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One ex-jock's 1970 stories that need to be told

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Craig T. Greenlee was not killed in the 1970 Marshall plane crash for the simplest, least dramatic reason: He lost his passion for football and left the program in 1969.

Simple as that, he says. That is why he is not in that portrait of the '70 Thundering Herd, the one in which the players are posed standing up in rows on the Fairfield Stadium turf, a photo so indelibly etched in the minds of thousands of MU alumni and fans everywhere.

That is why he is alive, and more than 40 years after that fateful Nov. 14 crash, he has authored "November Ever After: A Memoir of Tragedy and Triumph in the Wake of the 1970 Marshall Football Plane Crash." The book was released last year, but was not well publicized at the time.

Whether he wanted to admit it or not, Greenlee was right in the vortex of the crash's emotional aftermath. One-third of the players on the plane came to MU in 1968, as Greenlee did, to help reverse the school's gridiron fortunes.

As he tells it, "I'm the only living link with a connection to the Herd's undefeated freshman team of '68, who played in '69 and/or '70, and who also took part in the efforts to keep football on the school's athletic menu."

Many of the deceased players were black athletes coming to Huntington from the still-segregated Deep South. Greenlee hailed from Jacksonville, Fla., and had little interaction with whites before making the leap of faith to come to mostly white Marshall to play for coach Perry Moss.

That's an angle often underplayed, from my experience. During the run-up to the 2006 movie "We Are Marshall," Young Thundering Herd quarterback Reggie Oliver gave a fascinating recollection of his four teammates from Druid High in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and their emotional joint funeral. Oliver also discussed his decision to stay at MU and finish his Herd career in their honor.

Greenlee shares his memories of those four, Freddie Wilson, Larry Sanders, Joe Hood, Robert VanHorn and many other teammates. He tells how Larry Brown helped calm a racially charged brawl that erupted after a intramural football game on that Friday the 13th, and how close the campus was to a full-scale riot.

That is a little-known story, but as one might guess, the tragedy defused those tensions.

It is instructive or a good reminder - depending on your age - to know what kind of culture shock these athletes faced. For instance, they couldn't find a radio station playing soul music until a strong AM signal from Nashville, Tenn., came through late at night. And they had to get used to being called "boy" - a grave racial insult in the South then, but a more innocuous greeting in West Virginia at the time.

Greenlee, a safety, returned to the program in the spring of 1971 and left the team a few weeks before the season opener. He stayed at MU and earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism, and is currently a free-lance writer based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Indeed, Greenlee said the book sprouted from a first-person feature he was invited to write for the Winston-Salem Journal, but was not published. Eventually, he tracked down a number of those deeply involved, from freshman football players to non-football classmates, to the lucky ones not on the trip to girlfriends of crash victims. All these stories grab at you.

But the more sobering moments come in Chapter 10, where he tells about those who were unwilling to address the crash for many years - including himself. When people such as Janice Cooley (girlfriend of Art Harris), former cheerleader Debbie (Bailey) Bowen and many others opened up, Greenlee says he repeatedly learned things that had him saying, "I never heard that before."

For his part, Greenlee consciously avoided most of the crash coverage in 1970, though he participated in it. (He covered the National Transportation Safety Board's hearing for The Parthenon student newspaper.) He points out something I hadn't considered - there were no grief counselors as we have today, and the term "post traumatic stress" had not been widely coined.

A lot of grief and stress was internalized for years.

I found the book well written and easy to follow, and I zipped through it in three or four sittings. Upon finishing it, I was amazed, entertained and saddened all at once, but somehow wanting more. Perhaps it's just me - I never go a year without hearing or reading a crash-related story that didn't (a) make my jaw drop, (b) almost make me cry or (c) both.

I kind of wish Greenlee would have tapped me on the shoulder a year ago, but that's no problem. Much like other works about the plane crash, this book is timeless.

Contact Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsmock@wvgazette.com, or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.

 


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