Nov'70- Tragedy Strikes College Football
46 years ago this month, the deadliest aviation accident in U.S. sporting history wiped out the entire Marshall University football team. Thirty seven players and 9 members of the coaching staff were killed on their way back to West Virginia after playing East Carolina University.
The nightmare was made that much more surreal given that six weeks earlier the lives of 14 players making up the starting lineup of Wichita State were also taken from the skies. Their aircraft was one of two planes carrying the team to a game against Utah State and unlike the other flight, it would take an unscheduled and fateful path through a valley before crashing into a mountain.
Both Marshall University and Wichita State reconstituted their teams 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 catastrophies were not the first or last air tragedies involving athlete groups, but their close timing and magnitude of loss was especially profound. Ten years earlier, the first aviation team accident recorded in America resulted in the loss of 16 members of the Cal Poly football team. The school did not play another road game again east of the Rockies until 1978. It's also speculated that Cal Poly alumnus and Hall of Fame coach John Madden developed his fear of flying from that tragedy.
In 1977, it was college basketball that fell victim when 14 members of the University of Evansville basketball team perished; the only player who was not on the flight was killed two weeks later by a drunk driver, effectively eviscerating the entire squad.
Other American sports groups that experienced sky tragedies include the U.S. figure skating team that went down over Belgium in 1961 with 15 members and an amateur boxing squad that lost 14 young fighters in 1980 on a trip to Poland.
Surprisingly, given the unforgiving laws of aviation statistics, there have been no plane crashes involving American professional sports teams especially in light of their frequent travels. Yet from these experiences and a few near misses of their own, the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL have all adopted formal, legal and confidential disaster drafts to rebuild their rosters 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.