Former football player found dead in motel

Urbana police are investigating the sudden death of former University of Illinois football player, Terry Masar, 61, whose body was found in a room at the Super 8 Motel on Killarney Street in Urbana on Sunday night.

According to police reports, Masar was missing since Friday evening.

Champaign County Coroner Duane E. Northrup said an autopsy was performed Monday and a toxicology report is still pending.

He was pronounced dead at 6:32 p.m. at the motel room. Awaiting autopsy results, the cause of death is still unknown.

Masar played for the University football team from 1969 to 1971. In his final year, Masar earned the honor of being the team’s most valuable player, setting the school record that still stands for the most punts in a single season at 85.

Although on campus many regard the alumnus as one of the University’s football greats, among the Champaign-Urbana community, he is still remembered by those who knew him well as a “true patron of the arts,” said Bruce Lambert, director of research in the Department of Pharmacy Administration.

Years after his days at the University, Masar returned to Champaign as an entrepreneur. In 1979, he opened up a whole foods restaurant and club, Nature’s Table, which became the focal point of the Champaign-Urbana jazz scene.

“He created an opportunity for young people — young, aspiring, relatively inexperienced musicians — to world-renowned musicians to come to play and enjoy music,” Lambert said. “It served as a really important meeting place for artists and musicians and writers and scholars. It’s a very rare thing and has really never been recreated since Nature’s Table closed in 1991.”

The restaurant brought in prominent jazz musicians for live music, including locally grown trumpeter Jeff Helgesen.

Helgesen, a lifelong Champaign resident and former University music student, first arrived at Nature’s Table in 1980 when his father, also a jazz musician, wanted to expose him to the community’s music scene. He began playing at the venue his freshman year.

Lambert also frequented the venue, both as a musician and as simply a fan of music.

Developing as a musician, Lambert explains, is done through “apprenticeships,” in that growing as a musician requires the young artist to learn from those more experienced. By playing with the greats, many musicians grow to join them, which Lambert said was a rare opportunity that the Nature’s Table offered to the young musical community.

The venue itself was small and lone standing, Lambert said. He described it as small but packed with creative energy.

“This was a very small place; it could probably hold like 80 people,” Helgesen said. “But when it filled up, it really came alive.”

The most alluring aspect of Nature’s Table, both musicians agreed, was the ownership.

“He did it all. He was just a real good soul and was always interested in providing the opportunity for musicians to do what they do — he really loved music,” Helgesen said.

What made the venue even more appealing to students, Helgesen said, was its proximity. It was once positioned right in front of the Krannert Center, where the Chemical and Life Sciences Laboratories now stand.

“After Nature’s Table closed, there were some small bars that opened up that tried to feature jazz. But soon, they would trail off and go out of business,” Helgesen said.

Nature’s Table closed down in 1991, and according to its musical guests, nothing has ever quite replaced the caliber of music and service it provided to the artistic community.

“Even though the place doesn’t exist anymore, the community of people still exists, and many of us feel like we owe an enormous debt to Terry,” Lambert said.