Published Dec. 4, 2008
Editor's note: Sports reporter David Walsh of The Herald-Dispatch was a freshman member of the 1970 Marshall University football team. Marcelo Lajterman, a Marshall kicker who died in the Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash was one of his teammates.
HUNTINGTON -- Even though it's been 38 years since the tragic Marshall plane crash, I still get a bit apprehensive each Nov. 14 as I approach the Memorial Student Center for the memorial service to remember the 75 people who lost their lives in the worst air disaster in sports history. This year, the apprehension was gone, replaced by anticipation. I, along with the Marshall community, would be reunited with a dear friend in a manner of speaking.
Steve Chapman had informed me that members of the Lajterman family from New Jersey -- brothers Mo, Tito and Abe and cousin Adrian Steingart -- would attend the service and Homecoming game against UCF. Just before the ceremony, I caught up to the Lajtermans who were standing next to the memorial fountain with Marshall president Stephen Kopp. Mo had a firm grip on a small statue, one that really got to me when I saw it. Flashback. I'd seen this before on a grander scale.
The statue is of Marcelo Lajterman, placekicker/punter for the Thundering Herd whose first trip by air to a game was his last. Marcelo is featured in white pants, green jersey with No. 23 on the sleeve and back and a green helmet following through on a kick in that familiar soccer-style manner. I was a freshman on the 1970 team. That meant I had only four months to get to know him and my teammates and coaches who perished on a Wayne County hillside when the chartered jet bringing them back from a 17-14 loss at East Carolina earlier in the day came up short of the runway at Tri-State Airport in Kenova.
In that brief period, I struck up a friendship with Marcelo. I came to learn what the Lajtermans already knew -- Marcelo was a funny, caring guy who utilized to the fullest his God-given ability to kick a football. That Friday, and again Saturday morning at breakfast, we took turns asking and answering questions. The Lajtermans wanted to know what Marcelo was like and what I remembered about him. As they put it, when Marcelo left for school, I saw far more of him than they did. Back then, you didn't whip out the cell phone to make a call, send a text message or pictures. "I didn't get to see him kick in college," Mo said.
Perhaps the most vivid memory for me was the game against Louisville on Oct. 17, 1970, at Fairfield Stadium. The Cardinals, whose head coach then was ESPN personality Lee Corso, along with me and other freshman teammates seated in the stands, watched Marcelo trot onto the turf to try a 57-yard field goal on the final play of the game. The 6-foot, 178-pounder (program listing) got off a booming kick. High enough, yes. Long enough, unfortunately no. The ball dropped just under the crossbar, leaving us dejected and Corso and the Cardinals relieved as they escaped with a 16-14 victory.
In pro football lingo, Marcelo would've played on Sundays had he not been taken away as he was entering the prime of his life.
His brothers were also kickers -- Tito at Kean University and Mo at Montclair State and then with the New York Stars in the World Football League. Both are in the athletic halls of fame at their respective schools. Marcelo and the other crash victims went into the Marshall Athletic Hall of Fame in 1990.
The big question I had for the Lajtermans was about where they were at the time of the crash. They learned I was at Cabell Huntington Hospital visiting my roommate, John Johnstonbaugh, who'd had shoulder surgery, when the news broke.
Tito was 15 then and at a friend's house playing pinball. He was told his parents were looking for him and needed to get home. When he arrived, his mom told him the plane had had difficulty landing. Later, through a TV news flash, he got the answer he didn't want. The plane had gone down. There were no survivors. "It didn't hit until the next day when people started showing up at the house," Tito said. "I was in high school. I didn't know what to say. Visitors didn't know what to say."
Mo, 17 at the time, was with his girlfriend and her family. They were coming back from a trip to the Jersey shore. Mo's trip home was interrupted when the car had a flat tire. They eventually made it to a gas station on the Garden State Parkway. The mechanics were listening to the radio when a news bulletin came on. He heard the voice talk about a major airplane crash in West Virginia.
"My knees buckled. I went to the ground," Mo said. "I ran out of the station, went to the bathroom and cried like a baby. My girlfriend's dad said what's he worried about? She said it was the Marshall plane. When I get out of the bathroom, I'm a mess."
At the station, Mo met two gentlemen from Lyndhurst, N.J., the hometown of Marcelo and Herd teammate Ted Shoebridge. They offer him a ride home which was about an hour away.
"It was the longest trip ever," Mo said. "They kept saying, don't worry. When I got home, my dad and uncle George were outside. My father told me your best friend is dead. We were so tight. I didn't want to believe it."
Abe played soccer at Davis & Elkins in West Virginia from 1970 to 72. He came down after the crash to help retrieve some of his brother's belongings. The next season, the Senators won the NAIA national title.
Before the 2008 memorial service, Mo had made two trips and Tito and Abe had been to Huntington once since the crash. Mo first came back for the 30th anniversary of the crash. Tito and Abe attended the "We Are Marshall" movie premier.
Mo said he couldn't believe that much time had passed between the crash and that first trip to Huntington.
"Nobody wants to face it," he said. "It's a hard thing to do. Little by little it's gotten better. We could've gone earlier and healed a lot faster."
The brothers wanted to do something to ensure Marcelo's name lived on. They settled on a memorial golf tournament and created the Web site www.marcelo23.com. They created the Marcelo Lajterman Memorial Scholarship Fund and proceeds would be used to finance two college scholarships to an aspiring New Jersey high school kicker and punter, based on a statistical review of performance.
What works in New Jersey the Lajtermans believe can work at Marshall. In athletic jargon, take it to the next level. The Marshall University Foundation has established the Marcelo Lajterman Memorial Scholarship. It's a merit scholarship for now under Marcelo Lajterman's name. Once $15,000 is raised, the fund will become endowed. The grant will go to an undergraduate student in or out of athletics.
"This is what Marcel would want," Abe said.
"We all went to different schools," Tito said. "We want to love Marshall in some way. They make us feel like family."
Knowing Marcelo I'm sure he would agree wholeheartedly. And maybe one day a Lajterman award winner will make it big in college and then in the real world be it the NFL or some other line of work.
Guess who'd be wearing the biggest smile? Marcelo.
David Walsh is a sports reporter for The Herald-Dispatch.