Twenty-four years ago, Steve Runty lost his best friend, his hunting and fishing buddy, his role model, his business consultant and a man he considers to be right at the top of Nebraska's all-time best football players. Even more importantly, the friend who died after crashing his World War II fighter plane at an air show in Ludington, Mich., was an even better man than he was a football player. He had epic strength, amazing speed, an ultra-competitive mindset, and yet, he was as gentle, kind, caring and generous as any man Runty has ever met before or after his tragic death.
Saturday, Nebraska hosts the school this Husker legend wanted to attend because he grew up in Bay City, Mich., in the shadow of Michigan State University. Fortunately, when the Spartans knew they were getting Bubba Smith, they eased up on Wayne Meylan, and Bob Devaney used every connection he had in Michigan to recruit a middle guard that was so great, he became one of six Nebraska two-time consensus All-Americans, one of only 14 Huskers who have been formally inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and a middle guard who finished in the top 10 of the Heisman Trophy voting in 1967.
Just 41 when he died, Meylan left a legacy so compelling that Runty still chokes up talking about a legend who absolutely would have loved Nebraska being in the Big Ten Conference's Legends Division, right there with Michigan State and Michigan, the programs he followed and almost worshipped before becoming the ultimate Cornhusker and the manifestation of every value Nebraskans hold dear.
Runty Had Immediate Answer to Osborne's Question
Runty will never forget hearing the stunning news of Meylan's death and how then Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne called to ask him for an appropriate scripture to read at the funeral in Omaha. Almost immediately, Runty had an answer that spoke volumes about his best buddy, who also happened to be a close friend of both Osborne and Devaney.
Micah 6:8 is the Bible verse Runty selected to describe what he, Devaney and Osborne knew to be true: Wayne Meylan was a man who understood what was good and what was desired from his Lord, and he did what was right while loving mercy and walking without pride before the God he served.
"That was Wayne, through and through," Runty said. "He was all about justice and being kind and being considerate and being humble. He was so strong and so fast and so physical that he could have been a bully, but he was the farthest thing from that than anyone I know. His personality off the field was the exact opposite of what it was on the field."
Competition Was a Byproduct of Productive Work
For Meylan, "Competition was more a byproduct of doing productive work than anything else," Runty said. "For most people, competition can be their greatest liability. They can't relax. They tighten up. Wayne was the football version of Michael Jordan. He was so competitive and had so much fun being competitive that everything just always fell into place.
"He was the best at his position in the country for his last two years at Nebraska," Runty said. "He was the best in his business. He was the best fisherman I ever saw in my life. He was the best hunter I ever saw in my life. He was the best person I ever saw in treating everyone like they should be treated. He had one attribute after another, but he would never flaunt it and never put it in your face. He was the true definition of kindness. He knew when to speak up and when to be quiet. He knew when to lift hard and when not to lift hard. He was slow to anger and slow to criticize and always quick to listen."
Wayne Meylan Sr. was all of that and more, according to Wayne Meylan Jr., now 38, and for 14 years, the man in charge of sales at the Omaha-based business that his father founded - an international service provider of leading-edge industrial cleaning technologies. Two months shy of birthday No. 13, Wayne Jr. flew with his father for lunch on the other side of Lake Michigan on that fateful June 26, 1987, day. But his father asked him to fly back to the air show with his mechanic and fellow pilot, so the two planes switched passengers. "We actually kind of saw the crash," Wayne Jr. recalled. "We circled around and could see it in the heavy timber."
Because he's in sales, Wayne Jr. feels his dad with him most of the time. "To this day, not a week goes by without someone asking me: 'Are you Wayne Meylan's son?'" Wayne Jr. related. "I can't tell you how many great stories I've heard from people that I didn't even know. Everyone knows he was a great player, but everyone I talked to had a story about how kind and generous he was. That means more to me than anything because that's how I remember my dad."
Meylan's death was so devastating for his widow and young family that Runty's family ended up taking in Wayne Jr. for a few months to help everyone get over the emotional hump. "I walked on at Nebraska as an offensive guard, ended up transferring to Wyoming and after working my way to starter, I had an injury in the third game my junior year and that was it for me," Wayne Jr. said, pointing out that his allegiance, just like his father's, is, was and always will be Nebraska.
Devaney, Osborne Both Spoke at Meylan's Funeral
Coach Devaney and Coach Osborne both spoke at his father's funeral. Both often visited the Meylan family's vacation home on Lake Michigan. "My dad loved both coaches, and so do I," Wayne Jr. said, remembering the stories about how his dad ended up a Husker. "Coach Devaney spotted my dad on film, tracking down a running back he was recruiting," Wayne Jr. said. "My dad would be so proud seeing Nebraska host Michigan State in a game where both teams are members of the Big Ten Conference. I can't tell you how much it would mean to him."
In honor of his father, Wayne Meylan Jr. and his wife, Heidi, have invited his dad's youngest brother, Ed Meylan, and his wife, Mary, to Saturday's nationally televised Big Ten showdown. "They're both Michigan State graduates," he said, "but I'm hoping they wear red. They know how much my dad loved Nebraska."
They also know that their brother, and brother-in-law, had to be one of the kindest, most humble legends who ever played at this legendary school.
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