As much as we'd love for him to be here Friday, thankfully, we'll always have our 'Jason stories'
There’s a part of me that hopes I wake up Friday morning and realize that the last few weeks have just been a really bad dream.
I know it hasn’t, but the unrealistic part of my brain desperately wants go to New Hampton’s homecoming football game and see Jason Winter standing there, waiting to walk down the track to become a member of the Chickasaw Athletic Hall of Fame and giving me grief while waiting to do so.
I’m writing this on Monday evening, which means it has been 23 days since I picked up my cell phone and heard the voice of my very good friend Chad Brown cracking with emotion.
“Have you heard yet?”
“No, what’s up,” I replied.
And then the line went quiet for what seemed like an agonizingly long time. Maybe it was just a minute, but if it was, it was the longest and one of the most shocking minutes of my life.
Long before I came to New Hampton, I had come to know Jason Winter as the most fierce competitor I had ever met. Thirty-one years ago, I was a reporter at the Mason City Globe Gazette, and he was a freshman basketball player at Waldorf College.
It was at the same time that Brown became an assistant coach for the Warriors, and while my friendship with Jason was more sporadic than it was with “Brownie,” I was still stunned by the news and overcome with a sadness I have felt few times in my life.
When you’re a sports writer, the mantra is there’s “no cheering in the press box,” but the fact is, all of us who have covered sports have our favorite teams and our favorite athletes. Anyone who claims otherwise, is a liar.
Jason Winter, back in the winter of 1992-93 became one of my instant favorites. Man, he could shoot a basketball, and he was just so damn tough. The Iowa Juco Conference back then was loaded with athletic, talented players, and I covered a lot of Waldorf games. Not once over the next two years did I see Winter back down from anyone.
And he was a reporter’s dream. He delivered great quotes, often times with a sense of humor that had me in tears. It kind of became standard for us to seek out Jason after a game, even if he hadn’t lit up the stat sheet.
“Who’d you talk to,” the reporter covering the Waldorf game would be asked when he arrived back in the office. Almost invariably one of the answers was “Winter.” I still remember a guy named Dick Johnson coming back to the office, getting the who’d-you-talk-to query and laughing.
“Well, Winter, even though he only scored like five points,” Dick said, “but hey, we’re trying to win awards here and you need good quotes, right?”
In two winters at Waldorf, we gained a million Jason Winter stories, but on that Saturday morning earlier this month when Chad Brown called me, words failed us both.
While I covered Jason, Chad coached him — first as an assistant and then as Waldorf’s head coach. Just like reporters aren’t supposed to have favorites, neither are coaches, but there’s little doubt that is what Jason was to Chad.
“I coached a long time,” Brown said, “and I’m not sure I ever had one who was as much as a competitor as he was. I’m telling you there was no such thing as 90 percent or even 99 percent when it came to him. It didn’t matter if it was in practice or a game, I knew he was going to give us everything he had.”
He couldn’t help but laugh as he recounted the story of playing on Winter’s team in a 3-on-3 tournament in New Hampton, one that took second to a team headlined by another New Hampton-to-Waldorf kid named Craig Volk.
“Twenty years later, he was still moaning that he lost to Volk,” Brown said, “but that was Jason. It didn’t matter if he was playing basketball, playing cards or playing ping pong, he played to win every single time.”
But his junior college coach also appreciated the fact that Jason Winter, as 18, was mature beyond his years.
“He was a natural leader, and he could talk to anyone — teammates, coaches, old guys in the crowd,” he said. “When I was an assistant, I met with the freshmen once a week. You know, the how’s-it-going talk and all that. The meetings were supposed to be like 10, 20 minutes, and I’d look up and it’s just Jason and me and we’ve been talking for a couple of hours.”
When Brown became the head coach, that Winter maturity was a godsend because, as the old basketball coach succinctly put it, “Never — and I mean never — did I have to worry about him making the wrong decision off the court.”
Brown stayed in touch with Winter over the years, but after he left Waldorf, I didn’t see Jason until I moved to New Hampton.
He put on a great youth basketball tournament at MFL-Mar-Mac, and my boys played in it and I coached in it for a lot of years.
I think the first time we went was in like 2011, and the grief giving picked up right where it left off in 1994.
Back then, I once asked Winter if he played other sports and he told me he had run on three school-record relay teams in track.
One of his Waldorf teammates overheard the comment, laughed and said, “Wow, those other three guys must have been really fast.”
So when his uncle and my fellow coach, Chad Sweitzer, told me Jason was running the tournament, I couldn’t wait.
Chad introduced me, but Jason waved him off with a “I know Bob” comment. The first thing I said to him was something like “thank God you had three really fast teammates.”
He laughed, I laughed and he plotted his revenge.
Last winter, he reminded me that paybacks are a ... well, you know.
His MFL-Mar-Mac girls basketball team came to New Hampton for a scrimmage over the Christmas break, and Chickasaw coach Dave Leichtman asked me if I could bring one of my sons and ref the affair.
Noah volunteered, and during the scrimmage, I was the “out” official and Winter came up behind me and quietly dead panned.
“Man your partner is way more athletic than you,” he said. “I think I win, right?”
I laughed out loud.
On Monday, as Chad and I swapped “Jason stories,” he roared with laughter at that one.
“You know that’s what made him such a great teammate,” he said. “He could give you grief, but he could take it, too. ... He was so much fun to be around, to coach, but he also knew when it was time to get to work.”
He turned out to be a heck of a lot more than one of this old sports writers favorites, for Jason went on to be a husband, a father, a law enforcement officer, a city councilman and a pretty good coach.
Before he died on Sept. 1, Winter filled out his Hall of Fame questionnaire. He thanked his coaches, teachers and his family — especially his parents, John and Mary — “for pushing me to do my best.”
He went on to thank the committee that selected him and Jim Gorman for nominating him.
And he ended his comments with this:
“I was always proud to tell people where I am from,” he wrote on his information sheet, “and I still cherish the memories I made with my teammates, classmates and friends growing up a CHICKASAW!”
He epitomized the saying “once a Chickasaw; always a Chickasaw.”
The wonderful part of my job is meeting athletes like Jason Winter and watching them go on and lead successful lives.
I just wish that on Friday night, he was going to be here and giving me a little more grief.