a4YJvysAlJ
'Their faces lit up'
Motivated by love for a dying friend, Spencer sought a way to bear the Gruver family's burden.
"Our main concern was always for the kids," Spencer said. "Because that was her main concern."
Spencer created a GoFundMe account for the college educations of Marliss and Ken Gruver's 12-year-old twin daughters, Jillian and Sloan.
"We were able to show her that people really care about her kids, especially their futures," Spencer said.
Created nine days before Gruver's passing, with a goal of $10,000, the Jillian & Sloan Gruver Scholarship has doubled that goal in three weeks.
"We wanted to make sure we were able to give the family some relief," Spencer said. "What's better to invest in than a kid's future in education?"
As the first gifts began to arrive, the coaches shared the news with Marliss and Ken.
"Their faces lit up when they saw it," Hooshyar said.
"Ken is just overwhelmed with the amount of people who have given," Spencer said. "It's really nice to see, especially the Auburn Athletics family, be able to give.
"We're hoping to be able to build on that, and we're really appreciative of everybody who has given to that cause because I think it's really important."
To the young women on Auburn's tennis team, and their coaches, the Gruvers' marriage provided a picture of unconditional love.
"The girls joke around and they say, 'Hashtag relationship goals,' all the time," Hooshyar said. "If I could support [Hooshyar's wife] Meagan in the way Ken supported Marliss. The way Marliss was still looking at Ken, if I could do that for Meagan, it was special. They were special. That was incredible."
Marliss Gruver, second from left, with Auburn's women's tennis team in 2016 during Auburn's football game against Arkansas
'This is where I was supposed to be'
A person of strong faith, Marliss believed her family's decision to settle in Auburn after previous stops in Arizona, Colorado and Washington was providential.
"The last thing she kept saying was, 'God moved me to Auburn because He knew this was going to happen, and I wouldn't have been looked after like this in my previous cities,'" Hooshyar recalled.
On one of Marliss and Ken's final trips outside their home or the hospital, strangers who learned of her prognosis asked to encircle the family in prayer, a gesture that moved Marliss deeply.
"She kept saying, 'I was meant to be here,'" Hooshyar recalled. "'He brought me to Auburn because this is what my family needed, and this is where I was supposed to be.'"
Gruver's faith sustained her all the way to the end. "By the time she was ready, she was ready," Spencer said.
That 189 donors, some who never met Marliss, have given to a fund to educate her children, is a fitting tribute, Hooshyar says, to a woman who cared about everything and everybody.
"Nobody could match how much she cared."
If you would like to contribute to the Jillian & Sloan Gruver Scholarship fund, click HERE.
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer