Dayton and Terry Merrell were featured in the Northwestern High School newspaper discussing the family legacy in 1981.                               (Herald Photo / Provided)
Dayton and Terry Merrell were featured in the Northwestern High School newspaper discussing the family legacy in 1981. (Herald Photo / Provided)

Quiet, humble, thankful are all ways to describe the legacy of the Merrell family in Northwestern basketball history. Four Merrells in three generations have their names etched in history, yet to hear about their time in the various programs, they are humbled and thankful it all happened.

Patriarch Dayton Merrell was a member of the 1955 Northwestern boys basketball team that earned the school’s first-ever boys basketball title. 

His son, Terry, was a member of Northwestern’s first back-to-back Boys Sectional titles (1981 and 1982). 

Terry’s nephew, Brayden played on the boys basketball team when they won the first Boys’ State title (Class 2A - 2007) and now his daughter, Klair, is a member of Northwestern’s first ever girls State Championship team (Class 3A).

The basketball lineage of the Merrell family stretches back to Dayton’s father, Russell. He played basketball for Young America High School when players played either offense or defense. Russell was a back-court guard and never scored a point in his career. 

After high school he joined an alumni team, the Miami Indians, and played semi-professional basketball.

“Times were different then,” Dayton said. “Each school had an alumni team. Galveston, Bunker Hill, and Walton had one and there was kind of a league. Dad said they would rent out the Galveston gym and split the take. He said he could make more money in one night than a week on the farm.”

Dayton picked up basketball after his father shared with him a game that Young America lost. He said they lost a game to Logansport by one point. Logansport didn’t win the tournament that year, but they went far. Russell told Dayton there wasn’t a week that went by of his 95 years that he didn’t replay that game in his mind. 

Dayton said they installed a goal on the side of the barn, and the rest was history. It was made from a five-gallon steel bucket, that had perfectly straight sides. The only way that Dayton was able to sink a shot was if the ball went perfectly in.

“You couldn’t bank it,” said Dayton.

As a life-long basketball fan, he would listen to the Kokomo High School basketball games broadcast on the radio, keeping score. He followed along and considered himself a Kokomo basketball fan. He even contributed to the construction of Memorial Gymnasium. 

“We would go to town, maybe once a week. We would take our eggs in and brought salt home. On the streets in Kokomo when I was nine or ten years old, they were trying to get money to build the gym. There were guys standing around like the kettle guys at Christmas. I had a quarter and put it in the pot, never thinking I’d get to play in that gym. Seven years later, we owned that gym,” he said.

Dayton asked his father to take him to a sectional game at Kokomo, and with some stern words, he told his son that when he was old enough, they’d go to one of the games, then Russell would ask him again if he was still a fan.

“Memorial Gym was very loud. Seventy-five percent of the gym was always sold out and two-thirds was always Kokomo. The fans would say things like, ‘Take your tractor and go home,’ and they were pretty nasty to us,” Dayton said.

He said winning the 1955 Boys Basketball Sectional 64-62 over Kokomo was the greatest moment of his life up to that point.

“People in Kokomo thought it was their birthright to win Sectional,“ Dayton said. “They were ranked fifth in the State and had beaten the number one team. They thought they were going to State and that woke them up. They ended up losing three sectionals in a row.” 

When Dayton started his own family, he would play basketball in the family basement with the kids. He said he would put kneepads on and guard them against shooting on the seven-foot wall. He said could scare them, but he wasn’t allowed to block their shots.

“Once in a while, they’d beat me and then I’d be in a bad mood,” Dayton laughed.

Much like his father, Terry practiced shooting hoops at home. They installed a basketball goal in the family tool shed, and it remains there today.

“That is where (Dad would) park his truck. We’d back it out and practice,” said Terry. “I really wanted to do like dad did and it was a real challenge. He won in ’55 and never again did Northwestern win one until my junior year.”

Terry’s team one-upped his father. They won the school’s first back-to-back sectional titles his junior and senior years. 

The success wasn’t without adversity. Terry was known for his moves along the baseline, slipping around the defense and making plays. He was a compliment to Doug Faulkner, Northwestern’s leading scorer. After his junior year, Terry underwent abdominal surgery that nearly took his life. He spent 18 days in the intensive care unit and at one point, was given a 20 percent chance of survival.

Come basketball season, Terry was still recovering and didn’t have much stamina. His coach drew up a play that would get him the first bucket of the season, then Terry had to come out of the game. By mid-season, he was healthy enough to start for the Tigers and by the time the tournament came around, he felt close to how he was at the end of his junior year.

“The first game I came back my senior year, I was skinny as a rail,” Terry said. “You always wonder if you didn’t have the issues how things would be different. But your perspective changes and to win the second sectional, it was more about things being back to normal.”

For both Dayton and Terry to be on the sidelines watching Klair write her own page of history with the Lady Tigers, they describe the experience as fun.

The Lady Tigers are the first team in school history to win a regional title, semi-state title, and state championship title. Klair has played a supporting role for the Lady Tigers and has started many games this season. Their aggressive style of play leads to their opponents turning the ball over and the Tigers capitalize on the misstep.

“I always tell Klair that if she’s running down the court, turn around, otherwise you might get hit in the back of the head!” Terry laughed. “The key to any good team is find your niche and that’s why I’m so proud of Klair because she realizes that and so do the other girls on the team. They don’t compete, they look how to fit (together).”

Dayton summed up how the Merrells have marked their success at Northwestern.

“One secret we’ve always had, we were never the best players on the team. You’ve got to pick your teammates. It’s nice. You don’t get all the blame or all the glory,” he said.