By Ann Cipperly
Sitting in the living room at his home on Highpoint Drive in Opelika, Mike Morehouse looks back on the day his life suddenly changed when his father, the Marshall University football team and prominent civic leaders of Huntington, W.V. died in a fiery plane crash a mile short of the runway coming home from a game. Memories of the tragedy are more vivid to Mike and his wife Janet on the anniversary date of Nov. 14.
This year is the 10th anniversary of the release of the movie “We Are Marshall” starring Matthew McConaughey and Mathew Fox, which depicted the tragic accident.
Mike was an 18-year-old student at Virginia Tech when he and his girlfriend walked into a donut shop on a rainy night Nov. 14, 1970, and heard a blurb on the radio about the Marshall football team and a plane crash. Stunned and anxious to know more, they dashed to her dorm room to call his parents’ home in Huntington, as he, Mike, did not have a phone.
Someone Mike didn’t know answered the phone. He was told there had been a crash and they would call him back when they received more news.
Mike knew his father, Gene Morehouse, Marshall’s sports information director, was flying home with the football team. Usually, the team rode a bus to and from games, but on this occasion, they had chartered a Southern Airways flight.
The excitement of flying to a game had drawn in prominent townspeople. A state legislator, community leaders, boosters, five team physicians and a player’s parent flew with the team.
Mike’s mother was offered a ticket but she didn’t go, as she was busy at home with nine-year-old twins. Mike’s brother Steve was at a midget football game, brother Gene was out with friends and his sister, Gail, was at a sorority dance at Marshall.
His mother was watching “The Newlywed Game” when a bulletin ran along the bottom of the screen announcing a plane crash at the Tri-State Airport. She shrieked in horror and quickly called a friend to see if he knew anything. Accurate information was difficult to find and rumors were rampant.
After what seemed an eternity, the phone rang in the dorm room where Mike waited anxiously. He was told there were no survivors. One of his parents’ neighbors drove to Virginia Tech to bring him home.
Early on a rainy, dreary morning, they pulled into Huntington. Mike’s house was full of people, and the entire town was devastated. Mike remembers it was surreal. He wanted to close his eyes and wake up to find it was only a bad dream.
Mike’s father was having a distinguished career in broadcasting when he accepted the position with Marshall in 1968. Everyone in town knew him as the voice calling the Herd football games. In the fall of 1970, he was offered the opportunity to broadcast New Orleans Saints games but turned it down because of his love for Marshall.
On the fateful Nov. 14 day, the team played East Carolina. The flight left for Greenville, N.C. on Friday the 13th. Some players seemed to have a forbearing doom about the trip. One player gave away his belongings, saying he wasn’t coming back.
There was no reason to fear the 40-minute flight. The plane was a fairly new DC-9 owned by Southern Airlines, which had never had a crash.
There were 75 people on board as the plane began its descent on that rainy evening into the airfield. Although the actual cause of the crash was never determined, the plane was 300 feet too low. A mile from the airport, the plane’s wings clipped tree branches, flipped into the side of a hill and burst into flames.
For the 75,000 people in Huntington, time stood still. Schools and businesses closed. “Twelve hours after the crash,” says Mike, “the ensuing bedlam had given way to a pall over our home and our city.”
The sounds of co-eds pounding tearfully on the doors of their dead boyfriends’ dorm rooms were a haunting realization of the tragedy.
Since tickets for the flight changed hands so often and with last minute giveaways, there was no accurate list of who was on the flight. One new mother decided at the last minute not to go and gave her ticket away. One player went to the airport but was sent back to rest for the following week’s game. Another player missed the bus to the airport. Injured players didn’t go. Some of the coaches were away recruiting, and the freshmen football players stayed behind.
A few listed as deceased were not on the plane. Several obituaries of football players not on the flight ran in the newspaper. One of the football players who had lost his father a week before had gone to Texas for the funeral. His mother pleaded with him not to go back because that flight was going to crash. While he was in Texas, his obituary ran in the Huntington newspaper.
It took a week to discover who was actually on the plane. Because of the fire, officials requested dental records to identify bodies. A ring and dental records identified Mike’s father. The town was overwhelmed with funerals for days. Since six football players could not be identified, they were all buried in one grave.
As a result of the crash, 70 children lost one or both parents. The coaches who were not on the plane had the heart-wrenching job of calling parents to tell them they had lost their sons.
A memorial service was held in the basketball arena with 7,000 people attending. Four or five days after the crash, Mike’s father’s funeral was held. Everyone in town knew someone on that flight, as the town and university were close-knit.
An outpouring of sympathy came from around the nation. “The state and nation opened their arms wide to comfort a town reeling from indescribable loss and families ripped apart on that hillside,” remembers Mike. Six weeks earlier most of Wichita (Kansas) State’s football team had been killed in a plane crash. No one could believe it could happen twice.
After the crash, the acting president of the university considered canceling football. But even though the town was reeling from the crash, they didn’t want to lose their football program. There were problems finding a new coach until the president received a call from Jack Lengyel, head coach at little Wooster College in Ohio, asking for the job.
The coaches recruited players from other sports to fill out the newly reformed team.
The first home game the following season was filled with emotion. The governor was among those attending a sold-out stadium. After an exciting game ending in victory, the entire stadium rushed onto the field. Mike remembers the time with tears. “The crowd exploded and ran onto the field. There was bedlam on the field, and no one wanted to leave.”
Marshall went on in the years ahead to win more games than any football team in history in their division in the 1990s.
In making the movie, Warner Bros. recreated the stadium scene in Atlanta. Family members who lost a loved one in the crash, and Marshall alumni were invited to become part of the extras. Mike and Janet went for the casting call to become part of that grim moment.
Mike’s family is portrayed in a few scenes in the movie. Although only the twins were home when the news was announced, the movie has all six children in front of the TV. There is also a scene at his father’s funeral.
“It is a hard story to tell,” he says. Mike says he didn’t cry for a month after the crash, as he tried to be the strong man for his family. His mother was overwhelmed in grief but had children to raise.
Two years after the crash Mike met Janet, who was attending Marshall. They married and moved to Opelika in 1984. Mike is director of industrial operations at the Achievement Center, while Janet is an accountant at East Alabama Mental Health.
Mike’s brother Keith, one of the twins, grew up to become a broadcaster and held their father’s job as the voice of the Herd. He married a girl whose parents were killed on the plane. Warner Bros. interviewed Keith about his family and he was featured in the movie.
“For those of us who lost loved ones, the movie brings up tender memories,” says Mike. The part where the coach says “almost home” is difficult to hear.
“The crash was more than about football,” Mike states. “Children lost their parents, and wives lost husbands. It is still tough to remember.
The Morehouses and their family went to Huntington for the premier of the movie. Mike was generally pleased with the movie and feels the families in Huntington were glad the movie was made to tell the story.
The families who lost loved ones requested the movie company not recreate the crash scene. At the end the coach stands up and says “almost home” and then the scene jiggers to represent the crash. Although there is a scene of a plane burning, it did not show bodies.
Huntington holds a memorial service every year on Nov. 14 and turns off the memorial fountain. It is not turned on again until the first day of the following spring practice. Mike would like to attend, but he is generally in a play this time year, as both he and Janet are active in the New Horizon Theater company in West Point, Ga.
The crash remains the worst air tragedy in collegiate athletic history. The saga of Marshall is the struggle to rise from the ashes from its catastrophic loss.
The Morehouses’ grandson now attends East Carolina. A plaque at the stadium honors the Marshall team that played their last game there. Mike has gone to the stadium to see the last field where his father announced a game.
“I think time and age give you the benefit of putting things into perspective,” says Mike. “I am not the only person who lost a father due to an accident. I lost my mother to lung cancer, but I can’t say if one loss was worse than the other. They are just different.
“I miss my Dad more now. When you get older you realize how much you treasure family and that life is fragile. When you are a teenager, you don’t think about death.”
When Nov. 14 rolls around now, he thinks of things he wishes he had the chance to say to his father. He regrets the last time he saw his father they were having a discussion about the length of his hair. “I guess Dad thought I was going to turn into a hippie,” Mike says with a sigh. “I never thought I would lose Dad at 18. Now I wish I had that last meeting together not to talk about hair.”
While there are times Mike longs for days before a rainy night in 1970, he will always remember his father who set an excellent example caring for his family and give thanks for the time they had together.