Published Nov. 15, 2010

Forty and four.

For me, those two numbers really hit home this weekend.

Today’s the 40th anniversary of the worst aviation disaster in sports history. On the rainy night of Nov. 14, 1970, the chartered jet bringing the Marshall football team, coaches, athletic department staff and fans back from a 17-14 loss to East Carolina in Greenville, N.C., crashed short of the runway at Tri-State Airport in Kenova. All 75 aboard died.

Recalling, reliving, revisiting the tragedy year after year is difficult. The people associated with that horrible episode once again recall all they lost. Forty years without parents, friends, role models, grandparents, spouses and business associates, etc. Promising careers in local and state government cut short, young journalists denied the chance to make bigger marks in print and television, and for some, time to wrestle again with that discomforting thought of ‘I was supposed to be on that plane, but. ... ‘

For me, a freshman on the 1970 Thundering Herd football team, 40 years is a striking reminder of just how long it’s been since I lost  good friends who happened to be either coaches, teammates or administrators. Four -- as in four months  — indicates the short amount of time I got to know those players and coaches before they left on a trip that ended in disaster.

That 1970 team had players who were about to put the thunder back in Marshall football. Some would’ve gone on to play on Sundays, since that’s the only day the NFL scheduled games back then. Those coaches and administrators had what it took to move up the ladder to bigger college jobs or higher.

People linked to the crash remember what they were doing when they got the news. I was at Cabell Huntington Hospital visiting an injured freshman teammate when the first bulletin came across the black-and-white TV in the room. Then Bos Johnson, for those watching WSAZ Channel 3, came on later to tell viewers what they didn’t want to hear. Yes, there was a crash, it was the Marshall plane, there were no survivors.

I was 18 at the time. Devastated, yes, to a point. At the same time, I wondered about the future of Herd football. Would we play or call it quits? If it’s no, it’s probably bye-bye scholarship. Then came a decision that football would continue. For the first four years, we’d be known as the Young Thundering Herd. We took some poundings. ... 66-6, to Miami (Ohio). We pulled some upsets. ... Xavier, 15-13, and Bowling Green, 12-10. As years passed, though, I learned the tragedy extended far beyond football.

Thundering Herd fans endured some lean years, but stuck with the green and white. In 1984, when fortunes began to change, support began to grow as well. Becoming a force in the Southern Conference and then the Mid-American Conference served as a catalyst as did having players being up for the Heisman Trophy and taken in the first round of the NFL Draft. Getting new digs, Joan C. Edwards Stadium and new weight room, helped immensely, too.

The documentary “Ashes to Glory” and the movie “We Are Marshall” took the story of tragedy and recovery to the world. Words of consolation and admiration still pour in.

Where are we today? What do those we lost see? How about a growing, thriving university. Quality athletic facilities. Except for baseball and track. They’re still waiting. A city and state doing their best to move forward in tough times. They saw a game Saturday from their skybox. This team, Coach Doc Holliday’s team, beat Memphis.

Through family and friends those we lost were honored. They received another tribute Sunday at the memorial service. Their response: Thank you. We’re proud of all of you. The way you’ve performed in a situation you didn’t ask to be a part of is truly inspirational.

David Walsh is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch.

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