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GUEST COLUMN: Former Rio Rancho councilor sadly recalls Marshall football team’s demise in 1970

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — (On Nov. 14, 1970, on a rainy hillside In Wayne County, W. Va., the lives of 75 people were lost in the worst single air tragedy in NCAA sports history. Among the losses were nearly the entire Marshall University football team, coaches, the flight crew, numerous fans and supporters. Former Rio Rancho City Councilor Roy Slezak lost his best friend, Art Harris, who was a Thundering Herd football player. Slezak’s column recalls that crash, the loss of a friend and more.)   

Roy Slezak, wearing a commemorative Marshall U jersey, bearing Art Harris’s number, stands with former MU coach Red Dawson.

 

Fifty years ago (from Saturday, Nov. 14), my life changed forever. I could not write this without writing about the tragedy that took place in Huntington, W. Va., on Nov. 14, 1970.

Rose Kennedy once said, “It has been said, ‘Time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens, but it is never gone.”

This could never be truer for me when I think about this tragedy where I lost my friends and I did not board that plane in North Carolina on the trip home to Marshall. Why I was not there to board the plane and why my friend’s dad was, is a series of fateful happenings.

I observed the devastation firsthand when I drove the 600 miles to Marshall, somehow hoping the whole thing was just a nightmare and my friend and his dad would meet me at the student union.

As it turned out, 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.

I do not like to say anniversary because anniversaries are happy times and those were unwanted days in 1970. For two years as Nov. 14 approached, I am not embarrassed to say that I had an intermittent nightmare about the crash. I guess the scar tissue finally covered over the nightmare and lessened my pain, as Rose Kennedy said.

One reason I am writing this is because the scar tissue has been torn away and thinking about my yearly tribute to my friends has brought back that nightmare. I suspect that I will have the nightmare intermittently until the sun sets on Nov. 14 and the darkness turns to light as it has on Nov. 15.

Then the mind will once again cover those wounds and lessen the hurt while the nightmare disappears. I will not go into detail about that nightmare because it is too personal and graphic. Out of respect for Art’s older sister, who I talk to on occasion, I will not talk about it now.

I made a trip back to Huntington in 2011 to retrace my steps and visited the crash site, the new stadium and the campus. I also met with Red Dawson and we compared notes. It turned out to be very healing and the hospitality of the people of Huntington was nothing less than extraordinary.

Tributes were everywhere for “The 75” — the number of people who were lost that day.

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. When I ran into Art’s dad, the meetings always turned into hours-long discussions on sports and upcoming athletes in our community. I miss those talks but cherish the memory.

My memories cannot be taken away. They act as a healing catalyst keeping my friends’ memory alive. Fifty years and it still seems like yesterday.

I will do my tributes each year, as I promised Art’s mom that Art’s and Art’s dad’s memories will never die. The nightmares will always return as Nov. 14 approaches each year and the scar tissue will be torn away once again until it heals over and lessens the pain. 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?”

Rest in peace, my friends. I will see you when the final whistle blows: “We Are Marshall. We Are All One Heart.”



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