Tuesday, December 26, 2000

Marshall will never forget 1970 plane crash




By JOHN RABY
AP Sports Writer

        HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Rich Taglang missed the bus ride to the airport. Nate Ruffin gave up his seat on the team plane. Ed Carter was in Texas for his father's funeral. They should have been on Marshall's return flight from North Carolina on that day 30 years ago.

        Instead they were spared, left to think for the rest of their lives about the worst disaster in U.S. sports history.

ON THE NET
  • www.geocities.com:0080/
Heartland/Meadows/7604/plane.html
  • www.marshall.edu
  • www.memorialbronze.com
        Thirty-six football players and 39 coaches, administrators, community leaders, fans and crew died when the team's chartered jet crashed at 7:37 p.m. on Nov. 14, 1970, into a hill just short of Tri-State Airport in rain and fog.

        A month before, a plane carrying the Wichita State football team crashed in Colorado, killing 31 people, including 14 players. The football program was discontinued in 1986.

        Marshall, which hadn't had a winning season since 1964, easily could have done the same.

        It didn't. It couldn't.

        “Some of my friends died so that something great could come about,” Ruffin said.

        The Thundering Herd was 3-6 in coach Rick Tolley's second year when they prepared to play East Carolina in Greenville, N.C. Ruffin, a defensive back and co-captain, had an arm injury but was supposed to make the trip.

        At the last minute, he and a few other injured players were told that school boosters would take their place on the plane.

        “To this date, we didn't know — nor did we care to find out — who got added to the trip,” Ruffin said.

        Left behind in Huntington, Ruffin went to a theater that Saturday afternoon to wait for his teammates to return. He headed back out to the lobby and asked the theater owner, who had a radio, if he had heard anything about the team's return.

        “He said, 'I heard something about a plane crash,”' Ruffin said. “It was the right time, the right place and the right team.”

        Rushing outside, Ruffin bumped into a player who had quit the team earlier in the season. The pair raced to the airport and stumbled past roadblocks at the bottom of the hill, but could only watch for hours as the plane burned — “a fire so hot you couldn't get within 200-300 yards,” Ruffin said.

        Feeling helpless and exhausted, Ruffin went to a gym office on campus and became the team's spokesman and leader. As news of the crash spread, Ruffin answered frantic phone calls from parents, among them his own mother. His answer to everyone was the same — “there had been instant death.”

        Two days later, Ruffin was summoned to a makeshift morgue to identify bodies using pieces of clothing, jewelry, shoes and scars.

        “Those objects became a person. Those bodies became people,” he said.

        That day ate away at Ruffin for more than a year and he temporarily turned to drugs. He had been the one who consoled the families, but there was no one consoling him.

        It wasn't until 12 years later that someone asked him to talk about the tragedy at a university alumni event.

        “It was pretty emotional. It was, 'Finally. Why didn't anybody ask me sooner so I could tell this and get this off my chest?”' he said.

        Carter, a first-string defensive tackle, had flown to Wichita Falls, Texas, for his father's funeral the week before the East Carolina game. He was preparing to rejoin his team when his mother talked him into staying a few more days.

        “She told me she didn't want me on the plane my team would be on because, according to her, the plane was going to crash,” Carter said.

        “I was taught as a child to obey my parents. That lesson I learned kept me from getting on that plane.”

        However, his name was still on the passenger list. On Nov. 15, he read his own obituary in his hometown newspaper. Back at school, everyone else thought he was dead.

        After he returned to campus, a friend saw Carter and panicked.

        “She started running and screaming,” he said. “To make matters worse, I start running after her to make sure I wasn't a ghost.”

        Carter, Ruffin and other surviving players attended funerals in Huntington — one for six teammates whose bodies were never found — and in places like Bluefield, Va.; Atlanta; Greenwood, S.C. Six teammates were from one high school in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

        “There were times I wondered why I wasn't on the plane with my teammates,” Carter said. “I didn't feel like I was any better than any of them. I didn't have the answer then, and I don't today.”

        For every Nate Ruffin and Ed Carter, there are many who still can't talk about it. Players like Taglang, who overslept and missed the team bus.

        Among the millions who watched news of the crash unfold was Jack Lengyel, the coach at Division III Wooster, Ohio. He was hired in March 1971 to take over at Marshall.

        His team was a patchwork quilt.

        Thirty-eight walk-ons — former servicemen, a soccer player, basketball players and transfer students — joined the few returnees who weren't on the plane and a group of freshmen who weren't allowed to play the previous fall due to NCAA restrictions.

        “We always told our players, 'You come here, you'll make a significant difference. Other places may want you. We need you,”' said Lengyel, now the athletic director at Navy.

        When the 1971 season began, Lengyel showed his team a letter from President Nixon congratulating Marshall for its courage.

        “At the time, there was a song named the 'Impossible Dream,' and that was kind of our theme song,” Lengyel said.

        The dream was painfully slow. Marshall won twice in 1971 but did not have a winning season until 1984.

        It hasn't had a losing one since.

        The Thundering Herd won the Division I-AA title in 1992 and added another in 1996, with future Vikings star Randy Moss leading the way. After moving up to Division I-A in 1997, Marshall has won three straight Mid-American Conference championships and consecutive Motor City Bowls.

        It finished the 1999 season undefeated and ranked 10th in the nation. It finished the decade with the most wins — 113 — of any college program.

        “Our players do understand what has happened in the last 30 years and are thankful for those who gave their lives and those who had to go through the rebuilding years in the '70s,” assistant coach Mark Gale said.

        It wouldn't have happened without a city's support.

        Every game, banners hanging from the stands in Huntington honor the victims: “From the ashes, we rose. We are Marshall.”



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