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Illinois State still struggles with last April's tragedy


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Illinois State still struggles with last April's tragedy published by Evanvinh
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Posted on 2016-03-26
Writer Description: Evanvinh
This writer has written 733 articles.

By: Shannon RyanContact ReporterChicago Tribune

Illinois State basketball players walked through a thick fog at dawn last April from their dorms to Redbird Arena.

An adamant call from their coach around 6 a.m. had awakened them with orders to meet in an hour. Most expected to hear a teammate had broken a rule and figured they would be running sprints.

When they arrived and saw coach Dan Muller's tear-filled eyes, they knew it was more serious.

"Coach stood up in front of everyone and said, 'There was a plane crash last night,'" guard DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell said. "Those were his first words."

Akoon-Purcel says he remembers scanning the room and noticed the only person missing was associate coach Torrey Ward.

"Instantly everyone dropped their heads," Akoon-Purcell said. "It was complete shock. It was … terrible."

Just hours earlier, Ward, Aaron Leetch, who was the Redbirds' deputy athletic director for external operations, and five other men had been traveling from Indianapolis, where they had taken a trip to watch Duke beat Wisconsin for the NCAA tournament championship. They were due to land shortly after midnight, but their Cessna 414 twin-engine plane crashed upon descent in a bean field just 2 1/2 miles from the airport.

Onboard were: Ward, 36, Leetch, 37, Thomas Hileman, 51, the pilot; Andy Butler, 40, a regional representative for Sprint; Scott Bittner, 42, who ran a family-owned meat company; Terry Stralow, 64, owner of a nearby popular pub; and Woodrow "Jason" Jones, 45, a senior vice president/investment officer. All seven perished in the crash, leaving behind five wives, two fiancees and 13 children.

Ward's daughter was born just three weeks after the crash on April 7.

The Redbirds wore patches on their jerseys this season of a No. 7 surrounded by all the men's initials. "Ward" was printed on the back of warmup shirts. The green No. 3Alabama-Birmingham jersey he wore as a college player hung in their locker room before games.

A stone fountain with seven pillars and the names of the men sits outside the arena as a memorial.

"It has become less about the grieving and more about the honoring," Muller said. "There have been times guys have struggled, the guys who were closest to Torrey. I showed them it was OK to cry. We just try to help each other."

'My Guy'

No matter where Ward recruited, he bumped into someone he knew, someone who considered him a friend. He often was seen cell phone to ear, talking to a recruit, a high school coach or a junior college coach.

"He could recruit anywhere in the country," Muller said. "He knows like a million coaches. It could be in Wyoming and he'd be like, 'Oh yeah, that's my guy.' He had a thousand 'guys.' He just knew everybody, and everybody liked him because of that infectious personality."

Ward was considered a rising star in coaching. His attention to detail on scouting reports impressed Muller, who got to know Ward when they were both SEC assistants. He was, Muller and Lyons said, interviewing for head coaching positions shortly before his death.

Ward's trademark jokes "never ever ever" got old, Muller said. At least a few times a week, he would hike up his sweats to his chest, pull the drawstring around his neck, flip his cap backward and strut into Muller's office. The stunt was so much part of Ward's persona, the more-serious Muller played this character as part of Ward's eulogy at his funeral.

"Torrey had a smile that just made people smile," Muller said with a laugh just thinking about it. "It comes easily, it comes often. It just makes you feel good."

His jokes put players at ease and helped them open up to him about shooting slumps or family problems. Many called him an older brother, father figure or best friend.

"I could be having the worst practice in the world and he would just do something like go into dance mode and make me start laughing and it would just change my whole practice," said Akoon-Purcell, who had "T. Ward" tattooed on his wrist. "He was the only person who could understand where I was coming from, even when I was wrong."

The cruel irony is that now the one they relied on for advice and solace is not here when they need him most.

"Now I just think, what would he tell me?" Akoon-Purcell said. "I can hear his voice. I just try to use that to help me get through stuff."

The months before his death, Ward was a bundle of nerves and excitement anticipating the birth of a baby with his fiancee. He had two children, Torrey and Tamia, from a previous marriage.

"He made it to every doctor appointment he could," fiancee Johnene Beisel said. "He was always rubbing my belly. He would've just eaten her up."

'They miss him terribly'

Leetch got so caught up into football games, he often wandered away from others on the sideline and watched from a crouched position at the 20-yard-line, where he could get a better view of red zone plays. Always the 20.

"Someone makes a great catch right in front of him and he runs back to us and it was, 'I could have made that,'" Illinois State athletic director Larry Lyons said.

Leetch's ties to Illinois State were strong enough to lure him back for a second stint. He first was hired in 2005 and worked his way up to senior associate AD by 2008. He left in 2011 to become athletic director at Division III Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash., before returning to Illinois State in 2013.

"He had a gift," said Lyons, who envisioned Leetch one day taking over his job. "His gift was developing relationships."

But nothing was as important to Leetch as his Christian faith and his family.

He loved to play golf with daughter Avery, 7, and flew across the country to be there for the first day of preschool for his daughter Emmersen, 5. On one of the last full days the family spent together, they flew kites in the front yard.

"They miss him terribly," said Lindsay, his wife of 10 years. "He was so hands on. He always made time for any of their things."

When Illinois State held a ceremony before a packed season opening football game on Sept. 12 — Leetch's birthday — Lindsay went to a place she felt connected to her husband.

"I've had to carve out pieces of closure," she said. "At the football game, they were gracious and let me stand on the 20. I felt like I was doing it for Aaron."

April 7, 2015

Ward's last tweet was a collage of photos: the crowd at the championship game, Lucas Oil Stadium and the plane with the caption "My ride to the game wasn't bad."

The plane was scheduled to land shortly after midnight as dense fog settled in around Bloomington-Normal. The NTSB still is investigating the crash.

When they learned of the crash, Beisel and Joan Stralow, Terry's wife, drove around through the fog futilely searching for the site.

"My heart just dropped," Beisel said. "A lot of it was a blur."

Lyons drove to the airport to identify cars to figure out who was on the flight.

On his way to the arena to meet with players, Muller received a call from Ward's mom, Janice, and delivered the tragic news. He brought a pastor into the locker room and counselors were available.

He made that day's workout optional, yet every player stayed.

"We were all like Coach Ward would want us to do it," guard Justin McCloud said. "We were grateful just to be on this earth and to play basketball."

'A gift'

Ward told Beisel he didn't want to know the sex or select a name for their baby until she delivered. Three weeks after the crash, Beisel had a baby girl: Audrey La'Kendrick Ward.

She has her dad's middle name, smile, raised eyebrows and always-on personality.

"This is all I have. I held on to that," Beisel said. "I went into mom mode. I just pushed through. It was so hard. But I received the gift of motherhood. I look at her every day and see him."

They stayed with the Mullers until Audrey was 3 months old. Beisel calls their support "a blessing."

Now living in Maryland, Beisel collects items for a "daddy box" and savors memories to share one day with Audrey.

"He was an amazing father," she said.

Lindsay Leetch talks about Aaron often with their girls.

"They have a very good understanding of where he is," she said. "He is in heaven. We've leaned heavily on our faith. We still talk about him a lot and weave him into conversations."

The wives and fiancees will gather in Normal on April 7. They plan to share memories, draw support and release balloons. The basketball team will remember the day privately.

Muller said he knows new players will come into the program, ones who didn't know Ward. But the legacy of Ward, Leetch and the others will be carried on.

"The program is about the players," Muller said. "At some point, there won't be any players here who knew Torrey. But he always will be a part of me. He always will be part of this program."



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