When you’re young, you sometimes see life through a narrow lens. At Olympia High School, we weren’t interested in learning more about Matt Messamore or getting to know him.
The star guard on Central Catholic’s basketball team, he represented the rivals from the “city.” He played with passion, confidence and flair … everything you despise in an opponent.
So one night during Messamore’s junior season of 1975-76, his Saints were playing host to our Spartans at Fred Young Fieldhouse. Considered a “hot dog” in our hallways, some of us thought tossing a few Oscar Mayer wieners onto the court when he was introduced would be appropriate.
We did. It wasn’t.
We know that now. Actually, we knew it 30 seconds after they left our hands. What we didn’t know was that our perception of Messamore could not have been more wrong.
We had no idea that underneath his enemy jersey beat the heart of a caring, funny and compassionate soul. Messamore had room in it for most anyone, even the occasional Cardinal fan.
That made news of his death this week at age 60 difficult for those who truly knew him.
Bobby Moews knew Messamore as a classmate, teammate and, mostly, a friend. Long before he became Central’s head football coach, Moews played alongside Messamore in football, basketball and baseball for the Saints. He was routinely exposed to a sense of humor as dry as the Sahara sun.
“He was a really good guy,” Moews said. “I have some very good memories of him.”
One came during their senior year of 1977. Following a basketball practice, Moews and Messamore squared off in a game of H-O-R-S-E, with the loser buying milkshakes.
Messamore closed out the win when Moews missed a shot from the corner in the Saints’ former cracker box gym, The Pit. The ball bounced off the rim and came right back to Moews.
“I threw it in anger at the basket and it hit the rim,” Moews said.
The force was enough to shatter the fiberglass backboard. Messamore laughed. Most everyone did but Moews, who had to go down to John Snyder’s office and tell the coach he needed a new backboard.
“You talk about a death walk,” Moews said.
The story never grew old for Messamore, who would go on to become a construction laborer and a concrete finisher. He worked hard and played hard in a life that ultimately included three children and many nieces and nephews.
He held them all dear and others as well.
Bud Concklin was the sixth-grade basketball coach at St. Mary’s School when he first met Messamore. Many years later they became golfing buddies, playing regularly at Ironwood and Highland Park and as partners in the senior division of the Bloomington-Normal Two-Man Best Position Tournament.
A natural athlete, Messamore was a good golfer, Concklin said. Beyond that, he was warm and generous.
“He would give you the shirt off his back,” Concklin said.
An all-state selection, Messamore gave everything he had on the court, scoring 1,275 career points to rank among the Saints’ all-time leading scorers. Central went 24-7 and reached the Class A Elite Eight in 1976, led by his 16.5 scoring average.
A four-year varsity player, Messamore was a grade school phenom at St. Mary’s, averaging 28 points per game as an eighth-grader.
Steve Mintus was the seventh-grade coach and Jack Currin the eighth-grade coach at the time. Messamore’s family lived across the street from Mintus on West Jackson in Bloomington and their families became close.
“We would coach the kids and then go to the house and eat pizza and talk about the game,” Mintus said.
They stayed in touch throughout Mintus’ lengthy career as a coach, teacher and administrator. When he retired from Normal West, the two reconnected in a big way.
Mintus took up golf, a game Messamore loved. Mintus also loved the Cubs.
“We shared that as well,” Mintus said.
Messamore and Mintus traveled several times to the PGA Tour’s BMW Championship during practice rounds.
“He was like a little kid. We both were,” Mintus said. “You want to get autographs of all the great players.”
The two attended Cubs games as well, including one against the White Sox.
“He was so excited to be at Wrigley Field,” Mintus said. “The game was over and he didn’t want to leave.”
Messamore had battled through throat cancer and later had part of a lung removed. He was forging ahead and looked forward to more rounds of golf with Mintus.
“For Christmas he got a new set of clubs from his daughters,” Mintus said. “He didn’t like to play golf when it was cold. We were talking about waiting to get out and golf. I got a pass at Highland and I said, ‘OK, let’s get the clubs going.’ He said, ‘That’s right.’”
Messamore died Tuesday at his home. Likely, his large ‘W’ flag was flying outside, signifying a Cubs win. He must cheer them on from above now.
There is sadness in that for those who knew him best. And regret for the rest of us, who wish we knew him better.