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Complex connection for WSU survivors

  • Published Saturday, July 31, 2010, at 12:07 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, July 31, 2010, at 2:34 a.m.

Randy Jackson got to have a wife, a couple of kids and a granddaughter. He got to play 21 games in the National Football League. He got to teach and coach at Robinson Middle School in Wichita for 31 years.

And every day for 39-plus years, he probably asked himself: "Why?"

As one of eight Wichita State football players who survived the devastating crash into the side of a mountain in Colorado on Oct. 2, 1970, when 14 of his teammates and 17 others didn't, Jackson, like the others, battled guilt... how many times must he have thought to himself: "I would have traded my life for those of my friends."

Jackson, a native Texan, died on July 21 after suffering from pancreatic cancer. He's the first of the eight survivors to die of natural causes. There will be a private funeral service followed by a public memorial today at Wilner Auditorium on the WSU campus, starting at 11 a.m. It will be followed by a reception at the Rhatigan Center.

Jackson, according to some who knew him, didn't talk much about the crash. Once you start talking about it, how do you stop?

But not talking about it is different than not thinking about it. And as the survivors passed from their late teens or early 20s into their late 50s and early 60s, how many hours must they have spent pondering the crash and its myriad ramifications?

Jackson's death is a reminder to the other survivors about that sunny, mild day that ended so horribly. But it's also an opportunity to think about one of their own, a supremely gifted football player — probably the best on that Shocker team — who came out of the crash relatively unscathed.

"The incredible thing about Randy was that he kept in touch with everybody,'' said Mike Bruce, who has his own accounting firm in Dallas. "He had family in Dallas and he'd call me every New Year's Day because he would be down here during the break between Christmas and New Year's.''

Despite not being very good, the 1970 Shockers were a close-knit bunch, Bruce said. And Jackson had a lot to do with the cohesion.

He was a leader, a player who could focus on the positives even if they were badly outnumbered.

Bruce remembers a pep talk Jackson gave the team after it was trounced by Arkansas in a 1969 game, telling players to keep their heads up. Didn't matter that the Shockers were trounced in the next game, too. Jackson's message remained the same.

The crash survivors are an interesting group. Some, like Bob Renner and Keith Morrison, have stayed mostly out of sight.

Others, like Dave Lewis, have battled their demons and struggled to put their lives back together.

Still others, like Jackson, never showed outwardly, at least, the damage.

"I've been involved in all kinds of therapy over the years — good, bad and indifferent,'' former WSU offensive lineman Glenn Kostal said. "You're always searching for different things. I've been lucky — all of us who survived have been lucky — to go on and do different things.''

Kostal, a Chicago native, is in the furniture business in Milwaukee. He and Jackson hadn't had much contract through the years, just an occasional chat during a reunion of survivors.

"I know he was a gifted athlete,'' Kostal said. "I would have given anything to be his size with his speed and his kind of talent.''

Jackson's death hit at a time when Kostal's father, who is 85, is in the final stages of lung cancer.

Kostal's oldest son is a retired West Point grad who was injured a couple of times during his military service. They were recently together, at which time both shared long-buried emotions about their experiences during a viewing of the KPTS documentary "Black and Gold," a well-made recounting of the Shocker plane crash produced last year.

"I was watching this thing and crying my eyes out,'' Kostal said, "and I was a little embarrassed. After all these years, 'Why?' My son said, 'Why wouldn't you?' "

Jackson was featured prominently in the documentary as one of the survivors to visit the crash site. He went with Rick Stephens and Dave Lewis, two other survivors.

"We weren't the closest friends, but our lives were bound together by a common tragedy and miracle at the same time,'' Stephens said. "I think I take away from Randy's passing just what a gift we had.''

Because of the bond, Stephens visited Jackson several times as he battled his cancer. They talked not about the devastation of the crash, but about how fortunate they were.

"He told me, 'Rick, we've had 40 years that nobody would have expected us to have,' " Stephens said. "He said he tried to live his life in honor of those 40 years. I thought that was pretty profound and that's something he's done. He lived a life that had an impact on the lives of many other people.''

Stephens, badly injured in the plane crash, rode nearly 1,000 miles on his bicycle in May to help promote breast cancer awareness. Jackson, diagnosed with cancer in February, shook Stephens' hand before the journey and said he would pray for his safety.

"He was blessed with a powerful faith," Stephens said. "As sick as he was, he wanted to pray for my safety."

Lewis lost his closest friend, Donnie Christian, in the crash and struggled for years with the emotional turmoil. He stayed in Wichita for a few years after the tragedy, but felt lost and was overcome with guilt.

Lewis, who sells real estate in Kansas City, remembers how Jackson extended a helping hand years ago.

"Randy was playing professional football in 1973 and I was there in Wichita by myself because all of my friends had passed away,'' Lewis said. "I remember, Randy was back in town and he was driving a silver 'Vette. He was playing with the (Buffalo) Bills and he just came and got me one night and said that I should spend some time with him. For some reason, he just knew how lonely I was.''

Lewis hung out with Jackson for a few weeks and has never forgotten Jackson's friendship.

"He just wanted me to cheer up a little bit,'' Lewis said.

The two didn't stay in touch much thereafter. A common theme running through the crash survivors is that they don't much stay in touch. At least not in a way that is tangible.

Yet they're forever bound together, eight names that can't be separated.

Michael Bruce. John Hoheisel. Glenn Kostal. Dave Lewis. Keith Morrison. Bob Renner. Rick Stephens.

Randy Jackson.

"You just have to try and enjoy life and try to do good," Lewis said. "You just never know when it's going to be over. I was prepared with Randy because of the cancer, but it still hurts."

It's a jolt to everyone.

"He did get that 40 extra years," Bruce said. "We had a second chance and so many people didn't. I don't know how Randy felt about all that toward the end, but I'd be quite surprised if he didn't feel the same way.

"I know his passing is premature and he was just such a rock. But we all had years we were lucky to have.''

Reach Eagle sports columnist Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com.

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