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Today's word on journalism

Monday, January 29, 2007

Words as weapons:

"When he had a pen in his hand it was like giving a kid a machine gun."

--Peter Hall, theater director, on "Angry Young Man" playwright John Osborne (1929-1994)

Writing Wayne Estes' legend turns out to be more than just a story

By Andrea Edmunds

December 1, 2006 | I first heard about him my second day at USU. For that reason alone I liked to think it was fate. My Connections teacher was a huge fan of basketball and he told us a little about him. It started because we were playing a game and one of the questions was "Who was the greatest basketball player ever to come to USU?" No one knew the answer.

His name was Wayne Estes. During his time at USU he had 2,001 career points, the most of any Aggie for a long time. He was an All-American basketball player. He was named USU's all-time Most Valuable Player. He scored 48 points in a basketball game and set the Nelson Fieldhouse record with only five games left to play in his senior year. He died that night. It was February 8, 1965, and it was one of the greatest tragedies in Cache Valley. He was with his friends walking over to see a car accident. A live power wire was hanging down a little more than six feet off the ground. Wayne's roommate walked under it, Wayne did not.

When I started writing the story, I had vague ideas of maybe talking to his old coach or quoting some newspaper clippings from the time. I had no idea it would lead me to an old sports writer who'd had a huge crush on him, to Wayne's high school gym to watch his nephew play basketball, to the radio announcer at the time Wayne was playing, or to his roommate's house.

When I started the story, it was going to be about Wayne, and that's what I ended up writing about. But by the time I was done I was not writing it for myself anymore, I was writing it for all the wonderful people I had come in contact with. The story, for me, had changed.

Eleanor Olson: She had been a sports writer at the time Wayne was going to school and she'd written a book about Wayne. I had a sneaking suspicion she'd had a crush on Wayne. Talking to her confirmed that. When he died, she said it was like the whole world had ended. "After [the memorial] was over it took a long time for the fieldhouse to empty. It was like if we walked away we were admitting he was gone and wasn't coming back."

Anaconda, Montana: My friend Benji and I planned the entire trip one day in class. We'd go with Benji's dad to visit Wayne's dad in Montana, they were old friends. Pulling into Anaconda was not very exciting. There was a lot of nothingness and big sky, then all of sudden there was a mine and tiny house built upon tiny house. They were all old with old rusty cars parked in front of them. Most of them didn't have a yard, but nearly every house we passed had a basketball hoop nailed above the garage door. I could almost see Wayne shooting hoops in the driveway.

We drove past the high school, cars lined the streets for about six blocks around the school. The gym was so packed that I couldn't turn my head, and the halls were completely full of people just standing around waiting for the game to get over. I could only see a little corner of the action, and my heart nearly stopped when I saw a boy dribbling the ball up the court with a No. 33 and "Estes" on the back of his jersey. It was Wayne's nephew, wearing Wayne's number.

John Cheek: I didn't use a lot of quotes from my interview with Wayne's high school coach. But he was a very colorful man and could talk forever about how hard Wayne worked. "I've had three great players," he told me, in his 28 years coaching. Wayne was one of them. Every once in a while Cheek would tear up and stop talking for several minutes. "I'm sorry. My wife died two months ago," he said, choking on the tears. "We began going together when we were both 14 and were married for 61 years." He was such a sweet old man and hardly knew how to live without his sweetheart. The Cheeks had been like second parents to Wayne in high school. I was crying too.

Del Lyons: Wayne's roommate, he was with Wayne the night he died. I was told he didn't like to do a lot of interviews because he wasn't happy with the way the media portrayed Wayne. I nearly passed out when he said he would do the interview. Everything about Wayne was so fresh on my mind, I felt like I had known him and gone to school with him too. When I walked in and saw Del, I was surprised at how old he looked. The story had been so real to me that I was almost expecting a 21-year-old.

Reid Andreason: I went to his home in Millville to interview him. He had been the Aggie radio announcer at the time Wayne played basketball. I nearly fell out of my chair when he jumped up and started reenacting one of Wayne's last plays. "That's how I remember Wayne. In the corner on the baseline, faking one way and turning around and hooking the ball up over his head and scoring." He told me that he wanted them to name the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum after Wayne.

Dr. John Worley: He was the team physician at the time Wayne was killed. He was so friendly and we talked on the phone for about an hour. Worley said he remembered the last time he saw Wayne alive. "A vivid memory to me is one of this big, good-looking guy leaving the dressing room. Got everything going for him. Then to walk in the emergency room and see him lying there dead, smell the burn."

Dr. Worley liked to talk about all the weird coincidences that had happened that night. At first Wayne couldn't make a shot, his arms were all tingly, but when Worley looked at him, Wayne was fine. Then all of a sudden Wayne couldn't miss a basket for the rest of the game. Worley was called away from a party to the hospital to work on a guy who'd been in a car accident -- the very same one Wayne had been looking at -- that's why he was there when they brought Wayne in.

LaDell Anderson: It took me forever to get hold of him. He was such a busy man that I almost didn't do the interview, it seemed like too much of a hassle. "The first game after he was killed, I think I broke down in the dressing room after the game," he said. "I was by myself and I just sobbed. I did that two or three times after games. He was such a wonderful person. He was everything you want in a basketball player. Everybody wants a son like Wayne Estes."

After I hung up the phone, I was so glad I'd talked to him. I realized that everyone I talked to had a part of this story.


Copyright 1997-2006 Utah State University Department of Journalism & Communication, Logan UT 84322, (435) 797-1000
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