This "Down In Front" column appeared in The Herald-Advertiser on Sunday, Nov. 15, 1970.
What do you write at a time like this?
You believe that it can never really happen to your own people. Others go down in air crashes. Entire teams are wiped out. Individuals with well known names go down in their insolated tragedies and you mourn briefly for their misfortune.
But, never to your own people.
Then, it comes into the news room, silently, swiftly, it comes -- a simple report that a chartered airliner carrying the Marshall University football team home from its ninth game of the season has crashed against a soggy West Virginia hillside, two miles short of the runway.
And, the report says, it immediately exploded into flames.
"Ambulances are requested from all points in the area," the police radio crackles.
You can't believe it. Twenty-five years in the newspaper business notwithstanding, you can't believe it. But soon, the mounting truth of it all forces you to believe it. There is nothing else you can do.
The first fragmentary reports include the names of your friends. Coaches, athletic department people, players, just plain loyal friends who went where the Thundering Herd went in all kinds of weather, under all kinds of conditions, win, lose or draw.
Incredible. Less than two months ago a large portion of the Wichita State team was wiped out in a similar tragedy.
Now, it's our own beloved Marshall.
Who'll be next? How many more tragedies of this kind are going to occur before a way is found to stop them?
An honest question, asked in grief, and it deserves an honest, straightforward answer. Fatalism has no place in these circumstances; at least that is what you tell yourself.
The Marshall air tragedy is the worst in the history of West Virginia. It is the third involving a college football team within the past decade, the second indirectly involving a Mid-American Conference team, indirectly because Marshall no longer is a member of that athletic body but was for 18 years. The first involved the California Poly team on a takeoff tragedy at the Toledo Airport after it had played Bowling Green, a MAC member.
This is the sum and the substance [of] the crash.
And, in that blinding explosion, another and perhaps the final chapter in the worst era in Marshall athletics has been written.
It began with the athletic recruiting scandal that hit the campus in 1969. It continued with the suspension from the Mid-American Conference, and the almost total overhaul of the athletic department. Probation from the National Collegiate Athletic Association of one year's duration followed.
Though an application for readmittance to the Mid-American was denied last February, the tides began to shift in Marshall's favor. Money was allocated by the state to remodel Fairfield Stadium, cover it with AstroTurf, and improve other facilities on the campus.
An ambitious fund raising drive was launched, aimed at a goal of $150,000, the largest in the school's history. The coaches were brought in. Schedules were being adjusted. The idea was that if Marshall could not find a family of schools to belong to, it would operate as a full-grown independent.
The year's football team was to take the first step in that direction. Consisting of holdovers from last year's Thundering Herd which, along with the scandals, had to suffer through a winless streak that reached 27 games before ending with a three-game winning streak, it got off to a good start.
But, injuries to the thin forces, never numbering more than 48 players in this age of specialization, took their toll. Nevertheless, except for losses to Toledo and Western Michigan, the Herd was in contention in every game it played.
When the end came against that hillside Saturday night, it had won three games, and lost six -- two by three points, and one by two points. Always against superior forces. Always against the odds. That seemed to be this ball club's luck. That seemed to be Marshall's luck in recent years.
There was a touch of irony in Greenville, N.C., Saturday where Marshall bowed to East Carolina before emplaning on its ill-fated trip. Watching his old school for the first time since his graduation in 1935 was one of the greatest football players in Marshall history, John Zontini, "The Sheik of Seth."
Last week Zontini was elected to the West Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. The entire 1970 Marshall team should be inducted with him next spring in Morgantown along with those people who went down with it.
These deaths have to be given some kind of meaning. Perhaps there will be one in this gesture.