Tom Archdeacon: Steve McElvene’s mom coping the best she can

Steve McElvene. David Jablonski/Staff
Caption
Steve McElvene. David Jablonski/Staff

She was making a list of all the things she needed to do before her son returned to the University of Dayton in three days for summer school.

Last Thursday, Jenell Shoals was sitting in the living room of her best friend, Pam Schoch, who lives next door on Romy Avenue in Fort Wayne.

Jenell’s 20-year-old son, Steve McElvene, was at home with Pam’s 18-year-old son, Lucas.

“They were listening to music and eating bacon,” Jenell said. “And we were in the process of figuring out everything (Steve) needed for Dayton. We were getting all his clothes washed and I was writing down the things I needed to get — laundry soap, toilet paper, stuff like that.”

All of a sudden Lucas came bursting through the front door. He was frantic.

“He said Steve had just stood up, like he couldn’t catch his breath, and then he’d just grabbed him,” Jenell remembered. “He said we needed to come quick.”

The two women ran next door and while some of what happened next is a bit of a surreal blur, other moments remain heartbreakingly vivid and indelible.

“It did look like he couldn’t catch his breath,” Jenell said quietly. “We called 9-1-1 and they told us to lay him down. I started throwing water on his face, hoping to bring him back and Pam started CPR. The fire station is just two minutes away and they got here right away, but it still seemed like an eternity.”

She said the rescue crew worked “36 to 37 minutes” on her 6-foot-11, 268-pound son, who was the beloved big man of the Dayton Flyers basketball team.

“They did a lot more on him than they normally do on people because they thought he was so big and strong that he could overcome it,” she said.

That wasn’t the case and soon her boy was wheeled out on a gurney.

Back next door, that “to do” list lay forgotten in Pam’s living room. It meant nothing now.

Steve McElvene would not be going back to UD.

He had been pronounced dead.

Catch phrase lives

Late Wednesday morning, Jenell was back in Pam’s living room, joined not only by her best friend, but by Steve’s girlfriend Takeyah McGraw, a former college basketball player herself and now a nurse’s aide in Jacksonville, Fla., and by Jakhari Wilbert, a basketball teammate and friend of Steve’s at New Haven High School and, most recently, a Central State University student who came to 10 Flyers’ games this past season to cheer on his pal.

In the corner of the room stood a life-size cardboard cutout of a grinning Steve, wearing his No. 5 UD jersey while spinning a basketball on the middle finger of his upraised right hand. A cartoon conversation bubble attached to the display said “Steve Says NO!”

That was the catch phrase Flyers’ fans — especially the raucous Red Scare student section — hung on the Indiana big man, who at times seemed to swat shots all the way back to Fort Wayne.

This past season the redshirt freshman set a UD record with 56 blocked shots.

The only thing he did far better than reject shots was embrace hearts.

Everybody seemed to love Big Steve. Not just in UD Arena, but on campus, where several teammates say he was the best-known player — likely the best-known student — at the school.

Some of that had been evident last Monday evening when a prayer service for him at the Immaculate Conception Chapel on campus — even with the students departed for the summer — drew an overflow crowd of over 400.

Jenell and several family members and friends had walked into the service with many of the UD players and coaches. Afterward, she had been given the life-size likeness of her son that now towered over her as she put together another list.

For the past few days she has been making funeral arrangements.

Steve’s viewing will be Friday night from 6-8 p.m. at the Abundant Life Church (3301 E. Coliseum Blvd,) in Fort Wayne. The funeral service will be at the church on Saturday morning at 11.

“My mom said I shouldn’t go do all of this by myself, so Pam and my baby sister, Vanessa, went with me,” Jenell said. “But Pam broke down when we started picking out the headstone and Vanessa did the same out at the cemetery.

“We were able to find one casket, a slate blue one, that Steve could fit into and we were able to get a plot at Covington Cemetery that’s in the same row as my father, just six (graves) down.”

She got up and retrieved a folder that held a picture of the grave marker. Along with the dates of Steve’s birth, Sept. 26, 1995, and his death, May 12, 2016, there is a basketball rim and ball engraved on one side of the stone, and a player taking a jump shot on the other.

In the middle are the particulars:

Steven K. McElvene II

“Doody”

Flyers No. 5 — True Team.

Developed his game

Steve’s family all referred to him by his childhood nickname: “Doody”

“At UD arena they’d all chant ‘Big Steve!…Big Steve!’” Jenell smiled. “But he was always Doody to me.”

It was a loving name for a loving kid.

“He was just the nicest kid in the world,” she said. “He loved everybody. He couldn’t even argue without laughing. Now they wonder if his heart gave out, but if you knew him, you knew he had a big, loving heart.”

And yet when he was born, he was small, Jenell said:

“I think he was something like 5 pounds, 6 ounces. He was the smallest of my three kids.”

She said his growth spurt hit when he was in the sixth grade and they were living in Talladega, Ala.: “All of a sudden he was the biggest kid in class. He grew out of all his clothes.”

Soon her son had to duck to get through doors or look into bathroom mirrors.

And then there was the adventure of driving.

“When my dad died, he wanted his ’93 Cadillac to go to D,” she said, smiling at what was coming next. “Doody had to put the seat all the way back. It looked like he was driving from the back seat. And it still wasn’t big enough. One time he backed the car into a little ditch because his knee hit the gear shift.”

On the basketball court, at first, there were problems, too.

After getting introduced to the game in Alabama, he returned to the Fort Wayne area with his mom and two younger brothers — Escarvar and Trayshawn — and played his junior and senior seasons at New Haven High.

“At first he was just out there for defense,” said Wilbert. “His offense…pheeew!!! It was a long road for him.

“At the start of junior year he wouldn’t dunk even though everybody was yelling for him to do it. He’d miss layups and try fade-aways rather than leaning in and using his size. Our coach told him had to learn a hook shot.”

Eventually his game developed, both on the court … and off.

That first year after he returned from Alabama, he went to a girls’ tournament game and spotted McGraw.

“Afterward he had Jakhari come over to me,” she said with a smile. “He said, ‘My friend wants to meet you.’ I was like ‘Who?’

“I get over there and see this big guy, but he won’t even speak to me.”

“He was shy,” Jenell chimed in.

Eventually Steve got the courage to reach out to her, Takeyah said: “He asked me to meet him at Walmart to get oil.”

Oil? What, bath oil?

“No, oil for the Suburban they had,” she said. “He said he didn’t know what kind to get, but he really did.”

She found him to be: “Just so fluffy. He was cool. Down to earth. We walked around Walmart and talked about everything.”

She said they began going out Oct. 16, 2013. Their first date they made chocolate chip cookies with his mom. Soon he was taking her to her favorite place to eat, Buffalo Wings and Ribs.

After graduation Takeyah played basketball for a year at Ancilla College, a two-year school near Donaldson, Ind.

Steve, meanwhile, sifted through several college offers and chose UD, where he sat out the first season because he was a partial academic qualifier. This past season was his first on the court for the Flyers.

And Takeyah, who had moved with her mom to Florida, managed to catch one game at UD Arena.

“He just always made me feel comfortable,” she said. “I could always be myself around him. He made me feel protected. I had that foundation, that closure with him.”

She grew quiet and finally said in a whisper:

“Right now, this is by far the worst thing I’ve ever dealt with.”

‘Dayton Flyer for life’

This past week, Jenell has spent most of her time at Pam’s.

Although people keep telling her they can’t believe how well she’s holding up, she knows outward appearances can be deceiving.

“I wake up and put a smile on my face, but when it’s time to go to sleep … it hits me,” she said.

“I’ve gone back home to take a shower, but then I get back out right away. It’s just too hard to go in there. You know how college kids are. They take off their shoes and one goes here and one there. Their stuff is everywhere. And when I’m in there, everywhere I look I see reminders of my son.

“It’s all so unreal. I’m just trying to get through this the best I can.”

But it’s not easy, especially because of the suddenness of her son’s death.

He seemed a picture of health. The kid who had weighed 308 pounds in high school had dropped 40. He was blossoming on the court and because of that size — along with those soft hands and that impressive footwork — he seemed destined for the NBA in the coming years.

The Allen County coroner did an autopsy but the results won’t come for several weeks. Jenell has heard the speculation – that her son died because of an enlarged heart, the same condition that killed UD big man Chris Daniels 20 years ago — but she’s heard no official word.

In the meantime people are reaching out to her and her family from across the nation. A GoFundMe account to pay for funeral expenses is nearing its goal of $25,000.

A lot of those contributors have ties to UD, a school that fully embraced McElvene.

Jenell said UD coach Archie Miller and assistants Tom Ostrom and Allen Griffin have visited her in Fort Wayne. And Tuesday night she got a call from the mother of Flyer forward Josh Cunningham.

“From the very first game Doody played at Dayton, I knew he was at a good place,” she said. “We all just cried. My sisters went to college, but it was a whole different experience than this. People were yelling his name and waving signs. It was just wonderful.”

That’s why she said the Flyers shirt she wore Wednesday will remain a staple of her wardrobe:

“Oh yeah, I’m a Dayton Flyer for life.”

And with that she went back to checking off her new list.

“I think it’s about all done,” she said with glistening eyes. “We’re putting Doody in a new white suit his uncle got him. We got a red and white tie for Dayton and they’re supposed to bring me a UD pin to go with it.

“And at his dad’s request, there’ll be a picture of the basketball team in the top of his casket.”

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