Dozens of runners gathered in the parking lot of M&K Oil on 4J Road in Gillette on Monday evening for the ninth annual Memory of the 8 Run/Walk.
Some were in their high school and junior high track uniforms, while other older runners were in their running gear. They all circled around Orville Hess, the cross-country coach at Campbell County High School from 1988-2001.
Hess, now a cross country coach and teacher in Hulett, coached and mentored Morgan McLeland, one of eight University of Wyoming cross-country runners who died 18 years ago Monday in one of the deadliest car crashes in Wyoming.
“I asked the kids today in every one of my classes. I said, ‘What’s so special about today?’ Nobody knew.” Hess said, adding that he let every one of his students know about the crash that struck the Wyoming running community. “The world lost eight individuals that night because of somebody’s reckless drinking.”
On that night in 2001, less than a week after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, eight members of the Cowboys cross-country team were coming back from a road trip to Fort Collins, Colorado. They were all killed when a drunken driver hit their car.
They were McLeland, Cody Brown, Kyle Johnson, Josh Jones, Justin Lambert-Belanger, Kevin Salverson, Nick Schabron and Shane Shatto.
The university had suspended all sporting events for 10 days because of 9/11 and the runners had decided to visit Fort Collins about 65 miles away. On their way home, Clinton Haskins, a steer wrestler on the rodeo team at UW, swerved over the middle lane in his truck, and hit their Jeep head-on. Only Haskins survived the crash.
Haskins pleaded guilty to eight counts of aggravated vehicular homicide.
While serving time, Haskins and McLeland’s mother, Debbie McLeland, traveled around telling their stories to inform others about the dangers of drunken driving. McLeland forgave Haskins, she said, and still talks to him to this day.
After spending less than 10 years in prison, Haskins got back into the world and has a wife and kids, Debbie McLeland said.
“He’s got a nice life going, and I’m really pleased about that,” she said.
It was easier to forgive than hate, and she didn’t want the total number of victims who lost their lives in that crash to be any greater, she said.
“I think it’s harder to stay mad and angry. I really do. I think it’s harder on people to go that route,” Debbie McLeland said. “I know for me, the best thing for me to do is what I did, and my family’s done that too.”
Trisha Evenson, the current CCHS cross-country coach, was in high school when Debbie McLeland and Haskins were traveling around with their message about drinking and driving. Evenson remembers how their speech affected her.
“It was a cool thing to see, and that hit home in high school when him and Debbie were up there together,” Evenson said.
Eighteen years later, Morgan McLeland and the other seven are remembered by hundreds who take part in the 8-mile race that runs in a figure-8 pattern around Gillette. Each mile of the event is named for one of the runners who lost his life that day.
More than 250 registered to run or walk this year.
“We need to make sure we remember why we’re here.” Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell said during the pre-race meeting. “Remember that we need to have a different culture, and this is where it starts. The culture of drinking and driving needs to stop.”
Sonny Roberts, an avid local runner who organized the Memory of the 8 Run/Walk, said he never knew Morgan McLeland, but by chance he was able to set up the run.
“The only thing we have in common is running,” Roberts said.
Roberts was in the habit of running 8 miles each day, and a friend of the McLeland’s reached out to him to create an event. They all decided it was perfect to have an 8-mile run to remember each of the eight. Roberts scrambled to make it happen.
“(The McLelands) said that was the best thing ever. It makes the hard day easier,” Roberts said. “What do you do on a day that has sorrow and you know it’s coming up? We’ve kind of changed that. So now it’s more of a celebration of who they were.”
The field of runners and walkers was full of friends and family of the McLelands, Gillette long-distance runners and cross-country teams from Thunder Basin High School, CCHS, Hulett, Sage Valley Junior High School and Twin Spruce Junior High School.
“Deb and Jim (McLeland) have always supported running, so anything we can do to support (them),” Evenson said.
Debbie McLeland described her son as kind, helpful and someone who saw things in a different way. Hess, Morgan’s high school cross-country coach, said he was quiet, committed, humble and “got the job done.”
In the huddle just before the run, surrounded by the community instead of mourning the loss alone, Debbie McLeland took the microphone and told everyone a story about her son.
She said that when Morgan was a high school senior, he never finished first until the last meet of the year.
“That year that Morgan was a senior, he wasn’t winning races. And I kept saying to him, ‘Morgan, you can beat those kids. What’s the deal? You’re faster than that,’” she said. “He kept saying to me, ‘Look ma, it’s not my job to win every race. It’s my job to build this team.’”
Morgan won the individual Class 4A state title as a senior in 1998 with a time of 16 minutes, 23.94 seconds. On top of that, all five of the Camels runners finished in the top 10, winning the state team championship.
He got the job done.