Published Nov. 14, 1997
The caller's voice, Eugene Jones says, was not familiar. But his story was.
It was a story of a conversation, 25 years before in 1970, between Jones and the caller, Jerry Sieber.
"Remember? Remember?" Sieber asked Jones.
Suddenly, Jones says, he remembered.
"He told me we'd had a conversation at Gullickson Hall," Jones says. "By a chain-link fence. Then it sunk in, like a movie screen coming to life. I hadn't thought about it in 20-some years."
Twenty-five, to be exact.
Sieber and Jones were managers for Marshall University's football team in 1970. As such, one of the two had the opportunity to travel with the Thundering Herd to Greenville, N.C., for MU's game with East Carolina on Nov. 14 of that year.
Jones was an 18-year-old freshman from near Hinton, W.Va., and Sieber was a 24-year-old "junior-and-a-half" from Wildwood, N.J. With his seniority, naturally, Sieber seemed the likely choice to make the trip. But, during that conversation outside Gullickson Hall, Jones pleaded his case.
"He begged to go on that plane," Sieber says.
Absolutely, Jones says.
"I wanted to go, I'd never flown before," he says. "Jerry was from New Jersey, and he'd flown. Jerry let me go."
But Jones, as fate has it, didn't go. And because he didn't, he's alive today.
On its return to Huntington from Greenville, the plane crashed short of Tri-State Airport, killing all 75 people aboard, including 37 football players and five coaches.
The crash, which occurred 27 years ago today, is still the worst tragedy in sports history.
Jones had returned to his hometown at midweek for the funeral of his grandmother, who died four days before the crash. Once there, he decided to stay through the weekend, and not go to the game.
Sieber didn't go, either. Another manager, he says, accompanied equipment manager John Hagan, who drove to the game rather than fly because the plane was leaving Huntington on Friday the 13th.
Naturally, Jones was shocked when he heard the news of the crash.
"It was one of those things you hear but don't believe," he says.
Amazingly, Jones and Sieber never saw each other again after the crash, although each knew the other wasn't on the plane. Over the years, Sieber thought about calling Jones, but kept putting it off.
Finally, in 1995, he decided to give it his best shot. He called Linda Holmes, Marshall's director of alumni affairs, from his home in New Jersey and told her he was looking for Eugene Jones.
"She said, 'Oh, you mean Ralph Eugene Jones,' " Sieber says. "She gave me his number in Jumping Branch (W.Va.) and I called him. When I heard his voice, it was very intense. I guess I floored him."
That's an understatement, says Jones.
"It blew me away," he says. "There was nothing there until he described the conversation at Gullickson Hall."
Today, both "bleed green," though Sieber still lives in New Jersey where he is a special education teacher, and Sieber lives near Hinton in Jumping Branch, where he owns Jones Realty. Jones often attends Marshall home games, and Sieber comes as often as possible.
Last weekend, they got together for the Thundering Herd's homecoming game with Bowling Green. Wearing old MU football jerseys which they wore 27 years ago as managers, they talked about old times and precious memories.
"We still kind of don't believe we're connected," Sieber says. "It's the bonding thing. When we talk, we know exactly who we're talking about. Our language is spiritual."
They didn't know it at the time, but both men were in the stands in 1992 when Marshall defeated Youngstown State, 31-28, for the Division I-AA championship. The Herd took a 28-0 lead, saw the Penguins fight back to tie it 28-28, then won the game on a late field goal by Willy Merrick.
It was an emotional day for both.
"I loaded up the truck with a bunch of friends," Sieber says. "We drove all night to get here. When Youngstown State came back, I couldn't stand up. After that game, I emotionally collapsed. I got chills. I was worthless."
Jones says he, too, was "emotionally worn out" after the game. He knew, had his original plans panned out in 1970, he would have been on that plane.
But he knows why he wasn't:
"It wasn't my time."
End of conversation -- 27 years later.