Archdeacon: ‘He just wanted to play well for his grandpa’

FAIRBORN – He had lost “Superman” and now he was feeling all alone.

Tanner Holden was in tears as he sat in Wright State’s dressing room before Thursday night’s game with UIC at the Nutter Center.

“I was torn up,” the Raiders star said just before midnight. “This was the first game I was playing without him and, honestly, it took a lot to get myself mentally ready to go out on the court.”

Delmas Conley, Holden’s 79-year-old grandfather and a shining light in his life, died Tuesday after a tough battle with pancreatic cancer. His wake is Sunday and the funeral service is Monday morning back home in Wheelersburg.

That’s where Holden had been until he returned to the WSU campus late Wednesday night.

“I wanted to be with my family,” he said. He said they comforted each other and told stories of his bigger-than-life grandfather, the man he called Papaw.

“He was the big man,” he said. “He was our Superman. We all looked up to him, not just for what he had done, but for what he stood for. His big things were working hard and being kind to everybody.

“He had a great story.”

Conley had an up-from-the-bootstraps ascension, Holden said:

“His upbringing wasn’t anything like mine. He already was working, doing different jobs, when he was 15 or 16 to pay for clothes and things. And he never retired. He was still working at 79.”

Tanner’s dad, Rodney Holden, said his father-in-law started Conley Trucking in 1975 with three trucks and that the Portsmouth-based company now has “around 50 trucks.” It also has a river terminal for loading and unloading goods on the Ohio River.

“The racing part of his life was just a hobby to him,” Rodney added.

Maybe so, but in the sports world that’s how Delmas Conley was best known.

An accomplished stock car driver specializing in late model cars on dirt tracks, he was enshrined in the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame in Walton, Ky., in 2003. He had 561 victories in his career, the last coming Aug. 7 at Portsmouth Raceway.

Over the years, he drove the No. 71 car to victories in the Johnny Appleseed Classic at Eldora Speedway, the Beckley USA 100 at Beckley (WVA) Speedway and the Southern 100 at the Southern Ohio Speedway in Wheelersburg.

He won track driving titles at five different speedways in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. Two of his sons – R.J. and Rod – followed him into racing.

But Conley’s biggest accomplishments come with his family tree: four children, including Tanner’s mom, Tammy, 10 grandchildren and eight great grandkids

None are better-known athletes than Tanner and his older sister, Sydney, a 5-foot-9 guard who scored 1,272 career points, grabbed 740 rebounds and won honorable mention All America honors playing at Rio Grande College.

Tanner is equally impressive. The 6-foot-6 junior, who was an All Ohio football and basketball player at Wheelersburg High, has scored 1,037 points and pulled down 469 rebounds in his 70-game WSU career.

He was named to the Horizon League’s All Freshman team two seasons ago and won first team All Horizon League honors last season.

‘That’s how you honor him’

“Tanner’s grandfather was very important to him,” Rodney said. “He was at all his games from the time he was little, right through high school and at Wright State. He was there for all his grandchildren, whether it was sporting events or recitals or any special event.

“He would talk to the kids about the good things they did, as well as the things they didn’t do so well.”

Tanner said he thought about all that Thursday as the game approached:

“Before the shootaround today, me and Coach Nagy shared a few moments. He understood what I was going through.”

In October, Scott Nagy’s dad, longtime college coach Dick Nagy, died after a 15-month battle with leukemia and since then it had been hard for the Raiders’ coach to cope with the loss.

When Tanner came onto to court for warmups before the game, he was wearing his grandpa’s racing shirt over his Raiders jersey. He had written “Papaw” on his basketball shoes.

But back in the dressing room for one final respite before the opening tip, Tanner felt the emotions flood over him again and he began to cry.

His teammates comforted him he said.

“He just wanted to play well for his grandpa,” Nagy said.

Tanner’s parents had made the two-hour drive from their Ohio River town to Wright State on Thursday night to support their son and they knew how he was struggling.

As Rodney explained: “One thing I thought of was what his grandfather would say to all of us: ‘During difficult times, we’ve got to get back to work.’”

Right before the game, Rodney – who had hall of fame basketball career at Marshall University – said he texted his son:

“I just said, ‘Enjoy the moment. Your grandfather would want you to be playing and doing your job out there. That’s how you honor him.’”

Tanner said thoughts like that helped him meet the moment at hand: “It made it a little easier.”

This season, he’s the team’s leading scorer, averaging 20 points a game, and he’s the Raiders’ second leading rebounder, averaging six a game behind Grant Basile. He also leads the team in assists, steals and three-point field goal accuracy.

That said, no one knew how much his heavy heart might weigh him down against the Flames.

Building on his legacy

He answered that in resounding fashion, playing a game-high 37 minutes, scoring a game-high 26 points and gathering in a game-high eight rebounds to lead WSU to a 90-72 victory over UIC.

He came within a point of matching the career-best 27 points he scored against Toledo his freshman season.

“I really felt my grandpa was looking down, watching me and helping me through the game,” he said. “It was like I could hear him in my ear saying, ‘Play hard! Play hard! Shoot the ball and don’t worry about a miss. Just keep playing hard!’”

At the final buzzer, he fought his emotions leaving the court, but when he got to the dressing room, he broke down sobbing.

His teammates consoled him, as did Nagy.

“After the game, I was pretty emotional and Coach Nagy came over and hugged me,” Holden said. “That’s when I let it all out.”

“I’m really blessed to be part of a team that cares for me so much. It shows that they love me and they’re in my corner.”

He stayed on campus to go to classes Friday and he plans to play Saturday against visiting IUPUI. “With my Papaw, life kept going and he kept working, no matter what,” Holden said. “And now it’s up to our whole family to keep building on that legacy.

“For me, that’s working hard at what I do and a big part of that is trying to play basketball the best that I can.”

And that’s just what he did Thursday night.

He honored Superman with his own super performance.

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