Marshall University football team in 1970
When Craig Greenlee went home from Marshall University to Jacksonville, Fla., for Thanksgiving break in 1970, some people thought they had seen a ghost. The hometown folks knew he had gone to MU to play football, so they assumed that he was on the plane that crashed barely two weeks before, killing 75 people, including 37 of his former teammates.
Greenlee, however, had made a decision after his sophomore season that kept him off the team that fall.
After two seasons as a starting safety, he had concluded that education, not football, was his priority. “I thought there were other ways to get through school and not feel like I had to play ball for a scholarship,” he said. Greenlee went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism at Marshall and spent four decades as a journalist, much of it as a sports writer and editor.
Now based in Winston-Salem, N.C., Greenlee is a freelance journalist and the author of November Ever After: A Memoir of Tragedy and Triumph in the Wake of the 1970 Marshall Football Plane Crash, (IUniverse, July 2011).
In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I, too, was a student at Marshall at the time. I took some journalism classes with Greenlee but did not know him particularly well. I had not spoken with him in nearly 40 years. He interviewed me last year for my recollections, as he did my brother, a cousin, my roommate, and other close friends and associates.
I found November Ever After extremely painful to read at times, but also incredibly satisfying because it fills in blanks in my own knowledge, forces me to resurrect long-buried memories and shares with others the African-American experiences at MU that many of us have long wished would be examined some day.
For years, Greenlee said he thought that no one would be interested in his take on the events. He was not among the handful of people who were still on or associated with the team in 1970 but had somehow missed the flight on November 14. Nor was he on the legendary 1971 comeback team featured in the major motion picture “We Are Marshall.”
He did make a valiant effort to return after the crash, suiting up in the spring and pre-season practices. He was not in the starting lineup for ’71 and again concluded before the season that football was not his life’s calling.
In the fall of 1968, Greenlee had made the long trip from Florida to Huntington, W.Va., on the “hope and a promise” of a scholarship if he made the team as a walk-on. He was one of many players recruited that year under an ambitious scheme to revitalize a football team that was on the verge of having the longest losing streak in the nation.
Greenlee estimates that 50 to 60 percent of the recruits were young Black men from the Deep South who were attracted to the overwhelmingly White university for the chance to play.
This enlightened recruitment strategy put Marshall “ahead of the curve” on the integration of college football. Back then, few predominantly White schools were “ready” to recruit Blacks.
“None of the mainstream schools in the South were recruiting Blacks,” Greenlee said. “So if you wanted to play football, you either had to go North or out West. It was either that, or you played at an HBCU.”
Greenlee had barely heard of the school and did not expect to find many other Black students in West Virginia. “That was the conception,” he recalled. “But when I get there, I see all these other folks, but they are like me. They are from somewhere else.”
Undefeated as a freshman team in 1968 while the varsity continued to flail, the recruits appeared destined to reverse Marshall’s fortunes. Unfortunately, the recruiting frenzy and accusations of irregularities under then-head coach Perry Moss also drew the attention of officials in the Mid-American Conference and the NCAA.
By the start of Greenlee’s second year in the fall of 1969, Marshall was mired in scandal. It was out of the MAC, and Moss was out of a job. Some players jumped ship before that season, but Greenlee, with a starting position and the promised scholarship in hand, stayed on.
For another year, he played, lived, studied and ate alongside many of the team members who died in the plane crash. His best friend, Scottie Reese, a jovial and popular junior defensive end from Waco, Texas, was among the victims.
In recent years, Greenlee said he became convinced that he should write and self-publish this book after deciding that the Hollywood version of events surrounding the crash was, at best, an inadequate vehicle to convey what happened and, at worst, a grossly inaccurate caricature. Released in 2006, the movie superimposed fictionalized characters and story lines over the factual elements, ignored some key figures and obscured deeper truths.
“The story is such a marvelous story,” Greenlee said. “Why would you doctor it? Just tell the story.”
Probably many stories are yet to be told about this catastrophic episode, but Greenlee’s intimate familiarity with the lost team, his knowledge of sports and understanding of the times, coupled with his skills as a journalist and insights as an African-American give this book a rich perspective.
“With the book, my sincere hope is that people will have a much clearer picture of just what people went through,” he said.
Greenlee is donating 10 percent of book proceeds from September through December to the Marshall University Black Alumni Inc. fund for the Nate Ruffin Memorial Alumni Lounge at the new alumni center on campus. The lounge is dedicated to the memory of Ruffin, who missed the ill-fated flight because of an injury and became a campus hero for his leadership in the rebuilding effort, as depicted in “We Are Marshall.”
“I knew most of the guys on that flight,” Greenlee recalled. “Most of us came in the same year. I’m thinking, well, Reggie Oliver [freshman quarterback in 1970 and varsity in 1971] can’t tell the story because he wasn’t there in 1968. Nate could tell it, but Nate had passed away (of an illness in 2001). There was nobody left, it seemed to me that could tell the story from the perspective of not only what happened in 1970 but also what happened before then.”
Not only does Greenlee set the Marshall football story into historical context, but he also gives an account of the racial climate at the school where Black students—athletes and non-athlete scholars—began showing up in larger numbers in the late 1960s. By 1970, Greenlee notes that Blacks made up about 3 percent of a student body of 9,000. Out of a starting roster of 47, he said Blacks made up 30 percent of the football team.
Notably, Greenlee describes a rarely mentioned near-riot on campus that broke out after an intramural football game between the Black United Students team he coached and an all-White fraternity whose members were brandishing a Rebel flag. This incident happened the night before the crash.
“Racial tensions reached a fever pitch that day, raising the likelihood an ugly race riot might occur,” he wrote.
A news report confirmed that three White male students required treatment at a hospital, and Black students were warning one another not to go out alone that night. Greenlee tells how one of the football players, Larry “The Governor” Brown, a defensive lineman from Atlanta with diplomacy and 230 pounds to back it up, helped quell the disturbance moments before leaving campus for the team’s flight to play its final game the next day. When the team perished on its return to the Huntington Airport barely 24 hours later, Greenlee added, “Racial and cultural differences didn’t matter anymore. … Death does not discriminate.”
“Grieving people were too busy trying to make sense of it all,” he wrote. “So in ways that nobody could ever imagine, the ’70 football team became an agent for peace between the races.”
Greenlee also devotes a chapter to what he calls the “Homegoing Caravan,” a charter bus trip that African-American students quickly organized with the help of Huntington ministers to attend memorial services for seven of the 10 Black athletes who were killed. Five days after the crash, 50 students (including me) left campus for the 1,500-mile odyssey of grieving—a wake for “The Governor” and three funerals with stops in four cities over an extended weekend. One funeral was at Druid High School in Tuscaloosa, Ala., for four of its alumni who died in the crash.
Other students attended the more scattered funerals of the remaining Black victims. African-Americans took part in various memorials for others lost in the crash and Marshall dispatched representatives to every funeral. Greenlee went to Waco.
“It took me about a week after the crash to understand that Scottie wasn’t coming back,” Greenlee said. “He was going to be my best man that December. I was sitting there looking at the casket thinking, ‘He really isn’t coming back.’”
Perhaps most important, Greenlee captures the deep pain shared with him in interviews with those left behind after losing teammates, boyfriends and relatives, many of whom had never talked about their loss or the healing process, which took years.
“Most of us engaged in some sort of blocking,” Greenlee said. “I came up with the term ‘numbfounded’—you are just numb and perplexed, and you know things have happened logically, but, emotionally, trying to sort through it all, you are just frozen. It is almost like you are outside your body looking in. You deal with it as best as you feel that you can.”
Alumni have begun sharing memories and reactions to the book on Greenlee’s blog, on Facebook and by e-mail, material that the author said may be fodder for a sequel. One alum who entered Marshall after the crash, Chuck Jackson of Houston, was quoted on the blog (http://www.novembereverafter.blogspot.com/) saying: “I no longer feel like I walked into a movie that was halfway over. I now have insight as to what happened before I arrived on campus (1971), and I can put together the pieces a whole lot better.”
— Angela P. Dodson is a longtime contributor to Diverse.
Editor’s note: Craig Greenlee was a contributor to Black Issues in Higher Education, the predecessor to Diverse.