In the fall of
1970 Smith was a 28-year-old flight attendant for Eastern Airlines and the
mother of an eight-month-old son. Her husband, Jerry, a pilot, told her he'd be
flying the Marshall football team home from a road game at East Carolina. Jerry
was the first officer, or copilot, on that charter, which crashed into a field
a mile from the airport in Huntington, W.Va., killing all 75 people on board.
It remains the worst transportation tragedy in NCAA history.
More than 35 years
later Linda still grieves every day. When the movie We Are Marshall came out in
December, she was invited to the premiere in Huntington but couldn't bring
herself to go. "I won't see it," Linda says. "I just
Drawing on her
personal experience, however, she tended to passengers on the Bluffton charter,
serving food and cold drinks, smiling warmly, always finding the right thing to
say. A few of the parents had never been on a plane before, and Smith held
their hands during takeoff and landing. Often she just listened. "Most
weren't so much grieving as they were in shock," she says. "I'd been
there. You're thinking, Can this be real?" A few days later she flew on the
charter back to Toledo. Her overarching message was this: You'll never get over
it, but you will learn to live with it.
Smith wasn't the
only stranger who felt compelled to help members of the Bluffton community. The
accident had been on the news for only a couple of hours when Delta joined
AirTran in announcing that it would fly the players' friends and relatives back
and forth between Ohio and Atlanta for free. The Marriott Marquis provided
lodging for the players and their families in Atlanta. The Red Cross
coordinated meals. The Atlanta Hawks gave the Bluffton contingent a luxury
suite for the March 3 home game, at which they were greeted by Dominique
Wilkins. "That," recalls John Betts, "was the first time in 36
hours the guys smiled." President Harder described this widespread
hospitality and compassion as the Miracle of Atlanta.
University of Upland, Ind., dispatched a team of administrators to Bluffton to
help the school prepare for the return of the student body, which had left
campus for spring break the day of the fatal crash. (Taylor lost four students
and a staff member in a 2006 traffic accident.) Ohio State's baseball team
donated the gate receipts from its season opener. The ball team at Defiance
College-- Bluffton's archrival--took to the streets of Defiance, Ohio, with
canisters to raise money. The governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland, was present at
the memorial service in Bluffton's packed gym on March 12, the day classes
resumed. Taylor University catered the event, adamant that no one at Bluffton,
cafeteria staff included, miss the ceremony.
Bluffton's Kiva, a
sunken room in the student center that serves as a central meeting place, was
awash in flowers sent by other college baseball programs--most of them, like
Pepperdine, having no connection to the school. President Harder's assistant
was surprised to field a call from Pete Rose, who had heard about the tragedy
and simply wanted, as a baseball player and an Ohioan, to express condolences.
While Tim Berta, Bluffton's student coach, lay in critical care in Atlanta's
Grady Memorial Hospital, he received an unexpected, unannounced visit from a
dignified older gentleman. Berta, who had suffered severe head trauma, was
unconscious. No matter. Hank Aaron sat beside the bed and talked to him all the
Baseball announced that it would donate $50,000 to Bluffton's memorial fund.
The Cleveland Indians sent new gloves. The Florida Marlins shipped cases of
practice balls. The Cincinnati Reds donated catchers' equipment and honored the
five deceased Bluffton players at their home opener. Nike sent new cleats for
all the Bluffton players, and Wilson Sporting Goods sent duffel bags, helmets
and other equipment. Grandey received a stack of handwritten letters, some sent
to his home, from prominent college and pro coaches. He asked that their names
not be disclosed because, he says, "I know they didn't send a note to me
and the team to get public recognition from it."
Perhaps the most
heartening support came from strangers who "had never even heard of
Bluffton when the bus was flipping off that overpass," as Miller, the
assistant coach, put it. A woman who declined to give her name dropped off a
bag filled with new Nike sneakers; she had heard that players had lost their
shoes on the road. Players returning to campus were swamped with e-mails and
Facebook.com invitations, most from other college kids who had used the
Internet to find contact info. All those ideals that were discussed in
chapel--compassion and service and fellowship? Here was evidence that they
weren't just words.
"Even as we
were grieving we thought, Man, there's a lot of humanity in this world,"
says Grandey. "I know in some ways our legacy will be the tragedy, but I
hope it's also the goodness of people and the goodness of our players and their
families. I can tell you this: For the rest of our lives, when something bad
happens to someone else, we're going to respond. How could we not, with the way
we've been helped?"
Even the media
played a role in the healing. The players and Bluffton administrators take
pains to stress that, overall, reporters treated them with sensitivity. "It
was good to talk about everything," says Freytag. "It's not like we
were really hounded. Everyone was respectful." The TV cameras and
notebook-wielding journalists at the funerals weren't perceived as intruders.
Rather, their presence was seen as a validation of the lives being celebrated.
How could parents doubt the significance of their children's lives when the
funerals were the subject of newscasts and newspaper articles all over the
country? "The media really changed the nature of what the families
experienced," says Harder. "They were dealing with a loss of life, but
they also knew that, on a huge scale, people cared about their sons."