This story was originally published in The Eagle on Sept. 30, 1990.
No matter what they lived through together on Oct. 2, 1970, the eight Wichita State football players who survived the plane crash could not be described as a tight-knit group.
Now living in at least six different cities in at least three different states, the survivors have seldom seen or talked to one another in the past 20 years. The three who live in the Wichita area do not get together socially and the whereabouts of two of the survivors is uncertain.
“I guess we’ve really kind of lost touch over the years,” survivor Mike Bruce said recently. “The eight of us were given a second chance for a new life, and I’m sure it changed our lives to a great extent. For the most part, I would guess we are better people for it.
“But we have all lived our separate lives.”
* * *
Mike Bruce had turned 21 three days before the trip to Logan, Utah, and he celebrated his birthday with his best friend and teammate, Johnny Taylor.
Taylor was from Bruce’s hometown of Sherman, Texas, and the two had played football together in junior high, high school and college. They even were born on the same day.
Taylor and Bruce also emerged from the flaming wreckage of the WSU plane together and were admitted to the same hospital in Colorado. The least seriously injured of the entire group, Bruce suffered mainly cuts, bumps and bruises. Still, he was in the Denver hospital for about a week.
Before he returned to Wichita, Bruce told Taylor to hurry and get better and join him back at school.
But Taylor never returned to Kansas. He had suffered extensive burns over much of his body and died 26 days after the crash in a Texas hospital, where he had been flown to a special burn unit.
“We had always roomed together at school,” Bruce said recently. “And when we were freshmen, we would lay awake nights talking about how tough it was and how we should just quit and go back home to Texas.”
Bruce, now a CPA in Dallas, is married and has three daughters. He says he never escapes memories of the plane crash for long.
“In almost every conversation, when people ask you where you went to school, they remember the crash and ask about it,” Bruce said. “It’s just something you live with all the time. You really do.”
* * *
John Hoheisel was the crash survivor who walked, with the aid of a crutch, to the center of Razorback Stadium in Little Rock on Oct. 24, 1970, for the coin toss that began Wichita State’s Second Season.
The Shockers were playing in Little Rock in their first game after the plane crash. More than 40,000 Razorback fans stood and gave Hoheisel and his teammates an ovation that seemed to last forever and moved the 21-year-old senior captain to tears.
“That ovation was for the guys on that team that had the guts to go out and play again,” Hoheisel said recently. “It was for their Second Season.”
Now, Hoheisel says it is usually the blunt questions of seventh-graders that bring recollections of the crash back into focus.
A linebacker described in 1970 as the “backbone of the Shocker defense,” Hoheisel now lives in Walton, a small community outside Newton, and teaches industrial arts at Valley Center Middle School. He is married and has two children.
Hoheisel says he does not think much about the crash, although he doesn’t mind questions about it. Usually, those questions come from his students who are put up to the task by their parents, many of whom are about Hoheisel’s age.
“Kids are pretty direct about it,” Hoheisel said. “But their parents are usually the ones getting them to ask. So I’ll give them a little bit of a hard time and say, ‘What crash?’ But then I go ahead and tell them.”
* * *
Randy Jackson is probably the best-known of the WSU plane crash survivors and the only one who had an extended career in football.
A 21-year-old tailback known as “Randy The Dandy” at the time of the crash, Jackson came back to lead the 1971 WSU team in rushing and then was drafted in the fourth round by the Buffalo Bills. Jackson’s four-year stay in the pros also included stints with San Francisco and Philadelphia.
Flying to games with those professional teams are the only times Jackson has flown since the 1970 crash.
“I hate like hell to fly,” Jackson said. “The only time I ever have is in the pros. And that’s only because I had to.
“After 20 years, it’s as fresh as yesterday when I think about flying.”
Jackson says his life has turned out well. He teaches physical education at Robinson Middle School in Wichita, where he has been for 13 years. He and his wife, Gayle, have an 8-year-old daughter named Amanda and another baby due at the end of December.
Jackson also gets questions about the crash from parents via their children.
“Some people know about it, and it’s getting to the point where their parents are about my age, “ Jackson said. “It must come from their parents because they’re all way too young to know.”
* * *
Glenn Kostal thinks that if the eight survivors were put in the same room now, their friendships probably would instantly rekindle, despite the different directions their lives have taken since the crash.
Kostal was a 20-year-old linebacker on the 1970 Shocker team and now lives in Milwaukee, where he is a marketing representative for a furniture company. He has not seen or talked to most of the other survivors since leaving WSU.
“My impression is that a lot of the guys want to put the crash behind them. It’s not like a fraternity or something where we’re getting together,” Kostal said. “But if we were all in the same place somewhere, we would pick up right where we left off. We went through so much together.”
Kostal says he often runs into people who ask about the crash once they find out where he went to school.
“It’s a hell of a way to get notoriety,” he said.
* * *
David Lewis had lived with teammates Donny Christian, Johnny Taylor and Randy Kiesau in a Wichita apartment the summer before the crash.
The four grew close as they struggled to get by on wages from odd jobs and eagerly awaited the beginning of the fall semester and football season.
When the WSU plane went down, Lewis survived but his three best friends did not. Lewis, a 20-year-old defensive end on that Shocker team, also badly injured his knee in the crash, ending chances for a professional football career that many said was promising.
In the ensuing years, Lewis has gone through two failed marriages and drifted in and out of touch with his family and friends. His only son was born Oct. 2 and will turn 12 on Tuesday.
Those closest to Lewis say they have not seen or heard from him in more than two years. Efforts to reach him the past few weeks were unsuccessful.
“Dave has a lot of problems,” said one close friend. “And I have no doubt his problems are crash-related.”
* * *
Keith Morrison came back to play in one Shocker alumni football game after he finished at Wichita State.
It was, he said at the time, something he needed to do.
Except for that game, however, Morrison’s football career ended with the plane crash. The 21-year-old defensive end suffered second and third degree burns over 20 percent of his body, primarily on his arms and hands. He also had a deep cut on his left leg and broke both his ankles.
“Going back for the alumni game was a little difficult, but it was fun, too,” Morrison said. “You miss it after a while.”
Morrison, married with a 12-year-old daughter, is now a stockbroker in San Antonio. He is a member of the WSU Alumni Association, so he keeps track of events at the university. But he says he has rarely seen or talked to any of the other survivors of the crash.
“We really haven’t kept in touch,” he said.
* * *
Bob Renner, according to the other survivors, is the one who remained in the wrecked plane the longest and the one who probably witnessed the most carnage.
Renner, a 21-year-old quarterback, was seated in the back of the plane along with most of the other survivors. Everyone was thrown forward with the impact of the crash.
According to statements he made soon after the crash, Renner’s leg was pinned beneath seats and wreckage and three of his best friends were pinned near him. After freeing himself, Renner tried to free Randy Kiesau, Don Christian and Jack Vetter. But after several attempts, Renner said, Vetter told him, “Bobby, I’m burning, get out of here.”
Renner is now divorced. He has two sons and a daughter. After leaving WSU, Renner spent several years in Houston running a company that developed shopping centers and other real estate. The business suffered along with the Texas oil economy and Renner now works in several different areas, trying to recover financially.
His mother still lives in Garden Plain. She says Renner travels a lot between five or six Texas cities but keeps in touch with frequent phone calls. He did not want to be interviewed, she said.
“I know he still feels really close to all those guys,” she said. “But it’s also something he kind of stays away from.”
* * *
Rich Stephens apparently was the only one on the plane besides the pilots who had grown concerned about the low-altitude flight up the Rocky Mountain canyon.
Stephens, then a 22-year-old offensive guard, had gone forward in the plane to ask the pilots about the route just before the crash.
“I got up behind the cockpit area and I could hear some concerned conversation between the pilots,” Stephens said. “I decided I better head back to my seat and when I turned around, I fell down when we started hitting the trees.
“That’s the last thing I remember until I woke up outside.”
Stephens was thrown out of the plane, landing in front of it. He and co-pilot Ronald Skipper were the only two people in the front of the plane who lived.
Stephens is married and has two children. He lives in Wichita and teaches industrial technology at Wichita North High. He says he is often asked questions about the crash.
“It’s something that almost always is brought up in the course of a conversation,” Stephens said. “And it’s hard not to remember it when you think of all the grief involved.
“But it’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t be shoved aside, because it did exist.”