As journalists, we’re supposed to have the right words. It’s easy when a shot goes in at the buzzer or a ball leaves the park in the bottom of the ninth. Words become apples in an orchard … plentiful, everywhere.
Just take your pick.
It was not as simple Tuesday.
Illinois State Director of Athletics Larry Lyons said in an afternoon statement: “There is no play in the playbook for times like these.”
No apples either.
Words get lost amid shock and sorrow, pain and more pain. Losing seven of our own to an early-morning plane crash was crippling emotionally, collectively. It is difficult to convey how much.
These were successful people who built businesses, teams, programs. They were building legacies. We knew them or knew of them, knew they made a difference.
You cross paths with a lot of people as a sportswriter … players, coaches, administrators, fans. You don’t always meet their parents, spouses, children. The heart aches for all of them today.
Sports mean little in light of what they face. Yet, sports are part of this. To a man, they meant a lot to the people on board.
Andy Butler was a former high school golfer, an Illinois State grad and an avid fan of ISU athletics. A devastated Rick Percy Jr. said Tuesday, “He might have been the only person I knew who loved ISU more than me.”
Scott Bittner was a former football and basketball player at Chenoa High School. Pilot Tom Hileman played football at Bloomington High School, earning all-Big 12 Conference honors.
Terry Stralow owned a restaurant/bar, Pub II, in the heart of Illinois State country. A passionate supporter of ISU’s teams, his smile always seemed a little wider at a Redbird game.
It stretched from ear to ear on a Saturday afternoon in December at Pub II. A large crowd was gathering for a “watch party” for ISU’s national semifinal football game at New Hampshire.
Business was booming. The bottom line would get a boost. Still, Stralow’s grin was not motivated by dollars and cents, rather ISU red and white.
He told me shortly before kickoff he’d already looked into flights to Dallas for the national title game, with plans to rent a car and drive to Springfield, Mo., for a Redbird basketball game the following day. His eyes danced just talking about it.
Jason Jones was of special interest for a sportswriter from Atlanta. He grew up 10 miles down the road in Lincoln, our Logan County seat.
His father, Woody, was a former Illinois State baseball player. We knew such things in Atlanta. Jason carved his own niche as a fine baseball and basketball player, first at Lincoln High School and later Illinois Wesleyan.
He was a joy to watch, an all-out type of guy who relished every game. Afterward, he was cordial, respectful, even to a reporter from little old Atlanta.
Aaron Leetch was a warm handshake and a pat on the back. ISU’s Deputy Director of Athletics/External Operations, he cared deeply about Redbird sports. When ISU’s basketball team lost to Northern Iowa in last month’s Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship game, Leetch’s eyes were red and moist as he slumped against a wall outside the locker room.
He was destined to be a Division I athletic director one day.
Torrey Ward was an up and coming coach who could connect with players without chastising them. He was a positive, upbeat guy who knew the game and would have been an outstanding head coach. It was not if, but when.
There is no play in the playbook for this.
Words don’t seem enough, either.