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Click here for more on this story
Posted: Tuesday January 30, 2001 5:49 PM

Air of Trepidation  

The latest sports tragedy points up the risks of road trips

By Grant Wahl

Sports Illustrated It sounded so convenient. Two years ago, over burgers and cheese fries at Eskimo Joe's in Stillwater, Oklahoma State guard Doug Gottlieb and media relations coordinator Will Hancock sat across from me and glowingly described the three small planes used by the Cowboys' basketball team to fly to games all over the Midwest. "Sweet," Gottlieb called the fleet of two private jets and an 11-seat twin-engine turboprop, provided to the team by boosters. In a remote college town like Stillwater, more than two hours round-trip from the closest major airport, those planes were a godsend, we agreed, a way to keep from missing class and study time.

At Eskimo Joe's last Saturday night, the band Resident Funk was playing a set when the music suddenly stopped. The bartender turned up the volume on the televisions, and the crowd huddled close to hear the awful news. The Cowboys' turboprop, a Beechcraft King Air 200, had crashed in a field outside Denver a few hours after Oklahoma State's 81-71 loss at Colorado, claiming the lives of Hancock, broadcast engineer Kendall Durfey, pilots Bjorn Fahlstrom and Denver Mills, players Nate Fleming and Daniel Lawson, trainer Brian Luinstra, director of basketball operations Pat Noyes, broadcaster Bill Teegins and student manager Jared Weiberg.

On Monday federal investigators were still determining the cause of a crash that underlined again the risks inherent in the extensive traveling of athletic teams, especially those from college towns. Chartering small planes is nothing new -- the Texas basketball team, for example, travels in state-owned turboprops similar to the ill-fated Oklahoma State aircraft -- nor is the trepidation that can come with it. "Dan and I talked just last week about how flying in that small plane was his worst fear," Lawson's brother Austin Jordan said on Monday. "He said he could feel every bump vibrating the plane, and there were times he'd get so scared."

Dicey rides aren't limited to turboprops. Last Friday, Michigan State's 50-seat chartered jet encountered several mishaps during a five-hour trip (scheduled travel time: 45 minutes) from Lansing to Columbus for a game with Ohio State. First the deicing truck broke down while the plane was awaiting departure, then during the approach to the Columbus airport the pilot had to pull up because of poor visibility. Eventually the aircraft landed in Cincinnati, where it sat on the runway for two hours as the Spartans awaited a bus. "I was 200 percent sure I made a mistake by flying," said coach Tom Izzo, who says he prefers not to use turboprops. "We should've bused it, and I think we're going to start doing that more."

Emotionally exhausted, Cowboys coach Eddie Sutton heaved a long sigh as he discussed the tragedy in his office on Monday. "They don't teach you about this in Coaching 101," said Sutton, whose first granddaughter would be born later that day. "Calling those families was the toughest thing I've ever done." The school made counseling available for players and others connected to the program, and former Cowboys Joe Adkins, Desmond Mason, Brian Montonati and Alex Webber traveled to Oklahoma State to help their former teammates cope.

Meanwhile Stillwater mourned. When Resident Funk took the stage again at Eskimo Joe's on Saturday, the band members asked for a moment of silence. Then they played Amazing Grace.

—With special reporting by Mike McKenzie

Issue date: February 5, 2001

For more Scorecard see this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands Wednesday, January 31. Click here to subscribe to SI.

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