Wichita State marks anniversary of 1970 football team plane crash

Each year, Oct. 2 leaps off the calendar for Elizabeth Winterbone.

“It’s almost mythical,” the Wichita woman said.

It’s understandable.

Wednesday was the 43rd anniversary of the day in 1970 that Winterbone — then 10 years old — lost her parents, Wichita State University football coach Ben Wilson and his wife, Helen. They were among 31 people killed, including 14 players, when a plane bound for a game in Utah slammed into a Colorado mountain on a sunny Friday afternoon.

But on Wednesday, there was more of a sense of rebirth than mourning at 21st and Hillside. Winterbone was in the middle of a reunion at the annual crash memorial ceremony at WSU, greeting friends and members of her dad’s last team.

Those players – crash survivors and members of the “Second Season” team that resumed the 1970 schedule after the crash – roamed the memorial site along Hillside in black polo shirts embroidered with the gold Shocker W helmet of the era and a simple message:

“Still A Team.”

Ed Plopa, a quarterback and defensive back on the 1970 Shockers, summed up that pride.

“We didn’t quit,” he said firmly. “None of us.”

The 1970 Shockers got an unexpected show of support Wednesday from new WSU baseball coach Todd Butler, his players and staff – who stood behind the former football players dressed in black to support their “colleagues,” as WSU president John Bardo put it.

“What a great gesture,” Plopa said.

It was a time of remembrance for the crowd, and there were a few tears shed. There also was some bitterness that football – the sport their friends and children gave their lives for – is gone at WSU. The program folded after the 1986 season.

But there also was the optimism of renewed acquaintances and pride-filled stories about how a shattered university put itself and its football program back together more than four decades ago.

That’s exactly how the emotions of Ben Wilson’s little girl evolved as she returned to Wichita.

“The first ceremony I attended was in 2000 because, you know, my brother and I left Wichita immediately in the weeks after the crash,” Winterbone remembered. “That was the first real chance I had to visit the memorial, and yes, it was incredibly emotional.”

Today, Winterbone’s back in Wichita, completing her master’s degree at WSU. The university “greeted me with open arms and open hearts,” she said.

The site of her greatest pain has become her home.

“I see the memorial now as an opportunity to continue healing, mainly for the people who haven’t seen it before … ” she said. “So I feel a sense of responsibility to provide that open-armed welcome to these people, whether they make themselves known or not. It’s sharing a bond with people who’ve completely absorbed a tragedy.”

People like Dan Ritter, a shot-putter on the WSU track and field team in 1970 who drove from Overland Park for the ceremony.

“As an 18-year-old, I don’t know how well I processed it all,” Ritter said. “But I think the crash changed my life, along with everyone close to it.”

Ritter, then a 260-pounder, went out for the football team as new coach Bob Seaman searched for players after the crash.

“I had to do something and be a part of the team,” he said. “Besides that, I was bigger than all the football players anyway.”

It’s that pride that brought Ritter back, to bond again with a group of people who kept their season — and now the memory of their teammates and coaches — alive.

“It was important to play on for everybody,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing Midwestern people do, how they overcome tragedy.”

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