Thanks to Nate Olson of Simmons Bank for his help on this story. For more, please go to our Simmons Bank blog at www.beyondthebank.com.
Thousands of Arkansans have memories of University of Arkansas football games they’ve attended through the years at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
Those who were there on Oct. 24, 1970, will never forget when the Wichita State Shockers came to town.
As far as football games go, Arkansas’ game against Alcorn State from Mississippi at War Memorial Stadium this Saturday likely won’t be memorable.
But a ceremony on the field should be.
Surviving members of Wichita State’s 1970 football team will attend the Arkansas-Alcorn State game. A plane crash that killed 31 people is at the heart of this story.
Why Little Rock?
Why War Memorial Stadium?
Chuck Dicus, a former Razorback and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, now heads the Arkansas Game & Fish Foundation in Little Rock. A business associate met a former Wichita State football player named John Potts, and they began talking about what happened in 1970. The business associate mentioned her conversation to Dicus this spring and said he should reach out to Potts.
Dicus called, and the idea of a reunion with both teams in attendance was born.
On Oct. 2, 1970, two chartered planes left Wichita to carry the Wichita State football team to a game in Logan, Utah, against Utah State.
Most of the starters were on what was known as the Gold plane.
Others were on what was known as the Black plane.
Olson picks up the story at that point: “While in Denver, several players on the Gold plane asked their pilots to take a scenic route. The players wanted to pass over the Eisenhower Tunnel, on which they had worked as part of a road crew the previous summer. When the plane tried to reach a higher altitude, the cargo load proved too heavy. The plane became trapped in a box canyon, clipped the trees for 400 yards and crashed. Some passengers survived the initial impact but perished when the aircraft burst into flames.
“The Black plane stuck with its original flight plan, which called for it to fly north for 60 miles to avoid the tallest mountains before heading west to Utah. In Logan, the Black plane was sitting at the airport as the players wondered where the other plane was.”
Ray Burford, a player who was on the Black plane and is now a vice president and commercial loan officer for Simmons Bank in Wichita, remembers one of the players joking, “Maybe they crashed.”
Olson writes: “The players knew something was wrong when airport officials pulled assistant coaches off the aircraft for a discussion. When the coaches came back on the plane, they were visibly shaken. Burford says the team was taken to a hotel where the surviving players spent the night. The coaches made the players stay in their rooms to avoid the reporters who had gathered to cover the story. The team boarded a bus for Salt Lake City the next day and took a commercial flight back to Wichita. The bus broke down on the way. When they arrived at the airport, some players opted to drive home. Burford says the days that followed the crash were spent at memorial services for players and staff members. Despite the grief, the players voted to continue the season.”
The NCAA didn’t allow freshmen to play in varsity games in those days but made an exception for Wichita State.
An Oct. 10 home game against Southern Illinois was canceled.
An Oct. 17 home game against Cincinnati was rescheduled for later in the season.
That meant that the Oct. 24 game against Arkansas at War Memorial Stadium would be the Shockers’ first game since the crash.
Bruce James was an All-American defensive end on the 1970 Arkansas squad and now lives in Little Rock. He remembers the Razorback head coach, Frank Broyles, telling him that he would start but only play four downs. Broyles later told members of the scout team and walk-on players that if they could get to Little Rock, they would play. For many of them, it was the lone varsity game in which they would compete.
“The Shockers took a commercial flight from Wichita to Little Rock,” Olson writes. “The only available flight brought the team to Little Rock a day earlier than normal road trips. Players were allowed to explore downtown Little Rock. Little Rock residents left cards and other memorials at the team hotel. James says he remembers that the captains, including one survivor on crutches, had tears in their eyes. When the Shockers took the field, the crowd stood and gave them an ovation that Burford says ‘felt like 10 minutes.’
“James recalls that a number of Arkansas fans decided to root for the underdogs. Burford says the Shockers left the field proud of their effort. Wichita State discontinued football in 1986, but there’s a constant reminder of that 1970 team on campus. A monument was built soon after the tragedy, and Burford says that every year the surviving players gather for a memorial service. This year that service will be held in Little Rock on Sunday following the Arkansas-Alcorn State game.”
Kevin Crass, a Little Rock attorney who now chairs the War Memorial Stadium Commission, was a young boy from Pine Bluff in attendance at the 1970 game.
“There have been some great moments at War Memorial Stadium, but that has to be right up there,” Crass says.
When the Gold plane crashed about 1 p.m. on Oct. 2 on Mount Trelease, which is 40 miles west of Denver, there were 31 people killed — 14 players, 14 staff members or boosters and three crew members. Twenty-nine of them died at the scene. Athlete John Taylor and trainer Tom Reeves died later in hospitals.
Eight players and the co-pilot survived.
The Wichita State athletic director and his wife were killed.
The Shocker head coach and his wife also were killed.
The chairman of the Shocker Club and his wife were killed.
A Kansas state representative and his wife were killed.
A couple who had won a Shocker Club membership drive and were awarded the trip to Logan were killed.
Burford says he often thinks about the day of the crash. He also thinks about that night in Little Rock later in the month, the sea of red in the stands and the sustained standing ovation.
“It just shows so much about this city, the state and Razorback fans,” James says. “Everybody here wanted them to know how much they cared. It was an awesome moment. It made me proud to be a Razorback.”
The former Arkansas and Wichita State players will participate in a tailgate party Saturday morning and then be honored on the field.
“I see it as an opportunity for our team to show their team how much we respected them and still do today,” Dicus says. “They’re still going through it every single day, and it’s going to be a moving, emotional time.”
Burford, who was a sophomore in 1970, was playing messenger guard with sophomore Richard Stines, who died in the crash. The two players would rotate with the play call.
“You don’t process something like that,” Burford says of the crash. “It’s pretty tough. You lose your head coach and teammates, and three or four of those guys were people I had played against since I was in grade school.”
Burford had been scheduled to fly on the Gold plane. He instead got on the Black plane, which he had ridden earlier in the season. His parents were distraught after seeing their son’s name on the Gold plane flight manifest.
Gus Grebe, Wichita State’s radio play-by-play man, was on the Black plane. Burford gave Grebe a novel to read. During the refueling stop in Denver, a player told Grebe he should be on the Gold plane. Grebe declined the offer. He said he would stay on the Black plane since he had left the book there.
Burford knows the memories will come flooding back at War Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
“When we were in the locker room together, and then when we got the standing ovation, we knew we had done the right thing by playing,” he says. “We’re coming back to Little Rock to get a little bit more of that feeling again. It’s like coming full circle. It’s closure.”
Burford finished his college football career at Wichita State and went to professional training camp with the Houston Oilers of the NFL in 1974. He later played briefly for the Chicago Bears’ developmental team in Madison, Wisc.
Burford eventually returned to the Wichita area to teach and coach high school football. At the time, he was the youngest high school head coach in the state. After three years, a Wichita State booster hired him to work for a real estate development company. The company’s owner was killed in an accident a year later, and Burford took a job as the top assistant coach at Wichita North High School. Prior to the 1978 season, he was offered a job at what was then the Federal Land Bank. Burford left coaching for good. He worked for the Federal Land Bank for more than 12 years and later moved into commercial community banking.
Burford has been married for 38 years and has a daughter who lives in Charlottesville, Va. He says several of his teammates struggled for years to come to terms with the crash. Burford was determined to live life to the fullest after that fateful day.
“I took very few things for granted after that,” he says. “I appreciated things more than I had previously. … You looked at the opportunities going forward as God-given opportunities. We knew we better count our blessings and do the best we could.”
“It’s important that we as Razorback fans, and we as the Razorback team of 1970, show how much we think of them,” Dicus says of Saturday’s reunion. “Our hearts are still with them.”
Ed Plopa, a sophomore receiver on the 1970 team, told the Wichita Eagle: “They were so kind to ask us down, we need to be there. We’re very excited and, I guess, astounded by the fact that the Razorbacks think enough of us to invite us down there and be so hospitable.”
Paul Suellentrop writes for the Wichita newspaper: “Players on both sides of that 1970 game mark it as one of the most memorable experiences of their football careers. Newspaper accounts describe the crowd of 40,000 giving the Shockers a minute-long standing ovation. Telegrams and cards with well-wishes filled a training table in the locker room. Arkansas won 62-0. WSU played with 46 athletes, 39 of them freshmen and sophomores.”
In a 2005 story marking the 25th anniversary of the game in Little Rock, former player John Hoheisel said: “Just going out there, the standing ovation, it gave you butterflies in your tummy. You learn to appreciate people and, when things happen, how they’ll gather around you.”
In that same story, former player Bruce Featherstone said of the Arkansans they met on that trip: “People would start crying. They wanted to say something and didn’t know what to say. It was just overwhelming.”