The Mammoth Lakes Tragedy In Context

The teams affected by Monday’s fatal accident may draw hope and direction from other teams that have faced similar adversities in the past.

Written by: John Mendelsohn

Ninety-six hours after Seung-Hui Cho’s murderous rampage in the spring of 2007, Virginia Tech’s men’s baseball team played before an unusually large home crowd. The event was seen as striking a balance between memorializing Cho’s victims and moving forward, and the next year proved one of the most successful in the history of VT athletics.

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“Great tragedy,” a report by Virginia Tech’s Sports Medicine Team observed, “often triggers a question of values, driving a personal inventory of values, meaning, and purpose. Often this search brings those who suffer…back in touch with core values.”

Virginia Tech athletes were by no means the first to demonstrate remarkable resiliency in tragedy’s face. In September 2001, eight University of Wyoming cross country runners were killed when their van collided with a pickup truck driven by a fellow student, a steer wrestler on the school’s rodeo team, on U.S. 287 south of Laramie. Only two seasons later, though, the runners had one of their best seasons ever, as their top female competitor, Jenny Thompson — on the team at the time of the accident — qualified to compete for the NCAA championship.

In so doing, the Cowboy and Cowgirl runners followed in the proud tradition of many predecessors who have managed to honor the memory of fallen teammates with success on the playing field.

In May 1949, the plane carrying almost the entire Il Grande Torino football (soccer) team — at the time, with the season nearly finished, leading Italy’s Serie A — crashed near Turin, killing all 31 aboard, including 18 players, club officials, journalists, and the plane’s crew. For the final four games of the season, the club promoted its youth team. In an extraordinary sign of respect hardly conceivable in our own win-at-all-costs age, their opponents in those matches countered with their own youth teams, enabling Torino to claim the league championship.

In February 1958, a European Airways plane crashed on its third attempt to take off from a slush-covered runway in Munich, and eight of the 23 members of the Manchester United football team aboard were killed. As manager Matt Busby spent nine weeks in the hospital, recovering from multiple injuries, his stand-in led the team to the FA (Football Association) Cup final, the equivalent of American baseball’s World Series. Half a century later, Man United claims a third of a billion fans around the world, and is the world’s most valuable sports franchise.

In February 1961, a Boeing 707 en route from New York to Brussels crashed during its approach for landing. All 72 on board were killed, including the entire United States Figure Skating team, who’d been en route to the World Championships in Prague. The competition was cancelled to honor the memory of the American skaters, but only four years later, the U.S. won the competition.

In November 1970, a chartered Southern Airways flight from North Carolina crashed in Wayne County, West Virginia, killing all 75 people on board, including 37 members of the Marshall University Thundering Herd football squad, head coach Rick Tolley and seven other coaches, and 25 boosters, including a city councilman, a state legislator, and four physicians. Seventy children lost at least one parent, and 18 were orphaned. After persuading the university not to jettison its football program, new head coach Jack Lengyel put together a group of former junior varsity players and athletic students who in many cases had never formally played football, and somehow managed two victories the following season.

In October 1972, the Uruguayan Air Force turboprop flying the Old Christians Club rugby union team from Montevideo to a match in Santiago, Chile crashed in a remote part of the Andes. Sixteen of the plane’s 45 passengers survivors were eventually rescued — after resorting to cannibalism to keep themselves alive. Old Christians teams continue to compete to this day.

Not every such tragedy, of course, has a stirring epitaph. On October 29, 1960, a chartered plane carrying the California Polytechnic State University football team, hours after a dreadful beating by Bowling Green State University, crashed on takeoff at the Toledo Express Airport. Twenty-two of the 48 people on board were killed, including sixteen players. The university canceled the final three games of its season 1960 season, and didn’t venture out of California again until 1969, or east of the Rocky Mountains until 1978. Oakland Raiders coach turned video game namesake John Madden, who’d earlier played for Cal Poly, and knew many of those killed, is widely believed to attribute his dread of air travel to the crash, though he claims it’s more to do with his claustrophobia.

This past Monday evening, Natalie Nield and Amanda Paige Post, newly graduated former stars of San Diego’s Catholic Cathedral High School cross country and track teams, were killed in a horrific three-vehicle car crash on Highway 395 south of Bishop, California. The 2004 Ford Expedition in which they and two others were riding veered onto the shoulder, then back across the center divider and into the path of a van carrying members of the California Baptist University cross-country team. No fewer than 12 Cal Baptist runners were injured, rendering highly unlikely a championship season in 2011.

But where there’s life, as we’ve seen, there’s hope.

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The multitalented John Mendelsohn is a writer, graphic artist, and singer/songwriter who lives near New York City. Check out his new song collection, Sorry We’re Open.

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