On Nov. 14, 1970, on a rainy hillside in Wayne County, West Virginia, the lives of 75 people were lost in the worst single air tragedy in NCAA sports history.
Roy Slezak, now 71, of Albuquerque lost his best friend, Art Harris, a Marshall University football player, who was killed in that crash of a chartered DC-9.
“My life changed forever,” said Slezak, 71, a former Rio Rancho city councilor (1990-94), about the events on that day 50 years ago. The 2006 movie “We Are Marshall” chronicled those events and the rebirth of the program.
Harris, a sophomore running back for that 1970 Marshall team, and Slezak had grown up together in Passaic, New Jersey. Slezak twice previously had made trips from New Jersey with Harris’ father Arthur, a baker, to see his friend play.
Arthur Harris had asked Slezak to accompany him again to that game against East Carolina in Greenville, North Carolina, on Nov. 14, 1970. It was to be their first plane trip to a game site. Slezak had a bowling date scheduled for that night, however, and the elder Harris advised him not to break it.
Arthur Harris mistakenly booked a commercial flight to Greenville, South Carolina, en route to the game, which necessitated changed travel plans on the way back, Slezak said.
Arthur Harris received one of the few remaining seats available on the ill-fated charter, Slezak said.
The team’s returning flight slammed into a hillside in rain and fog just short of the Huntington airport runway. The jet burst into flames, leaving a charred swath of trees. Investigators concluded that the plane was flying too low, either because of faulty altitude equipment or the pilots’ failure to read their instruments properly.
Everyone on board perished: 36 football players, 39 coaches, school administrators, community leaders, boosters and the flight crew, Players who didn’t make the road trip were called upon to identify crash victims through clothing, jewelry, shoes – even scars. Six players whose bodies were never identified were buried at a nearby cemetery.
Slezak heard the news of the crash on the radio, coming home from his date.
“Why I was not there to board the plane, and why my friend’s dad was,” Slezak said, “is a series of fateful happenings.”
On Saturday, the 2020 Marshall University football team will take on Middle Tennessee State University at Joan C. Edwards Stadium in Huntington. The 75 people who died in the crash will be honored in a variety of ways, including a moment of silence prior to kickoff.
“Rose Kennedy once said, ‘It has been said, Time heals all wounds,’ but I do not agree,” Slezak said. “The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens, but it is never gone. …”
“You go through a lot of stuff – you feel all those emotions and including, ‘Hey, I’m glad I wasn’t there.'” he said.
“But you have survivor’s guilt.”
Slezak recalls driving some 600 miles to the crash site upon hearing the news and seeing devastation that was more horrific than merely memorable.
“The wreckage told it all. My friend, Art, and his dad were not coming home and as I dropped to my knees in the mud near the airport, I could see the runway and couldn’t help thinking that just 10 more seconds and our lives would have gone on as usual.”
Slezak recalls the days he and young Harris played on a church basketball team that won five titles in a row. He also recalls the Harris family being there for him when, at age 14, he lost his mother.
“Art’s mom visited me every day to make sure I was OK,” he said. “We were more like family than just friends and teammates.”
Slezak came to New Mexico after graduating with a degree in accounting from William Paterson College in Wayne, New Jersey. He got into banking IT work, moved to New Mexico in 1976, moved to Arizona in 1998 to do contract work on Y2K projects, and returned to New Mexico 14 years later upon retirement.
Slezak has taken a couple of trips back to West Virginia since.
Nine years ago, “I made a trip back to Huntington to retrace my steps and visited the crash site, the new stadium and the campus. I also met with (former Marshall assistant coach) Red Dawson and we compared notes,” he said. “”It turned out to be very healing and the hospitality of the people of Huntington was nothing less than extraordinary.”
Dawson was an assistant coach who didn’t get on the flight. He wanted to do some recruiting on the road along the way and returned to Marshall by car.
“The campus may change, the trees around the crash site will get larger and the tributes around the campus may move. The one thing that will never change are the memories I made with Art and his dad: the basketball championships at church; all-star baseball treks around the state and, of course Art’s prowess on the football field, which made him destined for the NFL, are all fresh in my mind,” Slezak said.
“… Whenever I watch a Marshall football game and see no. 22 on someone’s jersey, I still see Art running for a touchdown as the fans go crazy with excitement and then reality sets in and I say to myself, ‘What if?'”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.