This is a story about a man who spent four decades telling other people’s stories.
It’s a story about a 6-foot-3, good-looking Croatian who played three sports at Youngstown’s East High, earned a $1,000 scholarship from the Butler Institute of American Art for his one-man show, took hitting lessons from Mel Ott while in spring training with the New York Giants, earned all-conference honors as a first baseman at Marshall University and spent more than 40 years as a sportswriter in Niles, Youngstown and Akron, battling cancer for most of it.
His name is Milan Zban and on Sept. 12 he was inducted into the Marshall Athletic Hall of Fame — more than 12 years after he died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“The only thing I was dissatisfied with is that he wasn’t alive to see it,” said his widow, Pat. “I wish he could have been there.”
Zban was born on April 15, 1931, the oldest of four children born to Mike and Barbara Zban. An East High Hall of Famer, he played football, basketball and baseball in high school, where he was also class president.
After his six-week stint with the Giants ended with an ankle injury on a slide into second, Zban decided to play football and baseball at Marshall, turning down football scholarship offers from Yale, Princeton, West Point, Wisconsin, Youngstown and Mount Union.
His brothers John (a basketball player) and Bill (football) eventually followed him to Marshall, where Milan played both ways on the line in football and earned All-Mid-American Conference honors in baseball after hitting .348 his senior year.
After two years in the Army, he signed a Class A contract with the Giants, who then sent him to Michigan City in the Class D Midwest League. After a so-so summer — he was 25 years old and rusty — he took a job as the sports editor of the Niles Times, where he covered legendary football coach Tony Mason and hired one of Mason’s former players, an 18-year-old Niles High graduate named Pete Mollica who was sweeping the floors. Zban asked Mollica if he could type and assigned him to cover high school games on Friday nights. Mollica eventually spent 33 years as a sportswriter for The Vindicator.
One year, Mason wanted his players to learn how to dance for the prom, so he sent them to a class taught by a professional dancer named Pat Maniatis.
Zban covered the event and thought the teacher was cute. This seems a good time to mention that Zban’s favorite quote came from the poet Robert Browning, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”
He asked her out. They got married in 1959.
“Most of our dates were in press boxes on Friday and Saturday nights,” said Pat, a Warren Harding High graduate. “Sometimes on Sundays he’d cover horse racing, so I’d go with him to that.
“He was a good dancer. Youngstown guys were noted for being good dancers.”
Zban worked briefly for The Vindicator before taking a job with the Akron Beacon Journal in 1969. When it came to writing, he had a simple philosophy: Never forget the story isn’t in the game, it’s in the people who play the game.
“When I went back and looked through the archives of his stories, every one of them had some personal connection to the players and coaches,” said his younger sister, Barbara, who recently moved back to Youngstown and who gave his induction speech at Marshall. “It wasn’t about the scores or the numbers, there was always a personal angle. That’s what drove him as a sportswriter.”
In 1971, Pat noticed a lump on Zban’s neck. He initially dismissed it, but after it got bigger, he went to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with lymphoma.
“When the cancer first hit, I remember him saying, ‘Gee, I’m lucky. I see kids in there that are 5 years old that have tumors,’” Pat said. “That’s how he looked at life. He was 40, we had just moved here [to Hartville] and we found out he had cancer, but he never said ‘poor me.’ I remember coming back from treatments where he was throwing up in a bucket in the backseat, but he never complained.”
Zban battled cancer for 30 years, going back 18 times for treatment. The doctor told Pat that her husband had more chemotherapy than any patient he’d ever had. Zban finally passed away on Feb. 5, 2002 at age 70.
“He was so comfortable in his own skin,” said Pat, who had two sons with Milan. “He never tried to be something he wasn’t. I remember Anheuser-Busch offered him a job for more money than he was making as a writer, but he didn’t want to be away from his family.
“He said it was more important for him to come home with a smile on his face than make more money doing something he didn’t like to do.”
In 1995, Zban spoke at Lake High School during a career day session, which was attended by a then-16-year-old sophomore with no clue what he wanted to do with his life. Three years later, that kid decided to take a journalism class at Malone College. Three years after that, he was hired at The Vindicator.
He’s the one writing this story.
Like Marshall, I waited more than a decade too long to say thanks.
Like Marshall, I decided I’d waited long enough.
Joe Scalzo covers sports for The Vindicator. Write to him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @JoeScalzo1.