NORMAL, Ill. (AP) - Members of the Illinois State University community continue to grapple with a plane crash a year ago that killed seven people, including an assistant men’s basketball coach and an athletics official.
Illinois State associate head coach Torrey Ward, deputy athletic director for external operations Aaron Leetch and five others were killed in the crash near Bloomington April 7, 2015. They were returning from the NCAA basketball tournament in Indianapolis.
The Redbirds wore jersey patches this season of a No. 7 surrounded by all of the men’s initials. Ward’s jersey he wore as a player at the University of Alabama at Birmingham hung in the locker room before games, and a stone fountain with seven pillars and names of the men sits outside the arena.
“It has become less about the grieving and more about the honoring,” head basketball coach Dan Muller told the Chicago Tribune (https://trib.in/1URXAkT). “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.”
Muller got to know Ward when they were assistants in the Southeastern Conference, and he was impressed by Ward’s attention to detail on scouting reports. He was interviewing for head coaching jobs shortly before his death, Muller and athletic director Larry Lyons said.
Ward’s trademark jokes never got old, Muller said. Ward would sometimes pull his sweats to his chest, pull the drawstring around his neck, move his cap backward and walk into Muller’s office.
“Torrey had a smile that just made people smile,” Muller said. “It comes easily, it comes often. It just makes you feel good.”
Ward’s jokes helped put players at ease, and many called him an older brother, father figure or best friend.
“He was the only person who could understand where I was coming from, even when I was wrong,” said player DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, who had “T. Ward” tattooed on his wrist.
Leetch returned to Illinois State in 2013 after a stint as athletic director at Division III Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. During football games, he often wandered away from others on the sideline and crouched at the 20-yard-line and watched.
Illinois State held a ceremony prior to a season-opening football game on Sept. 12, which is Leetch’s birthday. His wife, Lindsay, went to a spot she felt connected to him.
“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.”
Wives and fiancees plan to gather April 7 in Bloomington and release balloons, while the basketball team plans to remember the day privately.
Information from: Chicago Tribune, https://www.chicagotribune.com
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