GREAT FALLS — Darron Porter remembers the first time he met Jon Wanago.
“It was in the weight room,” recalled the 1981 Great Falls High graduate. “He came in there and he looked like he was about a senior. He was so physically mature. He was throwing around weights like a senior. I kind of thought he came from another school.”
Wanago’s exploits on the gridiron are well known: an all-State linebacker and three-year starter at Great Falls High from 1981-83, an all-Conference nose tackle at Montana State from 1984-88. But off the field, he was a larger than life figure.
On Monday near his home in Las Vegas, Wanago passed away unexpectedly due to complications with a blood clot in his lungs. He was 51 years old.
“It was a big shock for me,” said former Bison teammate Jim Vinson, now the head coach at Chester-Joplin-Inverness. “I saw it on Facebook yesterday and kind of went numb and cold and had to make a couple phone calls to find out what the heck happened. He’s a big part of Montana football and especially in North Central Montana and Great Falls High school and Montana State and he’s going to be missed by many.”
As good of a football player and teammate as Wanago was, he was an even better friend and family member.
“Not only was he a big star for football, he also changed a lot of people’s lives,” said his niece Courtney. “He was a big role model and he got a lot of attention from his classmates.”
Courtney and her sister Jordan remember their uncle as a jokester who was quick with a good-natured jab or two during family gatherings.
“When I was in middle school, I was really into the Bumpits,” laughed Jordan. “I just remember my uncle Jon would always ask if I was hiding a sandwich in there or a chicken leg.”
“I definitely miss him a lot, but he had a huge heart. He always had something to say – that’s for sure – but I’m pretty sure he was a guy that would do anything for anybody.”
And now it’s time for others to do something for Jon.
The suddenness of his death left the Wanago family scrambling to make plans for what comes next. There is no mortuary in the hospital where Jon was treated, so his remains need to be transported back to Montana. Jon’s brother Josh is planning to make the trip to Las Vegas to take care of what needs to be taken care of before a celebration of life can be planned in Great Falls.
There are many unexpected costs that have come up and the family anticipates many more with travel, medical bills and memorial preparations.
Jordan and Courtney have set up a GoFundMe account where friends, family and community members can contribute and assist the Wanagos. They’ve already received word and support from all over the country.
“Just the amount of phone calls and text messages from his teammates is unbelievable,” Josh said. “Jim McElwain, the head coach at the University of Florida reached out. He was the offensive coordinator for Cliff Hysell when Jon played and we used to do a lot of stuff with his family. It’s tough but everyone who knows Jon tipped a couple beers in his honor and told stories and I think there will be a lot of that going on here in the next week or so when we bring him back and do a celebration of his life.”
If you’d like to help the family offset costs for Jon’s memorial, visit the GoFundMe page.