Published Nov. 14, 2010
HUNTINGTON — Mickey Jackson, an assistant coach on the 1970 Marshall University football, team will talk about the “defining moment” for him and many others in Huntington when the community gathers on Sunday, Nov. 14, to remember 75 people who lost their lives 40 years ago today.
The 75 victims of the 1970 Marshall University plane crash will be honored at 1 p.m. at a memorial service conducted annually by the Student Government Association. Jackson, now president of the Marshall University Alumni Association, will be the keynote speaker at the Memorial Student Center Plaza at Marshall’s Huntington campus.
“Those folks sacrificed their lives that evening,” Jackson said in an interview last week. “It was really a defining moment in my life and many lives at Marshall University and the community.
“It was so tragic and sudden.”
Jackson, who played football at Marshall during the 1960s, was an offensive coach for the 1970 football team. He and assistant coach Carl Koker were scouting Ohio University, its season-ending opponent, at its game at Penn State University. Jackson said assistant coaches usually rotated for the scouting assignments, and it was their turn that week.
When they found out about the plane crash on their way back from Penn State, they realized it could have been them.
“Everybody, particularly close family members, assumed we were on the plane because we were on the coaching staff,” Jackson said. “The report was the whole coaching staff had been lost.”
His wife knew he had gone on the scouting assignment, so she went to her parent’s home in Sulphur Springs for the weekend. He said people were calling his house all night and into Sunday trying to reach someone.
“One of the first things I had to do was to call my family and tell them I was not on the plane,” Jackson said.
There were 75 members of the football team, coaching staff, supporters and five crew members on the DC-9 jetliner that couldn’t do the same. At about 7:47 p.m., the plane clipped some treetops just short of the Tri-State Airport and went down.
At that time, Jackson and Koker were on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, driving back to Huntington. They were discouraged that the Herd had lost to East Carolina earlier in the day.
“But we were encouraged about the notes we took and the chance to end the season on a high note,” Jackson said.
They were searching the radio for college football scores and heard there had been a plane crash in Huntington. He said they realized it was about the time the team’s flight was due back.
They pulled over at a rest stop and tried to call home, but the lines were all busy. Finally, they called through the state highway patrol and received confirmation that it had been the team’s plane.
At about 5 a.m., they got back to Huntington and went directly to the football office to see Red Dawson, another assistant coach who drove to and from the East Carolina game with a graduate assistant so they could visit a recruit in Virginia.
“We were just trying to bring some sense of order to a community that was pretty hurt and damaged, in mourning,” Jackson said.
Jackson played for Marshall as a running back from 1964 to 1966. He gained 1,231 yards and scored 24 touchdowns. He had just graduated in 1968. He could relate to the players as well as anyone.
Like Dawson, he agreed to join Jack Lengyel’s staff that next year to help keep the football program alive. That’s kind of how he views the memorial service at the fountain.
He’s never been reluctant to talk about the memories, but it is difficult. He said it’s painful to remember the relationships they had with the people who were lost. But it’s also a celebration of those people’s lives.
However, he said until four years ago, it was mostly a private memorial that was for the Marshall and Huntington communities.
“This story was really kept secret and private,” he said. “It was a special story for 35 years.” The people of Huntington and Marshall would go about their business in honoring the folks in the 1970 plane crash.”
Now, because of the integrity and honor with which Warner Bros. produced the movie “We Are ... Marshall,” Jackson said the whole world knows the inspirational story.
He said the public also understands the ceremony that is held every year on Nov. 14, at which time the memorial fountain is turned off until spring.
“When they lay that wreath and they flip that switch and you hear the last drop of water, it’s always a rush of emotions,” Jackson said.
“I am very proud and honored to have been asked to deliver the message, a very important message that needs to be repeated every year,” Jackson added. “And that message is that we should never, ever forget those who lost their lives while contributing to the Marshall University football program.”
Jackson, who coached at Marshall for three seasons before accepting a job on Ohio State’s staff, said this weekend also serves to celebrate the Young Thundering Herd, the team that played the next year and kept Marshall’s football program going. He said a large group of those players will be in town this weekend, and they deserve recognition as well.
“Their success wasn’t measured in wins and losses,” Jackson said. “But measured in their intensity and desire and how they represented Marshall University.”