Marshall disaster left a lasting sorrow
For lineman left off flight, memories of 1970 crash remain
Marshall will visit East Carolina to start the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 29, and that specially arranged game will be a national commemoration of the grievous event that followed the meeting of those programs 50 years ago.
On Nov. 14, 1970, the plane carrying the Thundering Herd travel party back to Huntington, W.Va., crashed. Seventy passengers and five
Jack Crabtree helped spark the winning play in Marshall’s first game after the 1970 plane crash killed 75. crew members died in the worst air tragedy in the history of collegiate athletics.
Jack Crabtree, a long-time high school football official in the Richmond area, is considering attending that late-August game at ECU. He appreciates that the 50th anniversary is certainly worth honoring, but Crabtree lives daily with the sorrow connected to the loss of life in 1970.
Crabtree, 69, was a sopho
more offensive lineman on the 1970 Marshall team. He was not on the plane that went down because he failed to gain academically eligibility that season, by a fraction.
“We got a call in our apartment about what happened, and from there it was basically downhill,” said Crabtree, who grew up in Tazewell but has lived in Richmond since 1979.
He remembers the funerals, lots of funerals. Gone on Saturday night were his teammates and friends, his coaches, and Marshall support personnel he was with two days before. To Crabtree, the anniversary could be the 25th, or the 30th, or the 11th. It’s an incredibly sad and shocking episode that lingers with him.
According to Crabtree, he narrowly missed achieving the minimum grade-point average for eligibility. He attended summer school following his freshman year with the goal of elevating his GPA. Crabtree recalls needing an A in his summer class to earn eligibility. He received a B.
“I think you had to have a 2.0, and I had like a 1.9,” Crabtree said.
Tony Guzzo kicked the gamewinning field goal, a 24-yarder with 12:27 left, as East Carolina beat Marshall 17-14 on Nov. 14, 1970. Guzzo became Virginia Commonwealth University’s first full-time baseball coach in 1983, and built the program into a consistent winner during his 12 seasons with the Rams. Guzzo, a Norfolk native, left VCU to become Old Dominion’s coach (1995 to 2004).
Guzzo, who now works on the ODU baseball staff as special assistant to coach Chris Finwood, has a daughter, Gina, who attended Marshall and played softball for the Thundering Herd.
Marshall did not suspend football for a lengthy period following the disaster. College programs had freshman teams during that era, since NCAA rules prohibited freshmen from playing. Marshall’s freshmen combined with older players who were not part of the travel squad to ECU and took part in spring practice during 1971 under a new coaching staff led by Jack Lengyel. The Thundering Herd resumed game competition later that year.
Marshall went 2-8 in 1971, and the story of program resurrection was told in the 2006 movie “We Are Marshall,” which stars Matthew McConaughey.
“They caught the essence of it, but they had to Hollywood it up somewhat,” said Crabtree. “It pretty well held true with what was what.”
The Thundering Herd captured an emotional victory, 15-13 over visiting Xavier, in the second game of the 1971 season. On the final play of the game, Marshall had the ball at Xavier’s 13. Freshman Terry Gardner caught a screen pass and scored. There was only one man in position to tackle Gardner.
That defender was blocked by Jack Crabtree.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash that decimated the Marshall football team. It remains the deadliest tragedy affecting a sports team in U.S. history.