There was a knock at the door.
“Me and my brothers were upstairs in our room playing a game,” remembered Trey Landers, the Dayton Flyers junior guard. “It was like 9 or 10 o’clock at night and all three of us were just in there chillin’.
“My uncle, my mom’s brother from Texas, was in town and he was there and so was my aunt and a couple of other family members and I came down. That’s when my mom says, ‘C’mon, let’s go back upstairs.’
“So I’m sitting on the bed with my brothers and I can sense something is wrong. We asked why everybody was here and then it was like, ‘Hey, where’s Dad?’
“My mom left the room ‘cause she was crying and my Uncle Terry, he just looked at us and finally said, ‘Your dad’s been in an accident.’
“We were like, ‘Is he OK? Where is he?’
“And he just says, ‘He didn’t make it.’
“Me being a kid – I was just eight – I started freakin’ out. I had real anger issues when I younger, so I just started punching walls and stuff. There was just a lot of frustration.
“My older brother Robert, he was 10, he couldn’t function right then either. Our little brother (Tallice) was crying. Everybody was crying.
“I remember finally just sitting on the stairs by myself. I felt all alone. I just didn’t know what to do. It felt like it wasn’t real.”
But out on Salem Avenue it certainly was real.
It was December 19, 2006 and 30-year-old Robert Landers Sr. had been standing in front of the Big Muffler repair shop, talking to another man, when he was shot multiple times by a high-powered rifle. A by-stander said the weapon was an AK-47.
He died at the scene.
Sgt. Erik Wilson of the Trotwood police said it appeared Landers had been ambushed,
A new, white, four-door Mitsubishi had been seen fleeing the scene. It later was found abandoned on Miller Road. It was a rental. One man eventually was picked up for questioning, but soon was released.
Today, 12 years and two months later, the case remains unsolved.
The elder Landers had been in trouble with the law before – he had been arrests for armed robbery and weapons violations – but Trey, who was really small when those incidents happened, knows little of them and only has heard snippets as he’s grown up.
He doesn’t know who or what caused his father’s death, but said the whole family got a warning just before the funeral.
“That’s another part of the story,” he said quietly as we spoke in room overlooking the Flyers’ practice gym in the Cronin Center the other day. “My mom got a phone call. It was somebody telling us if we showed up at the funeral, something was going to happen.
‘We didn’t know if our life was at risk or what, so we went to the viewing the day before, but we didn’t attend the funeral.”
Landers said he initially struggled as he tried to come to grips with the violence, the sense of loss, the uncertainty that suddenly had forced its way into his life.
“I got kind of isolated at school,” he said. “I didn’t want to talk to anybody. And I had those anger issues.”
After his father’s death, he said his mom, Tracy Matthews, often worked two and sometimes three jobs to support the family: “When everything was going bad and we were all against the wall, she remained consistent and dedicated to us. She provided for us.
“She became a travel nurse and she’d work all over – she’d drive to New York, to Kentucky, to Indiana – and that meant she was gone a lot. Even so, she found a way to make most of our games. She just cared so much and that transferred to us.
“My older brother was always quiet, but when our dad passed away he realized: ‘I’m the next guy. It’s next man up.’ And he tried to be the male figure for us. He’d watch us and sometimes my grandmother came over.
“For the most part though we had to figure it out on our own. We learned how to cook. We had more than the usual chores. We kind of grew up really fast.
“Our grandfather (Moses Matthews) is a preacher in Texas and we could call him. And we could talk to our coaches, too.
“But the people who were really there for me were two teachers – Katie Cripps and Kelly Hess – at my school (Frank Nicholas Elementary) in West Carrollton.
“They were more than just teachers to me, they were someone I could lean on, someone I could always count on and trust. They actually were at our house the night it happened. They knew what me and my brothers were going through and they really helped us through the process.”
He said as he got older his isolation and his anger “got molded” into thoughts of “I can’t bring my dad back, so what can I do now? Yeah, it sucks for me, but life is going on.
“So either I let it affect me the rest of my life or I make the best of it I can: ‘Can I somehow end up better person coming out of this?’”
Sports as a refuge
If you are a UD basketball fan, you know the path the 20-year-old Landers has chosen.
He’s a standup, no-excuses guy who has become the energetic, effervescent leader of the Flyers.
And beneath all those window dressing features – the muscled shoulders, that magazine cover, megawatt smile — is that big, once-broken heart and a backbone that hasn’t bent even as his fortunes have plummeted, risen and again dipped at UD.
He said he learned long ago from his mom, his brother, himself: “When things get hard, you don’t fold.”
Growing up, Landers said he and his brothers often found refuge in sports: “For me, it’s always been my world where, when I had stuff going on, I could go to the gym and just clear my head.”
Older brother Robert helped lead Wayne High School to the Division I state title game in football, was rated the No. 29 defensive lineman in the nation by Scout.com and was the state champ in the shot put.
He’s now a standout at Ohio State, a fireplug, 6-foot-1, 285-pound defensive tackle known for his behind-the-line tackles.
And younger brother Tallice is a promising senior basketball player at Wayne.
As for Trey, he was an All-State first team basketball player at Wayne who led the Warriors to the 2015 state title. Initially, he hoped to follow his brother to West Virginia University, but when Robert de-committed from the Mountaineers and jumped to OSU, Trey thought about staying around home, too.
On a recruiting visit to UD, he said he was welcomed en mass by Flyers players Scoochie Smith, Kendall Pollard, Steve McElvene, Kyle Davis and later, Charles Cooke:
“I had a great time and right after that I told my mom, ‘This is where I want to go!’
“And freshman year, even with all the veterans we had, I figured there’d be some kind of minutes for me on the floor. I didn’t care what. Just maybe 5 or 10 minutes a game to help.”
Instead he rarely got to play. Coach Archie Miller put him into just nine games for a total of 52 minutes and initially he said he struggled with his end of the bench burial.
“I kept fighting it the whole season or, well, at least half the season,” he admitted. “I was frustrated, but I kept working in the gym, wondering what I can do better.”
To this day, Landers said he and his brothers talk every day. Sometimes multiple times a day:
“When all this was happening freshman year, I’d tell my older brother: ‘I’m not playing. What am I supposed to do? I like it here. I like the guys. They’re like my older brothers. I don’t want to leave, but I want to play.’
“And he said, ‘Just continue doing what you’re doing. Stick it out and see what happens.’”
Through it all, Landers said he never went to Miller to lobby his case:
“Oh no, I didn’t ask him. I didn’t want him to think that everything was all about me because it wasn’t.
“This was bigger than me. This was about the program and I knew Coach Archie was a winner. So I never second guessed him. I just continued to work and I picked the seniors brains and finally I realized this isn’t the end of the world.
“I’d been through a lot worse.”
“I had nothing to be mad about. We were winning and at the end of the day, you want to be known for have a winning legacy.”
After that season Miller left for Indiana, Anthony Grant took over and Landers’s exile was over.
“Me and Coach Grant are really cool,” he said. “It’s easy for me to sit and talk to him. He real straight forward. We had one conversation where he told me how it was for him and we sort of related on the basketball court.”
Landers started all 29 games last season and was the team’s third leading scorer at 11.3 points per game and No. 2 in rebounds at 5.6 per game.
He started the first 25 games this season before being replaced earlier this month by 6-foot-9 freshman Obi Toppin.
After coming off the bench for two games, Landers suffered a shoulder injury while rebounding in practice and spent last Saturday’s game against VCU on the sidelines in street clothes, his left arm and shoulder fortified by an elaborate black brace.
Still the team’s leading rebounder at 6.8 per game, he said: “It hurt watching from the bench and seeing us get beat on the glass.” He said with trainer Mike Mulcahey’s help, he did everything he could to get back on the court as fast as he could.
Even so, he surprised everyone last Tuesday at league-leading Davidson and played nine minutes as UD upset the Wildcats, 74-73.
“We’re coming down the stretch and we’re just a couple of games out of first place, so everything is crucial,” he said. “I’m a leader on this team and I need to do all I can.”
He said he “felt fine” Tuesday and took all the precautions he needed.
“It’s a great feeling being on the court with these guys, especially with Josh (Cunningham) now. He’s a senior. We don’t have too many games left with him, so you want to cherish as much of this as you can.
“I know the good times aren’t promised. Things can change just like that.”
A way to remember dad
Landers said he thinks about his dad often.
“It happens all the time,” he said. “I might see my teammates leaving the game and talking and laughing with both their parents. Or, I can just be lying in the bed and it’s like, ‘Dang! He’s on my mind.’
“I was only 8 when he passed, but I remember he was always laughing, so I think that’s where I get my sense of humor.
“And he loved really hard. What I mean by that is that me and my brothers could just tell we really brightened his day, And I saw the happiness he could put on my mom’s face, too.”
He tries to hang onto those good moments as best he can.
That’s why, when he was 16, he and his older brother got their dad’s name — Robert Sr. – tattooed in script on the inside of their upper left arms. “I’ve got my mom’s name on the other arm,” he added
More recently, he got a more elaborate tattoo on the inside of his left forearm,
The principle image shows a silhouetted father holding his son above his head and included the message: “Dad, I know you are always walking beside me.”
Trey once wore a dog tag that bore his dad’s name and a small picture of him with his three sons. The other day though that had been replaced by a new necklace affixed with a medallion that had a photo of his dad wearing a black Cincinnati Reds cap with the classic wishbone C.
He said he’s told his Flyers teammates what happened to his dad, just as a couple of them have shared some of the most personal stories from their lives.
“Everyone faces some kind of trials and tribulations,” he said,
But, he said, this team “is here for each other … We have so much chemistry with each other. We all love each other. We all get along with each other and I think that bond shows on the court.
“We love playing together. We trust each other and that’s why we’re never out of a game. We believe in each other. We’ve had our backs against the wall, but we never quit.
“That’s something I learned long ago:
“When things get hard, you don’t fold.”
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