By Dr. John Huang
“They shall live on in the hearts of their families and friends forever, and this memorial records their loss to the university and to the community.”
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – One of the most impressionable off-the-field sports tragedies of my generation occurred nearly fifty years ago.
Pastor Randy Maynard, Marshall University, Class of ‘79 and one of the most passionate Thundering Herd supporters around, still speaks about that fateful day with a quiver in his voice.
“We wanted everyone to be OK,” Maynard painfully recalled. “But it turned out not to be the case.”
Seminal moments such as these can shatter you to the core—forcing you to think about your mortality, your purpose, and the sanctity of life on earth.
November 14, 1970–Horror
On November 14, 1970, Southern Airways Flight 932, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9 chartered by Marshall University crashed a mile short of the runway at Tri-State Airport in Kenova, West Virginia. On board was the Thundering Herd football team, including 36 players, five coaches, 19 administrative and staff personnel, 10 prominent boosters, and a flight crew of five. The entourage was returning home from Kinston, North Carolina after a 17 – 14 homecoming loss to the East Carolina Pirates.
Pilot Frank Abbott had never flown into Tri-State Airport. It was a rainy and foggy evening when the plane approached the runway. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the airport did not have any equipment that would warn incoming pilots about low-altitude dangers.
With an estimated 300-feet of cloud cover, Abbott misjudged the plane’s altitude. The jet clipped the top of some trees, then hit a hillside, cart-wheeled and exploded into flames.
All on board were instantly killed. Six bodies were charred beyond recognition and could never be positively identified.
“Ten feet higher and the plane would have made it,” NSTB chairman John D. Reed said at the time. “That’s all it needed.”
The accident remains the worst sports-related air tragedy in U.S. history.
Maynard, who grew up in Kenova, West Virginia, was a 17-year old high school senior when he heard about the crash while attending a United Methodist Youth Fellowship event in Huntington. He received a call from his father telling him the Marshall plane had crashed—and that it looked to be an awfully bad accident. Immediately, Maynard and his best friend, Randy Adkins, began to pray, not knowing at the time that everybody on board had already perished.
“When the report came out at midnight that there were no survivors, I was overcome with emotion,” Maynard recounted. “There was an almost unbearable sense of grief and sadness.”
Mike Hamrick was thirteen when he heard the news. He and some buddies had just returned from an afternoon movie. They were in a local restaurant eating quarter hotdogs, drinking ten-cent cokes, and playing the pinball machines when an alert flashed across the television set.
“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” Hamrick said. “I looked up at the TV and it scrolled across the bottom that there had been a plane crash. I didn’t think much about it at first, but then when I found out [the crash] involved the Marshall University football team, I went, ‘OH NO!’”
Upon returning home, Hamrick heard his father sobbing on the telephone. His dad was the local football coach at Herbert Hoover High School in Clendenin, West Virginia. He had just received the official news that several people he knew—including one of his former assistant coaches—had perished in the crash.
“It was the only time I’ve seen my dad cry,” Hamrick recalled.
Almost everybody in Huntington knew somebody on that plane. Several of the players who died were married, some were engaged, and one was a soon to be parent. In an unbelievably cruel twist of fate, his child was born on the very same day he was buried. Unfathomably, several young people in the community lost both sets of parents. Those escaping heartbreak were stricken with a sense of survivor’s guilt—left wondering why they were spared while so many of their friends, colleagues, and loved ones were so indiscriminately taken away.
Mary Jane Tolley, wife of head coach Rick Tolley, usually traveled on these road trips. On this particular occasion, she was advised to stay home in order to care for her ailing German shepherd. Her life was spared, but in one fell swoop, the world around her was permanently shattered. She lost not only her husband, but 25 good friends in that one ghastly moment.
The Marshall cheerleaders were allotted a limited number of seats on the flight. They decided that since not all of them could go, then none of them would go. They all bypassed the flight, but they were haunted for years by the nightmares that followed.
Time would do little in soothing their wounds.
November 14, 2000–Catharsis
To understand the long-lasting impact the tragedy had on those in the Marshall community, let’s fast forward to the year 2000—a full thirty years after the fateful crash. Now a proud Marshall alumnus, Randy Maynard ironically found himself pastoring a church just outside of Greenville, North Carolina—the site of East Carolina University, the same school Marshall played just hours before the horrifying air disaster. He decides to write an article about the 30-year anniversary of the Marshall plane crash for the Greenville Daily Reflector newspaper.
“It was cathartic for me,” Maynard answered, when I asked him why he felt compelled to write about an event that happened three decades earlier. “I needed to put down on paper events surrounding the crash and about what had transpired. I actually felt like that God had placed me in Greenville, North Carolina because of my connection to the tragedy. I know that may sound crazy to a lot of people, but I truly felt that. There were two members in my congregation that played in that game against Marshall, and I was able to somehow minister to them.”
What many don’t realize is how many people from East Carolina were similarly affected by the tragedy. Sadness and sorrow of that magnitude cannot easily be contained. Maynard sensed that pain of that intensity had already spread well outside the Marshall family and would not necessarily dissipate with time. Even today, he hears story after story from opposing players, coaches, and fans who witnessed that game telling him how stunned they were upon hearing the news of the crash and how they still struggle to reconcile the horrible events of that day.
As Maynard continued to do research for his article, he’s introduced to Mike Hamrick, who just serendipitously happens to be the East Carolina Pirates’ athletics director at the time. Like Maynard, Hamrick was also a fellow Herd alumnus by then, so the two naturally hit it off by talking about anything and everything related to their mutual college experience. Hamrick had played linebacker for the Herd from ’76 through ’79, and was recruited by Coach Jack Lengyel—only five short years after the resurrection of the program—at a time when many questioned whether Marshall should have even been fielding a football team.
Leading up to the plane crash, Marshall had not had a winning season since 1963. At one point, they went 27 consecutive games without a victory. Some well-intentioned boosters and alumni subsequently broke NCAA rules in trying to secure some additional victories. In 1969, the school was placed on probation for more than 140 recruiting violations and kicked out of the Mid-American Conference. With the daunting prospect of starting from scratch after the crash—and the specter of probation still hanging over their heads—it’s understandable why some in the Marshall family wanted to stop playing football altogether.
“If Marshall had stopped playing football, it would have meant those in the plane crash would have died in vain,” Hamrick told Maynard in the 2000 newspaper story. “Even though we did not have much success at Marshall, each time we stepped on the field we knew we were playing for those that had their lives tragically shortened. Playing at Marshall taught me so much about not ever quitting. In the grand scheme of things, what we accomplished while I was at Marshall set the stage for the success the program is enjoying now.”
Of course, that success began with Jack Lengyel, portrayed by Matthew McConaughey in the 2006 Hollywood production We Are Marshall. Hired on in 1971 as the coach to literally and figuratively rebuild a football program from the ashes, Lengyel took four holdovers (who fortuitously didn’t make the trip to Greenville), some walk-ons, some ex-service men, some transfers, and a team of freshman (granted a special NCAA exemption to play that year)…and miraculously molded them into a serviceable unit.
To the amazement of many, Lengyel’s “Young Thundering Herd” won its second game of the 1971 season, beating Xavier 15 – 13 on the game’s last play. As expected, the team that year also suffered some lopsided defeats, but it did manage to rack up another improbable 12 – 10 win against a Don Nehlen-coached Bowling Green team later in the campaign.
There were some extremely rocky seasons for Marshall during that first decade of rebuilding, but by the mid-1980s, the Herd was on a roll. From 1986 through 2004, Marshall never had a losing season. During that period, they also moved successfully from Division I-AA to I-A. The school had the best record of any Division I football team of the 1990s, amassing a total of 114 victories, including two Motor City Bowl postseason wins, in that span. Randy Moss, Chad Pennington, Byron Leftwich, and Bobby Pruett—just a few of the Marshall greats responsible for such an improbable resurrection.
By 1999, the team finished undefeated at 13 – 0 and was ranked 10th in the country at the end of the season by both the Associated Press and the ESPN/USA Today coaches polls. Maynard swears he’ll go to his grave believing Marshall could have beaten Florida State, the eventual national champion, if only they had been given a chance to play that year.
November 14, 2020–Remembrance
Another 20 years go by, and the pain remains palpable.
As Marshall prepares to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the tragedy, I caught up with both Randy Maynard and Mike Hamrick to talk about their thoughts on the significance of what happened back in 1970. In hindsight, what are the lessons they’ve gleaned?
“Marshall Football is the greatest comeback story in the history of college athletics,” Hamrick told me proudly. “Your whole team—coaches, administrators, top boosters—are wiped out, and you came back and started having the success that we started having in the 80s and 90s and clear up to today. I don’t believe there’s another story like it.”
Hamrick, believe it or not, is now in his 12th season as Marshall’s athletics director. He returned home in 2009—thirty years after his playing days ended. His football alma mater enters the game on Saturday undefeated at 6 – 0, inching toward a top-10 ranking, and with one of the top-rated defenses in the country. With emotions running at a fever pitch, poor Middle Tennessee (or Alabama for that matter) surely doesn’t stand a chance.
If you’re part of the Marshall family, every November 14th is emotional. This year will be no different. Hamrick’s voice will crack as usual when he gives his speech at the Memorial Fountain ceremony on the morning before the game. He’ll shed tears again when 75 roses are laid by the fountain by family members in memory of their lost loved ones.
Four East Carolina football players who played in the game just hours before the tragedy are also planning to make the trip up to Huntington to pay their respects. They wanted to come—on their own accord, with no prompting—to lay wreaths by the fountain.
Lucianne Kautz will be the featured speaker. She’s one of the cheerleaders who elected to skip the ill-fated flight. Her father, Charles Kautz, was the athletics director who lost his life in the crash, so you can bet she’ll have an exceptionally poignant message to share.
Michael W. Smith, the three-time Grammy winner, contemporary Christian musician, and Kenova, West Virginia native will be flying up from Nashville to sing the national anthem. “Mike” (as he’s called back in Kenova) remembers that a little over a month after his 13th birthday, his dad took him to the crash site, and he described how witnessing the smoldering flames impacted him deeply. Mike briefly attended Marshall.
In addition to all that, the University will also be adding something extra special this year. The thirty-nine players who died in 1970 never received their college degrees. On Friday, each student who perished will be honored with a posthumous degree in their program of study. How special will that be?
Seldom does a day go by that Hamrick doesn’t think about the many lives cut short by the crash. The players who perished were youngsters who never had the opportunity to live out their dreams. Those young men wore the same uniform and played for the same school that Hamrick did.
“Every time we get on an airplane and fly with that Marshall football team, I promise you, it goes through my mind what happened 50 years ago,” Hamrick confessed. “I always bow my head and say a quick prayer. If you’re a Marshall person and you know anything about November 14, 1970—which every Marshall person does—that tragedy is forever on your mind.”
“It’s our W-H-Y,” Hamrick continued. “It’s why we’re here. It’s why we do things. It’s the fabric that made this university. Unfortunately, it was a tragedy. But Marshall has embraced it, and for the simple reason to honor those and to never forget those who we lost.”
Because of that W-H-Y, the 63-year-old Hamrick never takes anything for granted anymore. He enjoys every day on the job, he appreciates his coaches more, and he cares more about his players now more than ever. He wants all of them to have a great college experience.
“Most of all,” Hamrick surmised. “What happened on November 14, 1970 helps me put everything into proper perspective.”
Every year, the Marshall football coaches lead the team from the stadium, and they’ll go on a little run up to Spring Hill Cemetery where the six players who could not be positively identified are buried in a common grave. The coaches will then speak to the players about why the setting is so significant, why they need to remember it, and why it means so much to the community and to the family members of those who died.
You remember the scene in the movie where McConaughey/Lengyel makes his impassioned pregame speech.
“Six players, six teammates, six sons of Marshall,” he explains. “This is our past, gentlemen. This is where we have been. This is how we got here. This is who we are—today.”
Today, Randy Maynard serves as a Pastoral Care Coordinator at Centenary United Methodist Church in Lexington—one of the largest Methodist congregations in the region. He’s quick to proclaim that what transpired fifty years earlier on a fog-shrouded hillside just a mile from his home directly affected his calling into the pastorate. On that day, God placed in his heart an empathy for those who have lost people near and dear to them.
“I for sure think that God would want us to be involved in the lives of those who have lost loved ones,” Maynard solemnly reflected. “To be there for support—not necessarily with words—but to let folks know that you care, that you’ll be there for them, and that you’ll want to support them any way that you can…and especially that you’ll be praying for them.”
Maynard, who together with his wife Cindy named one of their children “Marshall” in memory of the 75 crash victims who perished, still thinks frequently about hearing the bad news a half century earlier. Even as a man of deep faith, he still occasionally wonders about the suffering we all must endure as spiritual beings living in this earthly world.
“The plane crash made a lasting impression on me,” he said. “It serves as a vivid reminder that no one is guaranteed another minute on this earth. Hence, we are to do all we can to be in constant service and to be in close communion with our risen Savior, ready to meet him when we leave this earthly home.”
For both the preacher and the athletics director, home—for the time being—is Marshall University. They’ll be cheering like crazy this Saturday for the Thundering Herd. Two close friends sharing a 50-year memory, an unbreakable bond, and a love for a university…that arose out of an unspeakable tragedy.
“I think Marshall’s just a special place,” Maynard reiterated. “You have to be part of it to really understand it. What happened on November 14, 1970 created a deep-seated love between the University and the community that couldn’t be fabricated otherwise. It’s hard for outsiders to look at Marshall and to have the depth of passion that those who have been there have.”
In other words, “We are Marshall!”
On November 14, 2020, so too will be the rest of the sporting world.