GRIZ GRIT: Tragic Endings

By MICK HOLIEN for the Flathead Beacon

We all have experienced the premature passing of a great friend, an associate, a relative or maybe just an acquaintance. It’s always a soul-searching experience for me.

And when we grow older, especially when you have spent three decades covering athletes and coaches from a variety of sports, it seems you often hear of someone’s passing or a pending funeral or memorial service.

I often don’t share my grief. And instead of attending a myriad of funerals I usually spend time thinking about the good exchanges I have enjoyed with the individual.

And after some 40 years as a reporter of one type or another, I’ve been required to write my share of tragic death or funeral stories, sharing grief with families when I’m often the last person they want to talk to.

But I feel obligated to share the stories of a couple of guys, one who recently died and another who I just met at Homecoming who was tragically killed.

I met George Weikim the night before the Homecoming game. He was accompanied by a bunch of guys he played football with at the University of Montana in the mid-70s.

A huge man from Illinois who came to play on the line for the Grizzlies, first under legendary Jack Swarthout, and then Gene Carlson, he was breaking bread with teammates, such as Mark Plum, Terry Falcon and Murray Pierce, all of whom over the years have become good friends of mine.

I was shocked the next weekend when Mark emailed from Shanghai where he works to tell me George was killed after he was struck on his motorcycle by a drunken driver in his hometown of Chicago.

How quickly our lives change.

The death of former Griz assistant coach and weight and conditioning coach Phil Ryan struck me particularly hard.

In the 20 or so years I have known “Philly,” I don’t think I ever saw him frown except perhaps when I fell down the stairs at the bottom of the “M” trail after he led me up the switchbacks to the concrete slab.

His request was not to have a memorial service and that indeed is unfortunate because his friends need time to mourn his loss.

But there will be a celebration of his life Nov. 3 at the Press Box in Missoula, where his former teammates and coaching friends and others will recall the positive effect he had on all of them.

I firmly believe the Grizzlies do not play for national title in 1995-96 without Phil Ryan. He was a man who valued team above self and was content, actually even pleased, to allow his contributions to go unnoticed.

But they didn’t go unnoticed to team members like Dave Dickenson, who benefitted from Phil’s influence, especially during the ‘95 championship run.

And on a personal level, Phil, who was just 54 when he died, worked as my volunteer personal trainer for several years – pushing me to heights I could not have possibly obtained without his tutelage.

I always will treasure his encouragement and friendship and the value he brought to Grizzly athletics every day he was around.

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Now in his 27th year of broadcasting University of Montana football or basketball games, award winning journalist Mick Holien has a unique and insightful perspective on collegiate athletics.