Leistikow: Chris Street's legacy remains powerful, 25 years after his death
MILO, Ia. — As Patty Street’s eyes begin to fill with tears, her husband interjects inside their modest home on a farm 13 miles southeast of Indianola.
“Life goes on,” Mike Street says, repeating a phrase the couple consciously tries to emphasize when that inevitable, overwhelming emotional force strikes.
It’s gotten easier over the years, they say, dealing with the horrific tragedy of Jan. 19, 1993, that instantly took the life of their only son.
But they know that feeling will never go away.
They've learned to deal with it over the years, through faith ... and an ability to change the subject.
“When you start to well up a little bit, then you have to refocus,” Patty says. “If you stay there, the rest of your day is just kind of ruined.”
An Iowa basketball star, Christopher Michael Street was two weeks shy of his 21st birthday when the 1988 Chrysler LeBaron he was driving was struck by a Johnson County snowplow on the outskirts of Iowa City.
Friday marks 25 years, a quarter of a century, since Chris was killed.
“He’s been dead longer than he was alive,” Mike says, a statement of chilling reality.
Adds Patty, her voice barely audible now: “That’s hard.”
Yet even though today’s 30-year-old wouldn’t remember that Tuesday night in 1993 that shook this tight-knit state and brought it to tears, the legacy of Chris Street lives on — and only continues to gain strength.
There is no better man to frame Chris' time on earth than Rick Brown.
About five years ago, Mike Street says he mustered up the courage to approach Brown — a longtime, award-winning sports reporter at the Des Moines Register — about writing a book about Chris.
Brown told Mike he would do it. But with the growing demands of the newspaper business, he couldn’t promise a timetable. That was fine with Mike, who further trusted Brown with the process that he never asked to see a rough or final draft.
Over the past five years, Brown conducted dozens upon dozens of interviews with major and minor players in Chris' story, which became national news.
FROM THE ARCHIVES: State of Iowa loses son in Chris Street
Kim Vinton Williams, the girlfriend who somehow survived being thrown from the passenger seat of the crushed LeBaron, says she still thinks about Chris, her first love, every day.
Fred Hoiberg, the Iowa State icon who wore Street's No. 40 the rest of the 1993 season to honor his friend and former AAU teammate, jokes how Chris' signature smile annoyed him throughout the worst game of his Cyclone career — a 1-point outing in Iowa City.
John Feinstein, a renowned Washington Post sportswriter, was so shaken upon hearing the radio report of Street's death that he pulled his car over on a Maryland highway to collect himself. Three days earlier, Feinstein had covered Street's final basketball game, a 65-56 Iowa loss at Duke.
The Streets opened their home and their hearts to Brown. They shared boxes of letters they had received, mostly from strangers, following their son’s death.
“I don’t know how they read them all,” Brown marvels. “I’d read them, and they choked me up in the sense of how much people cared about him who never met him.”
Just last week, roughly two years after Brown retired from a 37-year newspaper career, “Emotion in Motion: The Life and Legacy of Chris Street” was officially released.
Mike and Patty drove to Wisconsin to pick up boxes of copies last Wednesday.
By Thursday, they had read the entire thing. They thought it was fantastic.
Not that it wasn’t difficult reading for still-grieving parents.
“It was 'Read a while, wipe tears for a while, walk around a while, get readjusted.' I’m not a reader. I know it’s a shock to people," Mike says, tossing in some wry self-deprecation.
"I’ve never sat down and read a full book. But I did that day.”
Over the course of 326 pages, one unexpected omission stood out to the Streets.
There wasn’t much about Chris’ basketball career, which most projected would take him to the NBA. (Yes, the 6-foot-8 forward was that good.)
“It’s basically about his relationships, which is pretty neat, as you think about it,” Mike says. “But I hadn’t locked in on that.”
The book even brought surprises to Chris’ parents.
One such story involved Chris as a quarterback for Indianola High School’s football team. After falling short in a playoff game against Des Moines East, Chris asked his coach if he could go into East’s locker room.
“What for?” Dave Summy asked.
“I just want to congratulate them for going on to the next round,” Chris responded.
And that’s exactly what he did.
“We had no clue that he had done something as classy as that,” Patty says.
That’s the kind of person Chris was.
That’s the kind of person everyone who encountered Chris came to know.
The human side of Chris Street was why his loss was so poignant to so many Iowans.
Brown understood that, too, as a reporter who covered Chris’ basketball career, which was cut short midway through his junior season at Iowa.
“In the back of my head, I have a list of the favorite players I’ve ever covered,” Brown says. “Quick with a smile. They trusted you. You developed a relationship.
“Chris would definitely be on my list.”
Faith was a big part of Chris Street’s life. A more substantial part than maybe his parents even realized 25 years ago.
But it’s a part they’re eternally thankful for.
At Iowa, Chris had befriended a Roman Catholic priest, 54 years his elder, named David Bayne.
He had become active in Athletes in Action, a Christian organization that ties together faith and sports.
Chris’ faith burgeoned through conversations with Paul Lusk, a devout Christian who was Chris' roommate for two years before transferring to Southern Illinois.
“They’d go to bed (in the dorms), and Christopher would keep jabbering,” Mike says with a laugh. “(Paul would) say, ‘Street, hush up! I’m doing my prayers!’"
In the afternoon of Jan. 19, 1993, Chris had his weekly meeting with Jim Goodrich, who headed up Iowa’s Athletes in Action chapter. The pair discussed the idea of a chapel service before the next night’s game against Northwestern, something that hadn't been done before.
Chris thought it was a good idea.
Hours later, at 6:49 p.m., he was dead.
Days later, Bayne was delivering Chris' eulogy.
The Christian faith promises eternal life for those who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and savior.
That belief, more than anything, has given the Streets some comfort through 25 years of tears.
“First thing that I said after (the accident) was,” Patty says, “… at least I knew he was in heaven.”
“Oh, boy,” she says, emotions walloping her again.
The conversation about their son’s faith brought up a memory of when the Streets were cleaning out Chris’ apartment, shortly after he died. They found Chris' Bible and noted a passage, John 12:23-25, that had been underlined in blue marker.
In the passage, Jesus tells followers why he must die — comparing himself to a grain of wheat that goes into the ground and produces many seeds.
“That’s our way of justifying the Lord taking him,” Mike says now. “We hope that by taking him, he’ll sprout other people to become Christians and turn their life over to the Lord.”
Another detail from Brown's book, one that Patty had either forgotten or didn't know, had her sobbing.
Lying next to Chris' head at the accident scene was a block of wood with a Bible passage, Psalm 86:11, which is about seeking devoted trust in times of strife — "Teach me your way, Lord, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name."
It's those reminders that have strengthened the surviving Streets' faith, and their belief that they'll one day see Chris again.
“You always think you have control. You have plans, you have goals,” Mike says. “To have it shattered so fast, you really find out that you have no power at all."
At last summer’s Iowa State Fair, they saw a simple message on a trailer.
“Do your best, and let God do the rest.”
It’s something they’ve taken to heart, and repeated to one another, in advance of the 25th anniversary of their son's death.
“It was short, but so powerful. With my mind, I need things that are simple,” Patty says, now with a touch of humor. “The older I get, the more simple I need them.”
Then, she says something sobering and powerful: “Through God’s grace is the only way we’ve survived.”
It’s an amazing thing, how a life that lasted 20 years, 11 months and 2 weeks, still carries such a positive impact 25 years later.
Reminders are constant.
There’s the Chris Street Foundation; the Chris Street Gymnasium in Indianola; the Chris Street basketball courts at Moats Park; the Chris Street Memorial Park in his native Humeston.
Every year, a Hawkeye plays under the Chris Street Memorial Scholarship. The basketball team’s highest annual honor is the Chris Street Award, given to the Hawkeye who best exemplifies the “spirit, enthusiasm and intensity” that Chris displayed in his abbreviated career.
And now there's this book, which Mike views as the family’s final chapter, of sorts, in their continued efforts to honor their son.
“It’s my last hurrah as far as trying to get things done that I wanted to get done, I guess,” Mike says.
Upon his 2010 arrival in Iowa City, Fran McCaffery instantly embraced the Streets —– and has continued to honor Chris throughout his eight years as Iowa’s head coach.
Mike and Patty have an open invitation to games, the locker room, team events.
An annual golf tournament in Chris’ memory is always sold out, with former players from all eras pouring into Finkbine Golf Course to reunite as a Hawkeye family.
“They stop what they’re doing, and they come back for that outing,” McCaffery says, “(because) he epitomized everything that you want in a student-athlete.”
Saturday’s 11 a.m. matchup against Purdue at Carver-Hawkeye Arena is marked as the “Chris Street Forever 40 Memorial Game.”
Players will warm up with shirts honoring Chris, whose retired No. 40 Hawkeye jersey will hang over an empty chair on the Iowa bench. Former Chris Street Award winners will be in attendance. Video tributes and interviews will be shown during breaks in the game.
But perhaps the most tangible legacy of Chris Street, you might not easily notice.
The game’s ball boys are Nick and Kaden — 8½-year-old sons of Chris’ younger sisters, Sarah and Betsy.
If he were alive, Chris would’ve had four nephews and one niece (Caleb, now 14; Nick and Kaden; and 5-year-old twins, Cooper and Chloe). They are old enough now to learn about and appreciate "Uncle Chris."
“They have been my blessings,” Patty says.
Mike and Patty, both 64, aren't sure what the future holds — "Do your best, and let God do the rest" — but they feel like after Saturday's 25th-anniversary game, they'll be at peace that they've fought the good fight in honoring Christopher Michael Street (Feb. 2, 1972-Jan. 19, 1993).
Just last week, out of the blue, Mike got a text message from the wife of Jeff Moe, a former Iowa guard whose intensity Chris surely appreciated as a Hawkeye fan growing up.
Even though Moe's Hawkeye career preceded Chris' by several years, the family was reaching out to Mike to share that their 6-foot-8 son would be wearing No. 40 for his junior-high team.
Those kinds of uplifting moments provide smiles through sorrow — and validation of the palpable spirit of Chris' continuing legacy.
“It’s just amazing, 25 years later he still has this impact," Mike says. "Actually, it makes it probably easier (to cope) in the test of time.
"He stood it.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
'Chris Street Forever 40 Memorial Game'
Matchup: No. 3 Purdue (18-2, 7-0 Big Ten) at Iowa (10-10, 1-6)
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa CIty
Note: Fans are asked to wear white for the "Whiteout" game; T-shirts honoring Street will be available for purchase, and Iowa will hand out a limited number of "CMS40" wristbands at arena entrances.
The book: Copies of "Emotion in Motion: The Life and Legacy of Chris Street" will be available at the game, with author Rick Brown signing copies. Cost is $19.95. You can also purchase the book online at streetsportsapparel.com or at The Black & Gold Shop store locations.