Remember ESPY winner Jason McElwain? He's now inspiring Dallas Center-Grimes boys basketball

Tommy Birch
Des Moines Register

GRIMES — Dallas Center-Grimes boys basketball coach Joel Rankin sits in a chair behind one of the school’s hoops, FaceTiming with Jason McElwain following his team’s practice on Dec. 1. Practice has been over for about a half hour and a few players are still leaving. One of them, Austin Penton, stops when he sees who Rankin is talking to. Penton runs over and leans down behind Rankin’s shoulder so McElwain can see him.

"Taking charges?" McElwain asks Penton. 

"I’m trying to," Penton says with a smile.

That’s what McElwain wants to hear. The 34-year-old, who lives in Rochester, New York, is an avid follower of the Mustangs and one of the team’s biggest inspirations. Back when he was in high school, McElwain, who has autism, made national news when he came off the bench in a game and knocked down six 3-pointers. That was over a decade ago. But his story is now resonating with this Iowa high school basketball team. 

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The Dallas Center Grimes Mustangs starting five get ready to take the floor with the support of their teammates at Des Moines Christian game on Saturday, December 11th, 2021.

"He’s really into us and really inspires us to do better, knowing that there’s other people out there that want the best for us," said Dallas Center-Grimes senior Cole Glasgow, who has signed to play college basketball at Missouri-Kansas City.

McElwain isn't just cheering on the Mustangs from afar. He's providing a helping hand.  Rankin and his players are using McElwain’s story and his life lessons to get them through the season. They're hoping the season, like McElwain's story, has a happy ending and a memorable celebration with a state championship.

Jason McElwain is carried off the court by his Greece Athena teammates in 2006 after scoring 20 points in his only varsity basketball game.  McElwain has become an inspiring person to the Dallas Center-Grimes boys basketball team.

'I'll never forget seeing that'

McElwain, nicknamed "J-Mac," was diagnosed with autism when he was 2. He worked as a manager for the Greece Athena High School boys basketball team but got to suit up for his team's final home game on Feb. 15, 2006. After his team built up a double-digit lead, McElwain entered the game.

From then on, magic happened. 

He sank six 3-pointers and one other shot to finish with 20 points. Video of McElwain's big performance and students storming the court to celebrate with him went viral. ESPN, which showed it over and over, made McElwain into an instant celebrity. He won an ESPY for "Best Moment in Sports." A movie about his life and the game was released in 2009. Rankin, a long-time high school coach, was among those instantly inspired. 

"I'll never forget seeing that and seeing how cool it was," Rankin said.

That's why Rankin was so thrilled to meet McElwain in 2019. The two were both at a camp at Wartburg College run by Snow Valley Basketball Schools and hit it off right away. They worked together throughout the camp and stayed up late talking hoops. When they parted ways, they reconnected on social media and became Facebook friends. McElwain saw a lot of Rankin's posts about his Dallas Center-Grimes team and became interested in the Mustangs. 

"Seeing how passionate he is about the game, he and I kind of think alike," McElwain said of Rankin.

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McElwain was so interested in what was going on that Rankin invited him to one of his summer camps. McElwain jumped at the opportunity. Some Mustang players had already gotten to know him from the Snow Valley camps. The ones that didn't learned his story from a YouTube video Rankin showed the team last season. The video was from the now-famous high school game, with McElwain knocking down shot after shot and being carried off the court. 

"They thought it was cool," Rankin said. 

McElwain, who did a Zoom call with the team last season, helped work Rankin's summer camp and even showed up at open gym a few times to play with some of Rankin's players. He tried to use the time to push them and help them work on their game. One of the times, just like that night in 2006, McElwain got hot and started hitting shots. The players in the gym were in awe. 

"When he was on, he doesn't miss," Dallas Center-Grimes senior Jackson Jones said. 

When McElwain left, he made sure to stay in touch with the team. 

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Bo Huston waits for the girls to finish before warmups at Des Moines Christian on Saturday, December 11th, 2021.

J-Mac stays in close contact with the Mustangs

Senior guard Bo Huston can expect a call from McElwain at least two times a week. McElwain has a group chat with the team but also keeps in contact with players individually through texts, phone calls and FaceTime sessions. 

"He's always asking us what our goals are and having us write them down on a piece of paper," Huston said. 

It's an activity McElwain has been doing with the Mustangs for a long time. In fact, he not only encouraged every player to write down their goals but also post them on their bedroom or locker room door to look at every day. By seeing them every day, McElwain told them, they could have a constant reminder of what they're hoping to achieve. McElwain wants to help them reach those goals. 

"He's connected to us very, very close," Glasgow said. 

McElwain also talks to players about their role on the team and the importance of embracing whatever it is.

"That team has a chance to be something special," McElwain said. "Being a great teammate is No. 1." 

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McElwain knows just how good the Mustangs are. He follows the team from afar in New York. McElwain, who is a teacher's aid and coaches eighth-grade basketball, watches the Mustangs' games on YouTube and get updates on how things are going from Rankin. He even gives Rankin advice on different ways to utilize some of his players. 

"He's been really inspiring, learning from him," Jones said. 

Dallas Center-Grimes players aren't the only ones who have been impacted by him. McElwain made a second trip to Grimes earlier this year to speak to some school staff. He shared with them his story and talked about some of the teachers that have impacted him. McElwain is planning to come back to Iowa some time in January or February to catch some of the team's games. 

The Mustangs also had warmup shirts made with a quote from McElwain on them: "Never give up, never give in." McElwain and his story have impacted so many different people in the community that Rankin said people outside of the team have purchased some of the shirts. They're all moved by his happiness and enthusiasm, Rankin said.

"He just cares a lot," Rankin said. "He's a caring person. So, it kind of rejuvenated me." 

McElwain hope this season, like his story, has the perfect ending to it. 

"I want to be there to hug coach Rankin when they get it done and dump water on the back of his head from behind that bench," McElwain said. "I want him to experience what I've experienced."

Tommy Birch, the Register's sports enterprise and features reporter, has been working at the newspaper since 2008. He's the 2018 and 2020 Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Reach him at tbirch@dmreg.com or 515-284-8468. Follow him on Twitter @TommyBirch.