Marshall dis­as­ter left a last­ing sor­row

For line­man left off flight, mem­o­ries of 1970 crash re­main

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - SPORTS - BY JOHN O’CON­NOR Richmond Times-Dis­patch

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.


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