His dad's memory is never far away
To truly know an entire community is thinking about you is overwhelming.
In the case of Ryan McGregor, a senior at Ellsworth High School, the outpouring of support for him from the community has been appreciated, but it takes a toll. When McGregor's dad, Scott, died of a heart attack on July 31, 2016, he went into a fog: it didn't seem real.
It still doesn't seem real and it lingers on his mind.
Friday night before the Panthers host Osceola on Senior Night, it will cross his mind. It isn't just Senior Night, it's Senior Night without his dad.
"The first couple of months, whenever I would hear someone say something about their dad, I would think about it and then it was hard to get back focused," McGregor said. "But recently, if I hear the word dad in class, I still think about it, but I can stay focused on whatever I'm doing."
Reminders of the tragedy are everywhere and some of them come in the form of grief, but most of them come in the form of gratitude.
It's the gratitude that overwhelms him most and that feeling first entered his mind when people came flooding into the house to grieve with Ryan's older brother, Eric, and mom, Sue.
"I felt bad because all these people were there and I didn't know what to do," Ryan said. "I didn't cry in front of anyone, because I don't really like a lot of attention, so I tried to appear like I was normal."
"I didn't know how to react or anything."
At 16 years old, his dad had died. In his mind, that's a challenge he's supposed to resolve personally, thus he compartmentalizes it.
It's never easy to deal with loss, but it's even more difficult for a teenager to deal with a loss when they don't have a peer around to truly empathize with.
Co-head football coach Jason Janke, whose dad died in a motorcycle accident 13 months before, said he can only understand what his wide receiver is going through to an extent.
"Obviously I'm an adult so it's a lot different," Janke said. "When you deal with it as an adult, you have dealt with similar things in the past or you have friends that have dealt with it and can help you get through it."
Janke — an assistant principal at Ellsworth High School — and head baseball coach Ryan Christenson — who is an alternative education teacher at Ellsworth High School — each said they paid careful attention to McGregor outside of athletics because it is difficult for a kid to go through.
"As far as the season goes and just the whole being around the boys and with Ryan, he just wants to be treated like any other player on the team, but I definitely think about him on and off the field more so than other players," Christenson said. "He's always the type of kid that will point out other people if he's getting positive attention. He will always make sure to point out a teammate who also did something well during a game because he doesn't want anything to be all about him, even if it's a complete positive."
Which is why the well-intentioned extra attention is out of McGregor's wheel house.
'Hit or no drink'
Fellow-Ellsworth senior Alex Motley, whose dad died when he was in eighth grade, said the support is difficult to consume because at first, "you don't want to hear from anyone," he said.
After the initial conversations about the death, Motley noticed that McGregor didn't want to talk about that anymore.
"I just changed the subject and we played XBOX," Motley said. "For a while, I would take him to my house and we'd play XBOX and lock the door so no one else could bother him. I just tried to keep him away from it."
McGregor has needed to find other escapes to keep his mind busy. One of those escapes was football, which he had considered not playing his junior year. He played and had a season worthy of all-region honors.
Before his senior football season started, Janke pointed out that he thought McGregor had a legitimate chance to be an all-state athlete in two sports: football and baseball. This football season, McGregor has caught 12 passes and averages over 20 yards per catch with four touchdowns.
His true love, though, is baseball where he earned academic all-state after batting for a .418 average and seven doubles.
The first weekend after his dad died, he played baseball with his Twin Cites Baseball Academy team' he said the best part was that everyone treated him normally.
"They didn't treat me any differently, like they obviously said nice stuff, but they didn't treat me any differently really and didn't make a big deal about it, which I appreciated and we won that tournament, which was fun," McGregor said.
One of the first memories McGregor has of coaches and teachers offering to help him return to normalcy was when Christenson and then-coach Steve Block took Ryan and his brother Eric to batting practice.
"Ryan was all business," Christenson said. "He was focused on hitting and didn't want to talk about anything at all. He just wanted to hit."
During the season, in the batter's box, McGregor is often reminded of his dad, especially if he doesn't have a hit yet.
"I think about him during at bats sometimes," McGregor said. "He would come down my sophomore year to give me a drink and he would tell me I couldn't open it to drink it until I had a hit.
"I have that on my glove now, it says 'hit or no drink.'"
The memory is never far away. As he decides where he'll continue his athletic career after college it will be without his dad, with whom he discussed the limitless possibilities that the future could hold.
His dad won't be around to help him make his decisions, but his dad did show him how much a community could care about the healing of one of its own.
"It's amazing to actually see how many people actually care about you," McGregor said. "I mean, it happened in the middle of a work day. A lot of people were at work or going to work and they just came right over without hesitation to be with us. I've really never had anything like that happen; I'll never forget it."