Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in The Eagle on Oct. 2, 2005, the 35-year anniversary of the plane crash that killed 31 members of the Wichita State football program and its traveling party.
They voted to play, because to quit meant quitting on their dead and injured teammates. To quit meant giving in to the days of sadness and tears and funerals.
Wichita State’s 1970 football team, torn apart by a plane crash, couldn’t do that.
So the Shockers played, and Arkansas routed WSU 62-0 in a game not remember ed for football, but for the coin toss and the Razorback fans and players who turned the stadium in Little Rock into a place of welcome and support.
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That Oct. 24 game started WSU’s “Second Season” after the Oct. 2 crash in Colorado killed 31 people, including 14 players and coach Ben Wilson. Eight players and one of the pilots survived the crash. The Shockers were on their way to a game against Utah State in Logan, Utah, when one of the two planes carrying the team crashed near Silver Plume, Colo.
“Those that died – they wouldn’t have wanted us to quit,” said John Yeros, a freshman receiver in 1970. “It wasn’t a great team to begin with. But it was a team that hung together.”
The Shockers put their togetherness on display for the first time against Arkansas, and it created many of the most memorable images from the ordeal. Chuck Dicus, one of Arkansas’ captains for that game, calls coin tosses a time when emotions are put aside as part of the routine before kickoff. Dicus, a senior receiver in 1970, has never forgotten that coin toss at War Memorial Stadium.
Wichita State seniors Bob Hayes and Don Pankratz – the only seniors in uniform – and senior John Hoheisel, injured in the crash, walked toward midfield. Hoheisel used a crutch and wore a letter jacket.
“I walked to the middle of the field and I saw the Wichita State players walking toward me with bandages and crutches,” Dicus said. “We knew what had happened. But we were trying to prepare for a ballgame. I wasn’t expecting that. They obviously showed a lot of courage and a lot of bravery.”
Hoheisel remembers the normal handshakes, not words, passing between the players before the coin toss.
“Just going out there, the standing ovation, it gave you butterflies in your tummy,” he said. “You learn to appreciate people and, when things happen, how they’ll gather around you.”
Nine days after the crash, the Shockers voted 76-1 to continue playing. Yeros said he talked to the dissenting voter, who told him he voted against playing only because he assumed everyone else would. WSU was given permission by the NCAA to use freshmen, ineligible in those days.
Games against Utah State and Southern Illinois (Oct. 10) were canceled, and the game against Cincinnati, scheduled for Oct. 17, was moved to Oct. 31. The Shockers, winless in three games before the crash, began practice with 13 days to prepare for No. 9 Arkansas.
“It was just good to get the pads on, get your ankles taped, get muddy, get dirty,” said Kim Cocklin, a sophomore center in 1970. “That represented some degree of normal.”
The Shockers spent the days following the crash visiting hospitalized teammates and attending funerals. Practice, safety Bruce Gerleman said, was a relief.
“It gave us a real release and a real outlet and a real focus,” he said. “And it was dedicated to all those guys who didn’t make it.”
The plane that crashed carried WSU’s starters, 10 of them juniors and seniors. WSU went to Little Rock with a 46-man roster, 39 of them freshmen and sophomores. The 19 freshmen made their college debuts. None of the eight crash survivors suited up.
“The toughest part was the freshmen out there with us,” said offensive lineman Rusty Featherstone, a sophomore at the time. “You were so used to looking at the guy next to you in the huddle – and it’s a guy you don’t know.”
The Shockers wore black jerseys – normally their home uniform – as they would for every game the rest of the season. Orville Henry of the Arkansas Gazette wrote that WSU entered the stadium in a single-file line to a minute-long standing ovation from the crowd of 40,000. The newspaper described a scene in the locker room where a freshman asked WSU coach Bob Seaman how the players were supposed to line up before the game. The Arkansas cheerleaders watched quietly and the fans, according to the Gazette, refrained from their routine of calling the Hogs.
“I remember us thinking, golly, how brave these guys are,” Arkansas tight end Pat Morrison said. “We thought so highly of those guys.”
Arkansas coach Frank Broyles, now the school’s athletic director, said he remembers a debate on whether to play, then bending to Wichita State’s desire. He prepared to play his reserves as soon as possible.
It didn’t take long, as expected. Arkansas was on its way to a 9-2 season. The Razorbacks started 11 players who would earn All-Southwest Conference honors – not including backup quarterback Joe Ferguson, who played 17 seasons in the NFL.
Arkansas, which won the toss and took the ball, scored on its first drive and returned a punt for another touchdown and a 14-0 lead with 11:54 to go in the first quarter. The Razorback starters, according to the Gazette, ran 18 plays and sat down with a 20-0 lead.
WSU put together two good drives, one that ended on downs at the Arkansas 23 in the first quarter and one that ended when quarterback Tom Owen threw an interception at the 16 in the second half.
“It was just football after it all started,” Gerleman said. “They were out there kicking our butts.”
Gerleman, a sophomore in 1970, remembers the challenge of covering Dicus, an All-American. The crash killed WSU’s entire starting secondary – defensive back Johnny Taylor died two days after the Arkansas game in a Texas hospital.
Yeros remembers one of WSU’s few highlights – his kickoff return for 59 yards in the second quarter. He is still kidded about the play.
“I was told it was a big, fat defensive tackle that caught me from behind,” he said.
Featherstone remembers Shocker players, desperate to score, crying in the huddle during the final minutes.
“We had just wanted to be able to score against their guys in honor of our buddies,” he said. “We just couldn’t find a way to do it.”
After the game, players met at midfield – a noticeable change in routine for the Razorbacks, who normally went immediately to the locker room.
“When the clock ticked off the final second, the Razorbacks exploded to midfield,” James Thompson of the Gazette wrote. “They met Wichita coming the other way. And for the next five minutes, players for both sides embraced, shook hands and talked about the football game.”
“They were bawling as much as we were,” Featherstone said. “College football players are a brotherhood. They understood.”
That group of Razorbacks played plenty of big games where the mood of the state rose and fell with their wins and losses. Playing the Shockers that night was different.
“The game was one of us being there to be part of their baby steps toward a healing process,” Arkansas quarterback Bill Montgomery said. “It was devastating to think about their families and all their players and the university.”
More than anything, it was the Arkansas fans that are remembered. Support for WSU started after the crash, with grade schools and celebrities and professional athletes sending support and money. Featherstone recalls the trainer’s table in the locker room at Little Rock filled with telegrams expressing sympathy and best wishes.
The Shockers arrived in Little Rock the day before the game and stayed in a downtown hotel. As the Shockers, dressed in their traveling jacket and ties, walked around downtown, they were recognized by Razorback fans.
“People would start crying,” Featherstone said. “They wanted to say something and didn’t know what to say. It was just overwhelming.”
WSU finished the season 0-9, then went 3-8 in 1971. The 1972 Shockers, with many of those freshmen and sophomores playing key roles, went 6-5 for the school’s first winning season since 1963.
Many members of that group remain close and meet each year for a golf outing in Florida. Many were scheduled to return to Wichita this weekend for memorial services.
The loss of friends and teammates and the support of other friends and teammates during that 1970 season molded their lives, they say.
“The friendships and bonds forged have been a very important of all our lives,” Gerleman said. “We’re still all so close, and we do so much of that in their memory. I think about them all the time.”