TERRY — After pedaling bicycles some 15 dusty miles under an unforgiving sun — half of it on teeth-chattering gravel — my wife and I had a singular mission on a toasty eastern Montana afternoon earlier this summer.
A cold beverage.
That trail of cheers led us to Terry's 4 Corners Convenience Store, a busy little hub in an otherwise sedate ag community squeezed between Interstate 94 and the burly Yellowstone River, a fossil’s toss from the ghostly humps and hoodoos of the Terry Badlands.
Sitting in a shaded area out front, selling shaved ice to parched passersby, were the store’s owner, Leann Lantis, and her daughter Laiten, a gifted athlete who began her basketball career at Terry but transferred to Billings West to sharpen her skills.
After introductions, conversation ensued, one sports topic led to another, and upon discovering that Leann had lived, played and coached in Terry for 46 years, I thought her to be the perfect foil for a question I’ve been asking from border to border for nearly a year now.
Who is the greatest athlete associated with your town?
Since December, I’ve combed the Internet, newspaper archives, books and museums while interviewing friends, colleagues, acquaintances and longtime Treasure State sports aficionados to unearth the same answer for (nearly) every Montana community, literally from A (Absarokee) to Z (Zurich).
As I described the project, I noted I already had a credible name for Terry. But as I'd repeatedly discovered, overturning one rock often led to another and then another and then another.
Leann hemmed and hawed. Her mind peeled back the years.
Finally, a name: Scott Eaton, a four-sport athlete in the late 1980s who earned a football scholarship to Montana State.
I nodded. In our tiniest communities, many of which have long since bolted their high school's doors or co-opted with neighboring schools due to population drain, that's often a winner’s resume.
Having already written short bios for well over 200 Montana towns (now 240), I couldn’t immediately recall my Terry pick. I tapped my phone for my list and saw that I had another former Terriers football star, Ryan Herman, whose name dots the MHSA record books.
Leann nodded as I rattled off Herman’s exploits.
“Can’t go wrong there either,” we agreed.
A few more minutes of chatter passed before Leann excitedly interrupted the nostalgia.
“Well, here comes the greatest of all time right now!” she exclaimed.
I looked toward the gas pumps to see an athletic 30-something woman striding our way. A decade after the end of her collegiate playing days, Lacey Haughian still looked as if she could dominate the paint on a basketball court, toss a javelin a country mile and wrestle a hapless steer to the dirt.
As Haughian approached, Leann rattled off her many accomplishments in basketball and track, highlighted by her first-team All-America hoops honors at Black Hills State and subsequent career in Sweden, Finland and Germany.
“Our only professional athlete,” Leann concluded, bringing down the proverbial gavel for Terry.
In short order we learned Haughian is running her family cattle ranch and working summers as a Bureau of Land Management ranger. She still plays basketball and dialed up a Twitter video of a game-winning shot she made to win a championship in Germany.
I marveled at my small-world good fortune.
I also winced.
So, I suddenly surmised, the only surefire way to conduct this project was to stop for a beverage in every community hub, chat up the local social nexus and hope the greatest of all time steps out of a pickup truck.
Thus, despite relentless sleuthing, I have no doubt our lengthy list of Greats is imperfect.
A few unearthed treasures surely remain, especially in distant outposts. Some of our choices likely could shift from towns where they starred in high school to nearby ranching map dots where they actually lived (spoiler alert: think Volborg bull-riding champion Jess Lockwood, who attended high school in Broadus).
You won’t agree with every choice. That’s the nature of any "the best" list.
But I’m confident a case can be made for every Great you'll learn about in the coming six weeks.
The list will be refreshed online in the future as we learn more, so we welcome hearing from you — whether it’s to present a name for a far-flung community or to update a former athlete's current whereabouts.
After all, as we discovered on a parched July afternoon in eastern Montana, when we went looking for a cold beverage and stumbled upon Terry’s "Great", local knowledge is second only to being there.