Today marks the most tragic event in American sports history. If you are a “baby boomer”, you’ve heard, witnessed, and mourned the loss of 75 souls who perished 45 years ago. For those who might not be aware of this story, Southern Airways Flight 932, en route from Kingston, North Carolina to Huntington, West Virginia crashed into a hill just short of the airport. The Marshall University football team was returning back to Huntington after a hard fought football game with East Carolina University. The plane was carrying thirty-six members of the Marshall University Thundering Herd football team, five members of the coaching staff, twenty-four boosters, five crewmembers and five Marshall support staff members. The loss of all these lives made me take a closer look at my own life because Marshall University recruited me when I was a senior at Steubenville High School. If I had qualified academically and accepted a scholarship from Marshall, I would not have been on the flight because freshman didn’t travel with the varsity during that era. I thank God for not allowing me to experience a tragic event of this magnitude first hand.
I recall, at the end of my first football season as an Ellsworth Panther in Iowa Falls, Iowa, the unthinkable happened. As I was sitting in my room, I saw a news flash: “Marshall University Football Team Killed in a Plane Crash – No Known Survivors.” I was shocked and deeply saddened hearing this news. The crash pulled on my heartstrings. I felt compelled to become a member of the Marshall University Young Thundering. To express my gratitude, I wrote this letter to Coach Jack Lengyel 30 years ago. The letter reads:
I am sorry that it has taken me so long to thank you and to reflect on our reunion at the Navy-Georgia Tech game on September 16th. Since my wife and I last saw you, I have completed a two-week class, a trip to Ohio to see my oldest sister who is losing her bout with cancer, and undergoing surgery of my own. It was great seeing you. You really look good.
Additionally, we enjoyed conversing with the Admiral and the other nice gentleman including the President of the Detroit Red Wings in the press box. By the way, I e-mailed Tom Burbage. He said that he had to miss the game because he had to attend a board meeting.
To reflect on the past, thanks for awarding me a full scholarship at Marshall. Although I could have gone to one of the marquee schools like Notre Dame, Ohio State, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, Iowa, Iowa State, Illinois, Indiana, California, Purdue, Minnesota, Syracuse and others, I’m glad that I chose the green and white colors of the Thundering Herd. I still love the sound of that nickname.
You sold me when you said, “a lot of schools want you, but we need you,” I’m glad that I accepted the challenge to attend Marshall. Moreover, I am blessed to have forged a lasting relationship with my wife, my teammates, the alumni and people like the Diniacos. Last, but not least, your wife and you. My only regret, I couldn’t perform at an optimal level because of my new debilitating injuries and illnesses. As a result, I felt that I let the team down, you and Scotty Reese. Yes, Scottie Reese!
As I was walking down Gullickson Hall during my recruiting visit, I paid homage to the players and staff that perished in the plane crash. For some reason, I connected with the spirit of Scottie Reese. Therefore, I wanted to play for him and me. My legendary #84 was not available. Scottie’s #83 was gone. So, I selected the hallowed #80. Dennis “The Menace” Blevins, a fleet-footed and slick wide receiver from Bluefield, West Virginia, wore the #80.
Reggie had informed me that Scottie and I were similar in size, ability, speed and aggression. For that reason, I carried Scottie in my spirit. Actually, I tried to play with a torn deltoid injury and a viral hepatitis illness. Ironically, my bout with hepatitis almost cost me my life. You know it’s funny, I had not disclosed my desire to play for Scottie, except to my wife. I had to keep playing in spite of my injuries and illnesses because Scottie was resting. In fact, my body was racked with excruciating pain every day since the first time I injured it at Ellsworth Community College during the 1971 season. That pain lingered throughout my two years at Marshall and 18 years beyond Marshall. I just wanted to play badly. I almost pulled it off. I can end this chapter of my life. Thank you for believing in my athletic ability.
In addition to that, thanks for creating an avenue of learning. Because of your commitment to academics, I earned three college degrees. Furthermore, I became the model citizen that the Diniacos encouraged me to be. My wife and I started a GED program at a local church because it was needed. This was our way of giving back to others. I try to encourage young athletes to excel in the classroom. If the young prospective student-athlete performs in the classroom, I contact small colleges and major universities throughout the country on their behalf. I tried to extend the same amount of patience that you extended me.
In closing, I am forwarding my resume in which I am extremely proud. I always wanted to be able to articulate a sentence to avoid the “dumb athlete” perception. I didn’t make all-conference or all-American consideration for Scottie and me. However, we got three degrees.
Again, thanks Coach. You are truly inspirational.
Les “Praying Mantis” Hicks for Scottie Reese
Because Scottie had made the ultimate sacrifice, I followed suit by sacrificing my talent for the betterment of the team. I played hurt and was willing to play multiple positions including defensive tackle, weighing 212 pounds.
The 1970 Marshall University football plane crash taught me how to treasure each moment and each breath. The loss of thirty-six players and five coaches, twenty-four boosters, five support staff members, and five crew members taught me never to take life for granted. I was privileged to play on the behalf of the deceased players in spite of my pain and frustration. Going forward, I treat each day as if it were my last.