Steve McElvene spoke to high school class day before his death

Dayton Flyers center Steve McElvene spoke to three classes, including one full of academically at-risk students Wednesday, a day before his death, New Haven (Ind.) High School Principal Greg Mohler and Spanish teacher LuAnn Neri said Friday.

“He saw hundreds of kids that day,” Neri said. “It was almost like God had that plan that he was going to touch that many lives.”

Neri, who taught Spanish to McElvene in his two years at New Haven, spent a good part of Wednesday with him. McElevene always dropped by to see him when he was in town.

“He’s been in the school probably three or four times this year,” Neri said. “It just so happened Wednesday it was like right after lunch time, and I looked up in my door, and there he is. The first class he came into was just a first-year Spanish class. While I was going over the lesson, he was telling the kids, ‘You’ve got to pay attention the first time around. I didn’t pay attention.’ The next class I had was a dual-credit class for college, and he was telling the kids, ‘You’ve got to get these credits now. Don’t wait like I did. I screwed around.’ ”

McElvene then spoke to 25 freshman and sophomore students who are part of the Finish Line program, which the school uses to help kids who are credit deficient get back on track to graduate. They’re the kids, Mohler said, who need to hear from role models and talk to people their own age. McElvene couldn’t play as a freshman at UD because he was a NCAA partial qualifier.

Mohler’s son Garrett, a 2014 New Haven graduate like McElvene and now a Division I baseball player at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, was also in the class with McElvene.

McElvene told the kids, “I didn’t take academics seriously until it was almost too late. Then I buckled down and got busy.”

Neri said, “McElvene was just so encouraging. He was like, ‘If I could do it, you can do it.’ Of course, they’re not 7-foot tall. But he was making it clear to them that whatever their dream was, just because they didn’t start off the best year or two years in school doesn’t mean they should give up. Kids talked about it all the next morning. Then, of course, when the news came in everyone fell apart.”

McElvene died at 11:19 a.m. Thursday after collapsing at his family’s home in Fort Wayne. The Allen County Coroner’s Office announced Friday the investigation is ongoing.

Word started trickling through the high school on social media within an hour of McElvene’s death. Mohler held off on announcing anything official to the school as long as he could, but the kids found out quickly because of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

“We were trying to get confirmation as best we could before we did anything,” Mohler said. “Then we started pulling in counselors and pastors and clergy. We got them in small rooms with Kleenex boxes and let them have time. We weren’t worried about attendance. We were just trying to help young people.”

Mohler was the principal when McElvene arrived at New Haven in 2012 after two years at Talladega (Ala.) County Central High School. With a personality to match the size of his 6-foot-11 frame, McElvene was accepted right away by the student body.

“You couldn’t help but love on him,” Mohler said. “Here’s a 6-11 giant who’s always smiling, who’s always clowning, who’s always got his two arms on you wanting to love on you. That’s how he was. That’s how we’ll always remember him.”

Mohler loved to kid around with McElvene. That’s his style, how he connects with students and builds relationships.

“He always thought he could out-shoot me,” Mohler said. “I played ball back in the day. He always wanted to try to beat me in a 3-point contest. I said, ‘Stevie, you can’t beat me. You just stay in the middle of the paint there. You don’t want to come out to the 3-point line and try to take me. It’s going to be bad for you.’”

There were difficult conversations, too, as Mohler urged McElvene to take his schoolwork more seriously.

“Look, you’ve got to stop hugging the girls,” Mohler would tell him, “and you’ve got to hug your books more.”

McElvene came back to the high school so often during breaks from his two years at UD, Mohler joked that he thought he was still in school at New Haven. V.J. Beachem, a teammate of McElvene’s at New Haven and now a player at Notre Dame, is another former athlete who stops by often.

“I know they both had big goals,” Mohler said. “There was no doubt in my mind the sky was going to be the limit for Stevie as he continued to progress in that program. I’m sure the NBA had an eye on him.”

Mohler said McElvene had no health issues in high school and he was as surprised as everyone by McElvene’s sudden death.

“It’s just a loss too quick,” Mohler said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

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