“Man … this was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.”
You said it, Mike White.
That’s what Mike (head coach at Florida) told me as we hit a certain heavy point in our conversation, an interview I was having with him about Torrey Ward, one of the first really close friends he had in coaching.
The Illinois State plane crash story is the most difficult one I’ve ever had to write, for both emotional and structural reasons. On the emotional side, here’s some perspective: I interviewed 17 people over the course of four consecutive days, tallying more than 22 hours worth of interviews. Most of the people wound up crying (and why shouldn’t they). The two who were the most emotive are not related to the crash victims.
The sound I could not get out of my head after I had my interview with her was the voice of Kathy Davis, the beloved coroner.
“Don’t hurt them. Please don’t hurt those families.”
Davis was not in my original plan for the story. But she was referenced so often, so lovingly by so many, I knew I had to speak with her. And I’m so glad I did. From her eye-witness account of the crash site (most of which I did not include in the story) to her tender bedside manner, she was the thread that connected the wounded on that day. McClean County is lucky to have Kathy Davis as its coroner. She is incredible.
Every time I put ambition into writing a feature, I question my motivations. Why do I want to write this story? Does it serve a bigger purpose or touch on themes larger than what’s on the surface? Have I ever written something like this before? Am I challenging myself? Who am I serving by writing the story, and are my desires to write something coming from a place that’s not selfish as a writer? It always must be about the story and the people involved in it. Always.
For me, extensive features are given justness when you can truly say to yourself that you’re writing a story not for yourself, but for the people the story is about and the general public that is owed a chance to be educated, or informed, or enlightened on a particular subject or event. Writing this story was not fun. I wouldn’t want to do it again. But I don’t have any regrets about doing it, and I’m proud of the final product. I think I’m a better writer for it. I tried to balance the tug of the story — a plane crash happens, and almost two years later there still is no resolution about how the plane crashed; that is disturbing but interesting — with the way so many families were changed forever.
I was also bothered by the fact the crash happened and it was almost immediately forgotten about by most outside of Bloomington-Normal.
My No. 1 concern in writing this story was putting together a complete, lucid account of what these families have been through, but not doing it in an exploitive way. It’s easy to default to purple writing when tragedy is heavy. I do hope I was able to avoid this type of frame. To get a sense of who these widows were, I needed to know where they were, what they were doing, where their lives were before they lost their husbands and fiancés. I have endless respect and gratitude for these incredible women who agreed to speak for this story. It has been hard to stop thinking about them, and the men they’ve lost, since I began working on the piece.
I reported and wrote the story over the course of nine days. (NOT RECOMMENDED.) I didn’t plan for it to be like that, but given the workload of the college basketball season and a tardy desire to get this story out, to not wait for the two-year anniversary, it made for a stressful process. Ultimately, my feelings are immaterial, but that is a little bit of a peek behind the undertaking.
There were items from my reporting that I did want to include, but did not make it into the final cut. Two people I interviewed who are not quoted in the piece: Mike White, and Tennessee State coach Dana Ford. After ISU coach Dan Muller met with his team early on the morning of April 7, he first called Dana, then he called Mike. Dana played at Illinois State and was on Muller’s staff for two years with Torrey. Dana knew everyone on the plane except the pilot and the plane’s owner, Scott Bittner. I didn’t have to pry Dana for quotes. I let him just roll. It’s impossible to put on the page the earnestness of his voice as he spoke about these friends he lost.
“You couldn’t find a bigger supporter,” Ford said of Terry Stralow, who he met when he was 18. “Aaron Leetch was an awesome boss to have. A superstar. Jason Jones is one of the only fans who texted about recruiting, always wanted to know about recruiting and knowing about the players. Andy Butler, good gracious, you couldn’t find a bigger ISU fan. Just a lovable guy. He’d bend over backward for Redbird athletics. These were the blueboods of ISU basketball fans. These guys didn’t miss a game. They would do anything. These were good, quality men. I’m talking about cream of the crop. Husbands, fathers, fans through the ups and downs. Treated the kids awesome, the coaches great.”
Ford was at home when he got the call.
“It was dream-like. One of the very few experiences in my life, very out of body, and I knew a majority of the guys on that plane.”
Dana and Mike, like many coaches in the business, went to Torrey’s funeral. He was the only person in the crash who was able to have an open casket. But Dana and Mike did not approach the body. The reality of Torrey’s death was still too raw for them.
“I didn’t want that to be my last image of him,” Dana said. “It was just so, so not Torrey. Torrey is bubbly, lively, bouncing off the walls. That’s just not Torrey. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Torrey with this eyes closed. I just couldn’t. That could not be my last image of him.”
Said White: “It was hard enough, the news was just tough enough to take. I guess I just wanted to remember him how I remembered him.”
Dana’s family developed a very close relationship with Torrey’s mother, Janice (who was my second interview for this story and was amazing to speak with). Torrey was always a big deal in Birmingham. Since his death, the school has established a scholarship in his name. Dana also included these thoughts about Muller.
“Dan, he’s helped me grow so much. Dan has a soft heart. Dan’s a good, good man. His toughness through all of this, I couldn’t imagine as a head coach, talk about losing someone on your staff and losing some of your biggest boosters, keeping all of that together. Last year didn’t end quite as well and to keep that thing intact, those guys intact, they just won the league for the first time since 1998. That’s called leadership, man. That’s what it is. What do they say? Anybody can drive a boat but so few can navigate. Where are we going? We’re going somewhere, but are you navigating or are you driving?”
Muller has been the navigator. That program is at its highest point since he was there—as a player. That was the late 1990s. Will add this: Illinois State should not earn an at-large bid this year because the program, and Bloomington-Normal, have gone through this tragedy. But if the Redbirds got in, it would be an incredibly powerful thing for that town.
As for White, he met Torrey when recruiting inner-city Birmingham. Ward’s first year working in college basketball came at Jacksonville State. And yes, how about this: Jacksonville State made the NCAA Tournament this year, its first time ever. So Ward meets White (they’re both in their mid-20s at this point), and he lives with White—free of rent—for a year. Sleeps in the living room. Ward was doing grunt work merely to get into the business. Torrey made such a strong impression on then-Jacksonville State coach Mike LaPlante that he earned an assistant spot when White left J-State for Ole Miss. Eventually, Ward and White were both working under Andy Kennedy in Oxford.
“Torrey was always the life of the party, the life of anything he was involved with,” White said. “He had as magnetic a smile and as magnetic a personality as anyone I’ve been around. He was as likable a persona as I’ve ever met, and I don’t say that because he’s passed. He had a special talent in recruiting. If Torrey spent a couple of minutes with you, you were going to walk away and say, man, I really like that guy. Work ethic, intelligent, never had a bad day, always making you laugh, pulling pranks on you. He’s hiding under my desk, biting me on the leg.”
Some of the best anecdotes you’ll get from head coaches is them telling you stories about their days dangling on the low rungs on the ladder, their hard-luck years as grad assistants, video guys or ops guys. White remembered it snowing in Oxford one year and, well, here he is telling the story.
“I pull up to the office, I’m walking into the practice facility,” and as White is telling the story, he starts cracking up. “All of the sudden I just start getting beaned all over the body. There’s Torrey, behind a wall built, an artillery of snowballs. I’ve got snow in my eyes, can’t see, and then he just tackles me right there in the open. …. I would tell people all the the time there may be a better coach, a more experienced guy, but Torrey is the most talented guy I’ve ever worked with,” Mike said. “His upside was through the roof. His net was so wide. He was consumed with it. He loved people and it made him a natural for this business.”
There is also a group of men affected by this who are somewhat overlooked: the players Ward coached and recruited. Melissa Muller described them as in a “zombie-like state” in the moments after Dan told the team in the locker room that Torrey was gone. Tony Wills remembered Torrey as a guy who convinced him not to quit during his freshman year. Wills was lost. Torrey reined him in. He also remembered practices being more quiet. Torrey had a booming voice, and the boom was gone in the gym.
“That’s when it started to hurt even more,” Wills said.
Paris Lee said the news didn’t register with him at first. He thought Muller was trying to say Ward was merely injured in a plane crash. He asked Muller, in front of everyone, if Torrey was still alive, then turned his back and faced his locker when he realized what had happened.
“It didn’t seem real,” Lee said. “Everything did not seem real to me around that time.”
The other element of this, that I did not go into too much detail in the story, is what an incredible job ISU athletic director Larry Lyons and his staff did that day, that week, and for a long time thereafter. This was a crisis, and it was handled magnificently, according to everyone I spoke with. The families were not bothered by the media. In the early parts of the morning, Larry was scrambling early to determine who was on the flight.
Had Lyons not taken a business trip the week prior, it is possible he would have been on that flight instead of Aaron Leetch. Lyons described Lindsay Leetch as “the most incredible person.” And others described Janice Ward, and Joan Stralow, and Kathy Davis, and the others in similar terms.
“My staff, at least the people in the original planning, were so good,” Lyons said. “They put their grief on a shelf for several days.”
Lyons was effusive in his praise for Aaron Leetch. It was Lyons who recruited Leetch back to Normal, after Leetch left for a couple of years to better his resume by taking a job as a D-III athletic director. At the ACC tournament this week, I had someone approach me—who I never met—to express how great a person and good a guy within the world of college athletics that Aaron Leetch was.
There is more good to come from Illinois State, but I can’t disclose what. ISU community has been tremendous, from getting local business owners to put up their work, hours and money for memorials, to the way others simply left flowers for the families for months and months and months. People doing yard work, unprompted, for some. This story was a blip nationally, but I wanted to put on the page how this horrific event is still part of the everyweek experience for thousands in that area. And now the two-year anniversary is approaching, and Project 7 will bring goodness to that area, prompting random acts of kindness, seven of them, by each of the seven widows.
If you’ve made the time to read this, and the story, I thank you. There are seven wives and fiancees who don’t get to take a day off from this. There are so many young children who are are growing up without their dads now. If any of you ever read this, just know that it was my honor to do those men justice.