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.
BASKETBALL November 28, 2009 The Los Angeles Lakers defeat the Golden State Warriors 130-97 at Golden State. The Lakers would wrap up the season with a 57-25 record and go on to defend their title at the NBA Championship by overtaking the Boston Celtics 4-3. Kobe Bryant, star player on the Lakers roster, played all 7 games, averaging 28.6 ppg and taking home the MVP award.
BOXING November 20, 1999 Junior middleweight fighter Stephan Johnson fights Paul Vaden in Atlantic City for a $10,000 purse. Johnson is knocked out with two punches in the 10th round and falls immediately into a coma. Despite hospital efforts, he never recovers and dies less than three weeks later on December 7th. The 154-pounder who lived and trained in New York City turned pro in 1987.
FOOTBALL November 26, 1989 The Saskatchewan Roughriders defeat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 43-40 to win the Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup. Finishing only 9-9 for the season, the Roughriders were underdogs going into the 77th annual Grey Cup championship. With the game tied at 40-40 and only 9 seconds left in the 4th quarter, they clinched the title with a 26-yard field goal.
BASEBALL November 19, 1979 Nolan Ryan signs a record 4-year, $4.5 Million contract with the Houston Astros. The gifted pitcher who hurled consistent throws at 100 mph and above remained a force on the mound into his 40’s. Ryan started off with the NY Mets where he won the World Series in 1969 before moving on to the Angels, Astros and Rangers. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.