When the starting lineups for Butler and VCU take the court on Saturday night in Houston, there will be players from big cities: Indianapolis (the Bulldogs' Andrew Smith), Charlotte (the Rams' Jamie Skeen) and Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla. (Butler's Shawn Vanzant and VCU's Ed Nixon). There will be players from mid-level cities and their suburbs: Lexington, Ky. (the Bulldogs' Shelvin Mack), Palmdale, Calif. (the Rams' D.J Haley), and Richmond, Va. (VCU's Bradford Burgess, from Midlothian). There will be a player from a 36,000-person sliver of land off Florida's central Atlantic coast (Joey Rodriguez, of Merritt Island) and an 18,000-person town northeast of Indianapolis (Butler's Chase Stigall, of New Castle).
And then there will be Matt Howard, from the smallest, non-suburban outpost of them all, situated in the rural triangle between Indy, Dayton and Cincinnati: Connersville, Ind., 13,481 people and shrinking after its major factories closed. It is the seat of Fayette County, which has an unemployment rate of 12.7 percent, second-highest in the state.
They were having a rally for the Howard family in Connersville on Thursday afternoon, as the final act of a fundraiser to send them to Houston. The Howard family is 12 in all, the father, Stan, a mailcarrier and the mom, Linda, at home raising 10 children. They were carried downtown in the bucket of a fire department ladder truck, with more than a hundred people looking on. What follows is a snapshot of the town a few hours before that send-off, through a series of edited conversations. I was in my hotel in Houston, across the road from Reliant Stadium, making calls to Connersville -- not to the family or the old coaches, but to anyone and everyone else in a place that was rallying around a Final Four hero.
Courtney Coon, waitress, Brian's Bookstore and Coffee Bar
The people in charge of the fundraiser come down every afternoon and have coffee here at the store. And I guess just one day they thought it'd be good to have a collection to allow Matt Howard and his family to be able to watch the game.
His dad, Stan, is a mailcarrier. He comes in every day to have coffee here, at about 3 o'clock after his route is done. They drink coffee and play music -- mostly bluegrass, and Stan sings sometimes. How is his voice? Oh, he has a beautiful voice! You know he sang the Star Spangled Banner before one of the Butler games? Here, what he likes to sing is Miss American Pie.
Howard Manifold, retiree, co-chair of Howard fundraiser, at Brian's Bookstore and Coffee Bar
I tell you what. I'm sitting here being interviewed by Channel 13 about this thing, for television. How bout you call me back at 2 p.m. I'll give you my cell phone number.
Debbie Risch, manager, Woodridge Inn; Howard family neighbor; Frequent poster of Howard-themed messages on Woodridge Inn's roadside letterboard
I love putting stuff on the sign. I'm a big sports freak, so I'll do just about anything, and I'll do birthdays, too. I started with the Butler signs when they won the game to get to the NCAAs, against Milwaukee. I put up, "GREAT GAME MATT" -- because he was fabulous in that game -- and "THE BULLDOGS ARE DANCING." I like to always use a pun on one of them.
When they made it to the Sweet 16, that's when I put up "MATT HOWARD HOW SWEET YOU ARE." Then once they made it to this, I put, "HI HO IT'S OFF TO THE FINAL FOUR BUTLER GOES," and the other sign says, "MATT HOWARD IS DA MAN."
I'm going to come up with a new one if they win Saturday. I've been thinking about it, but I can't tell you it yet. I don't want to jinx them. But no matter what happens, at the end of this, I want to put up "MATT HOWARD FOR MAYOR." That would probably make our mayor mad. My girls that work with me don't think it's a good idea. But Matt is very smart, he makes awesome grades, and I still might just do it.
Senior Matt Howard, the face of Butler basketball, doing a postgame interview. (Luke Winn/SI)
Ray Gulley, postmaster
Well, what exactly do you want? Stan has worked here for 33 years, and his kids kind of have grown up around the post office. Matt's paper route would be on the same route as his dad's mail route, so whenever I'd go out with Stan on his route, we'd see Matt out there delivering his papers on his bicycle.
His dad would yell at Matt sometimes. "Hey! Paperboy! Paperboy! Where's my paper?" And Matt would try to ignore him and act like no one was around. That paper route, in fact, has been passed down through five Howard kids. His youngest sister has it now.
Stan is the oldest mail carrier I have and still one of the best mail carriers I have. He's one of our go-to guys. We start at 5:30 a.m. getting the mail ready, and if someone calls in sick, I'll call Stan's house if it's his day off, and his wife will answer. Evidently she has us on caller ID, or just knows we'd be the only ones calling at 5:30, because she'll pick up and say, "Good morning, Mr. Gully." And I'll say, "You think Stan might want to work today?" And she'll say, "He would love to work. I'll go tell him."
He's kind of got the same work ethic at the post office that Matt does playing basketball. He's the guy in there making things happen.
Stan has taken one day of sick leave in 33 years, and we had to make him go home because, and I don't remember which one of the girls it was, they had taken her to the emergency room and he said, "I'm going to try to finish my route before I go over there." We said, "No, you have to get out of here -- it's an emergency. We'll take care of your route." He doesn't like to have to put work off on anybody else.
I'm not sure if you've heard, but there's a parade today for them at 4:30. It's going to start at the post office.
Patty Huddleston, owner, Hairitage Beauty Salon; Howard family neighbor
I didn't grow up with the Howard kids, they grew up with me. I've been around a lot longer. Each one of those children has passed our paper. They live right behind us, and when Matt was playing basketball, we would watch him all through high school and then when he went to Butler, we got season tickets there.
His dad, Stan, and my husband have breakfast most every morning together at a place called the Parkview Restaurant. They go there at 5 o'clock. And when Stan said he needed someone to go pass the paper while the family was in Houston, my husband volunteered to do the route for them.
All those kids are excellent kids, and it goes back on their parents, because they have no TV in their home and they were all home-schooled and had the best manners, and didn't get in anyone else's yard. Very, very polite. Matt was a little bit quiet but he is so good to everyone. We had a benefit up at the expo hall, and he went and stayed all night signing autographs for kids. I've got a picture of him in my window here and a big star with No. 54 on it.
I've never cut Matt's hair. I think his mom cut his hair. And then when he's at college, Zach Hahn is the hair-cutter. But Matt doesn't seem to get it cut very often, and the way it is now, well, it hasn't hurt his shooting ability at all.
How would I style it if he did come in? Wait, is this a joke call? I ... I probably would style it, but I doubt he'd want that. We like it the way it is. I'll be watching him on TV on Saturday. And as soon as I get rid of this ulcer, everything will be much easier. I haven't had an ulcer for 25 years, and then I got one after that second game, against Pittsburgh. I got really nervous.
But I don't think it's going to be a problem [in Houston]. I feel like they're playing with a sixth man out there, and that's the man up above.
Elsie Eckstein, owner, Parkview Restaurant
I've never met Matt myself. But he's something for us to be proud of. There ain't much left in this town. Factories have gone, jobs have gone. We lost a Visteon plant that made car parts for Ford. The city's got a lot of people but not much work. The way the economy has been going, it's been pretty hard on people. Matt gives them something to look forward to, watching him on TV.
Angie is Stan's usual waitress. She'd know what he orders. I couldn't tell you. She's on day shift and this is night shift. Our menu has breakfast all day long, and we have daily specials. Today's was steak and mashed potatoes and peas. Yesterday was meatloaf. Friday is fish.
Would I name a dish after Matt Howard? If I could find something that was really good, and he'd let me. Since I'm a woman, I'd probably make it a dessert.
I'm not sure what the best dessert here is. Hold on. [Asks around.] They say it's a banana and pineapple cake. It's like a vanilla cake with cream cheese icing and then it's got banana and pineapple on top, with whipped cream, and you can add chocolate to that. It's like a banana split on a cake.
Dawn, manager, McDonald's
No. We're not allowed to do an interview. We're not allowed to talk to the media. You'd have to call the corporate office.
Tony Cartwright, owner, Kunkel's Drive-In
Matt's dad usually eats here on Friday nights. I can't remember the last time Matt was here. We also own the Dairy Queen and I've seen him there. Kids probably don't hang out here as much as they did 40 years ago. You've seen a Sonic -- we're like the original version of that. This place started in 1954, and I've been running it since 1990.
I would say about 95 percent of the businesses in this town have some kind of Matt Howard sign up right now. If you look on the newspaper's web site, the News Examiner, you can see a photo of where they painted the Final Four logo right onto the street downtown, right at about Fifth and Central. And there's a hotel in town, the Woodridge, I went by it and saw a sign that said something like, "Matt's Da Man," and I thought, oh brother.
Matt Howard had 14 points and five rebounds in Butler's win over Florida. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Howard Manifold, retiree, co-chair of Howard fundraiser
Now that I’m home, how bout you call me back on my house number and I’ll pick up in 10 seconds. I’ll be able to hear you better that way. OK?
Howard Manifold, retiree, co-chair of Howard fundraiser
That was easy. Sounds better already.
I'm an old Butler grad who retired in 1993, and moved to Connersville. I played one year at Butler, in 1944, and then did track and field for three years, and baseball for two years. After that I was a traveling salesman, a mill supply salesman, for a now-defunct company in Indianapolis. I worked for them for 42 years. One of the customers told me one time that I was a "persistent peddler."
I met Stan probably 12 years ago, and we've become very close friends. We both go and have coffee at Brian's Coffee Bar every day. A long while back, he told me, because he knew I had played basketball at Butler, "I've got a son in grade school who's going to be a pretty good basketball player." So I started coming out to Matt's games. Matt is a great young man, a humble young man. I tell his dad all the time, if he wasn't a basketball player and he wasn't a brilliant student, he's still a fine young man at the end of the day. I can't praise him any more highly than that.
At the Coffee Bar, we have a young man who comes in who's a bluegrass picker. Comes in about 3-4 times a week, and he's got two huge books of religious songs and bluegrass songs and Johnny Cash songs. He picks, and Stan signs. He likes to sing a lot of Johnny Cash, like Ring Of Fire and El Paso, and then bye, bye Miss American Pie too. When my wife died about three and a half months ago, Stan sang at my wife's funeral, a cappella. He wouldn't accept anything for it. It's just that kind of family. He always tells me, "You're a Howard," because that's my first name.
The fundraiser has been excellent so far. We're precluded by certain rules from the NCAA. We can't announce how much we have, or how much we've taken in, but our treasurer told me this morning that she has four legal pads full of checks. We got [Colts owner] Jim Irsay's check about 10:30 this morning, and I can tell you that one was for $3,000. That's permissible. They're trying to take all 11 people -- the parents and the nine kids other than Matt -- and we're abiding by all the rules.
The mayor approached me about this fundraiser, and he asked me to go to Stan and get permission. I knew he would be reluctant. And he was very reluctant. I said, "It's something that the city wants to do, and people that love you want to do it." He finally said, "Well, OK," and that's when we got the ball rolling.
Barb Isaacs, Language Arts teacher, Connersville High
They had a program during his senior year in high school where they made basketball cards that listed players' interests on the back, and I just happened to be Matt's favorite teacher.
I had Matt for English for two separate years, and I'm a sports fan. Right now I'm wearing a Butler shirt. And I understand about all the hard work that students put into sports programs that they're involved in, and when they need to take a little break. As long as they've got their work finished in my class, I don't mind if they put their heads down on their desk for five or 10 minutes. And I knew Matt was practicing twice a day -- he was up very early to workout before school, and he'd come to my class in the mid-morning, and knew he needed a little break. Maybe that had something to do with it.
Matt wasn't someone who collected a lot of hangers-on. He wasn't someone who was fashionable; he was his own person even at that time. When Matt went to Butler, the first time I saw him play, his hair was cut short. And I told my husband, "I don't like this. I like Matt with floppy hair." That's what he had in high school, and he was good in high school. My husband worried that he would lose his mojo without the hair. Once that floppy hair came back, well, that was Matt to us.
The first NCAA tournament game [against Old Dominion] was on a channel that we didn't have here at the school. But I think a lot of computers had the game on. Afterwards we were told to please be careful with how much we were using video streaming on the computers, because our servers were having a difficult time with all of that. I think my kids were unhappy with me, because I didn't let them watch. I told them, "We have work to do, guys, let's get it done, and maybe we can tune into the last few minutes or so." But they were moving on to another class by the time the game was ending, so I just ended up in the hallway with a few other teachers and students saying, "Matt won it for them!"
Leonard Urban, mayor
It's really a homespun story. The Howards raised 10 kids in a three-bedroom house with one bathroom, with the dad working for the postal service, and his mom a stay-at-home mom, and Matt grows up with this incredible work ethic and personality. He came up the hard way, and he's an example of what you can be if you work hard. I'd like to have a city full of Matt Howards.
Has Matt received the key to the city? We don't do that very often. Matt has not. But -- and I'd like to keep this as a surprise if we could -- his mother and father will this afternoon at the rally, when it stops in front of the courthouse. What we have had for Matt is four Matt Howard Days. When he was a freshman, we took 500 people up to Butler for a game; when he was a sophomore, we took 800 people. When he was a junior, we only took six or 700, because we had an ice storm that night. This year, his senior year, we took 1,500 people on senior day. We figured that 1/5th or 1/10th of Hinkle Fieldhouse was Connersville that night. My friend at Butler who sets up the tickets said to me, "You folks have outdone yourselves."
We're just a small town and we've been hit hard economically. We've been No. 1 in unemployment for 10 years. I think now, we're No. 2, because a city that used to build motor homes and campers beat us. The Visteon plant we had employed 5,000 people. We had the largest dishwasher plant in the U.S. -- they made all the Lady Kenmores. That's gone. We had a casket factory called Connersville Casket, and another one that made casket hardware. All those businesses moved to foreign countries or down south where they don't have to pay union wages. I picked a bad time to be mayor, I'll tell you. But now, we have something to be excited about. The treasurer who's handled all the money for the Howard fundraiser told me there were checks in there for five, seven, nine or 10 dollars. You can tell that even poor people want to participate. As tough as it is, they want to participate in sending that family to Houston.