Nov'1970- Tragedy Strikes College Football
Former pitcher Roy Halladay’s tragic death from the skies brings haunting memories of American sports figures whose lives were cut short in aviation accidents.
The list includes Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle (2006), golfer Payne Stewart (1999), Chargers running back Rodney Culver (1996), Yankees catcher Thurman Munson (1979), and many others over the course of the 20th century.
But it was college football that suffered the deadliest aviation accident in U.S. sports history. 47 years ago this week, the entire football team of Marshall University was wiped out when their chartered jet went down outside Kenova, West Virginia.
Thirty-seven players, eight members of the coaching staff and 30 others including the flight crew were killed. The team was returning home after playing East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.
The nightmare was made that much more surreal given that six weeks earlier the lives of fourteen football players making up the starting lineup of Wichita State also perished.
Their aircraft was one of two planes ferrying the team to a game against Utah State. That flight took an unscheduled, fateful path before crashing into a mountain.
Both Marshall University and Wichita State reconstituted their squads by enrolling freshmen into their varsity programs, prohibited at the time but officially waived by the NCAA due to circumstance. Three years later, the NCAA abolished that rule for all schools.
The dual catastrophes were not the first or last air disasters involving a group of athletes, but their close timing and magnitude of loss was especially profound.
Ten years earlier in 1960, America’s first aviation accident involving a sports team resulted in the loss of 16 members of the Cal Poly football squad. The Mustangs had faced the Bowling Green Falcons in Ohio before boarding their plane, which crashed during takeoff outside Toledo.
The West Coast school did not play another road game east of the Rockies until 1978. It's speculated that Cal Poly alumnus and Hall of Fame coach John Madden developed his fear of flying from that tragedy.
A well-known sports commentator for 30 years, Madden avoided planes during his broadcasting career and would crisscross the country in a privately-owned bus to announce NFL games.
In 1977, it was college basketball that suffered a grave misfortune when 14 members of the University of Evansville basketball team died after their aircraft crashed on takeoff in Evansville, Indiana.
The only player who was not on board was killed two weeks later by a drunk driver, effectively eviscerating the entire squad.
Other American sports organizations that experienced sky tragedies include the U.S. figure skating team that went down over Belgium in 1961 with 18 members, and an amateur boxing squad that lost 14 young fighters in 1980 on a trip to Poland.
There has never been a fatal plane crash involving an American professional sports team. Foreign clubs, though, weren't so fortunate to escape these calamitous episodes.
The first recorded team wipeout from the air was in 1949 when 18 players of the Italian soccer club Torino FC went down in their home town of Turin.
Most recently, 19 players of Brazil’s Chapecoense soccer organization were killed en route to attend the 2016 Copa Sudamericana Final in Colombia.
Not surprisingly, given the unforgiving laws of aviation statistics, the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL have all adopted confidential disaster drafts in case the unthinkable should happen.
BASEBALL July 13, 2010 The NL beat the AL 3-1 in the All-Stars exhibition game. Held at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in California, the game was preceded with a short memorial honoring George Steinbrenner who had died early that morning. The AL fielded the likes of Derek Jeter (SS-Yankees), Ichiro Suzuki (OF-Mariners) and Mariano Rivera (P-Yankees), while the AL brought out David Wright (3B-Mets), Albert Pujols (1B-Cardinals) and Roy Halladay (P-Phillies).
SOCCER July 2, 2000 France defeats Italy 2-1 at the UEFA European Championship. It was their 2nd title at the quadrennial extravaganza, which has been held since 1960 to determine the continent’s best national team; Germany and Spain are tied at the top with 3 wins each. One of the most exciting finals in tournament history, France equalized a goal in the closing minute of official time to send the game into overtime and then land a ‘golden goal’ in sudden death.
TENNIS July 7, 1990 Martina Navratilova claims a record 9th Wimbledon singles title after defeating her American opponent, Zina Garrison, 6-4, 6-1. It was Navratilova’s last career grand slam singles after compiling 17 victories since her first one at Wimbledon in 1978. Considered one of the greatest female athletes in the game, the Czech-born and U.S.-naturalized tennis star was ranked No. 1 in singles for a total of 332 weeks, and No. 1 in doubles for a total 237 weeks.
BOXING July 7, 1980 Larry Holmes knocks out Scott LeDoux in the 7th round to retain his WBC Heavyweight title. It was the 35th professional and undefeated bout for the Georgia native who swung one of the fiercest left jabs in boxing history. Holmes battled the greatest heavyweights of his era and he would defeat Muhammad Ali in the 10th round just 3 months after his encounter with LeDoux. The “Easton Assassin” retired in 2002 after posting a career record of 75-69-6.