East Carolina remembers its link to Marshall tragedy

Updated: November 9, 2006, 2:36 PM ET
Assocaited Press

GREENVILLE, N.C. -- Former East Carolina fullback Harold Robinson sometimes wonders how history might have changed had Marshall coach Rick Tolley accepted an impromptu invitation nearly 36 years ago from Pirates coach Mike McGee.

"Coach McGee came across the field [and] he asked the coach at Marshall if he wanted to stay over that night," Robinson said. "I'll never forget what the coach of Marshall said: 'We need to get on back tonight."'

They never made it.

Tolley and 74 other Marshall players, coaches, boosters and crew members died that night, Nov. 14, 1970, after their DC-9 crashed on approach near a mountaintop airport a few miles from Huntington, W.Va. It remains the worst aviation disaster in American sports history.

Among the grieving was the East Carolina community, which struggled to grasp that the Marshall players their Pirates blocked and tackled just hours earlier were dead.

"It's one of those feelings in life that you never forget as long as you live," Robinson said.

On Saturday, Marshall makes its second trip to East Carolina since the crash and its first since 1978. The Herd and Pirates play three days before the 36th anniversary of the disaster and a little more than a month before "We are Marshall" -- Hollywood's dramatization of the team's rebirth, starring Matthew McConaughey -- hits theaters.

"The initial feeling in all of us was, 'Hey, we just saw those guys. They were just here,"' said Gary Overton, an assistant athletic director at East Carolina who was a sophomore at the time. "We all had very close friends of guys on the football team. They were looking in the faces of people who now were no longer with us."

Robinson is now the Pirates' director of high school relations. He was a junior in 1970, but didn't play in East Carolina's 17-14 win because of an injury. He was assisting East Carolina's coaches during the game and overheard the exchange between Tolley and McGee.

After the game, the Herd bused about 30 miles south to Kinston, where they boarded Southern Airlines Flight 932, a chartered twin-engine plane bound for Tri-State Airport near Ceredo, W.Va.

The plane left at 6:38 p.m. and made contact with a control tower in Huntington at 7:23 p.m. According to National Transportation Safety Board records, the low-flying plane crashed into a rainy, foggy hillside about 13 minutes later, likely the result of improper use of cockpit instrument data or a glitch with the plane's altimeter.

Grief overcame Huntington and the Marshall community. Back in Greenville, East Carolina's players gathered in a dormitory to mourn the players against whom they competed earlier that day. McGee clutched a Bible as he addressed the Pirates, Robinson said.

"The first words out of his mouth were, 'Gentlemen, today part of your breed has perished,"' Robinson said. "That was all he said. At the time, I was a young kid. I didn't understand what that meant. After all my years of coaching, I know [now] what that meant."

The disbelief extended onto East Carolina's campus.

"Although these were people that we knew little of, and did not know personally, they were still people we had just been associated with," Overton said. "They were people that had been in our city, on our campus ... the lump goes into your throat."

Some former East Carolina players still don't like to discuss the crash. Robinson said a teammate recently choked up as they talked about it.

Robinson flew to Huntington for last season's East Carolina-Marshall game and his plane landed at Tri-State Airport, not far from the site of the crash.

"I'd never been so nervous on a flight in my life," Robinson said. "It's been 36 years now, and [those memories are] a big deal for those of us that were on the team."

This weekend, officials from both schools will dedicate a plaque to hang outside the visitors' locker room at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium that will memorialize the crash victims and the revival of Marshall's program. Herd athletic director Bob Marcum called it a nice way to honor that team and coach Mark Snyder said it will be a special weekend for both schools.

The plaque also will serve as a tangible link between Marshall and East Carolina, a reminder of the pain caused by the crash and the subsequent healing that took place on both campuses.

"The present student body probably doesn't realize what kind of impact took place back in 1970," Overton said.