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Obit of the Day (Historical): Marshall University Football Team (1970)

On the evening of November 14, 1970 the Marshall University football team, most of the coaching staff* and several students and fans boarded a flight from North Carolina to West Virginia. At approximately 7:45 pm, a few thousand feet from landing, the plane hit a tree-lined mountain and crashed. All seventy-five passengers and crew were killed, including the entire football team. It was the worst sports-related crash in history. Equipment malfunction, and possible pilot error, were considered the probable factors in the Marshall disaster.

(Coincidentally, a few days before the accident a U.S. Army aircraft went down in nearly the same location killing three soliders and injuring a fourth. And just six weeks prior, on October 2, Wichita State University lost half of its football team in an unrelated air crash in Colorado.)

The remainder of the 1970 season was cancelled and the the future of the entire football program was debated. A little known fact was that the Thundering Herd were placed probation during the 1970 season by the NCAA after they discovered 144 recruiting violations the season before. Acting president Donald Dedmon thought it best to simply shut down the football program. But students and fans, as well as new coach Jack Lengyel convinced Dedmon to allow the program to rebuild. (The aftermath of the Marshall disaster was made famous in the fictionalized film account, We Are Marshall.)

*Two Marshall coaches, Red Dawson and Gail Parker, were not on the flight, heading instead on a recruiting trip to Virginia.

Besides the plane crashes involving Marshall and Wichita State, there is a long history of sports-related transportation disasters, which is no surprise based on the amount of travel by teams. Some of the most well-known incidents:

February 15, 1961 - U.S. Figure Skating Team - The entire U.S. team died in a plane crash in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where they were to participate in the world championships. Nice piece on the 50th anniversary by Frank DeFord for NPR here.

October 13, 1972 - Old Christians Club rugby team - Flying over the Andes, a Uruguayan Air Force plane crashed. Passengers on the flight included the rugby club from Chile. Eighteen passengers and crew died within eight days. Twenty-two others survived. Only sixteen were rescued, two months after the crash, having resorted to cannibalism to survive. The disaster was recounted in the book and film, Alive!.

December 13, 1977 - Evansville University men’s basketball team - The entire team was killed when their overloaded DC-3 crashed en route to a game versus Middle Tennesee State. Tragically, the one member of the team who was not on the plane died soon after in an auto accident.

September 7, 2011 - Yaroslavl Lokomotiv - Russia professional hockey team crashed upon takeoff, killing thirty-seven players, coaches and staff.

(Image of the 1970 Marshall University football team is copyright of Marshall University.)