- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2001

It isn't often you see a headline like the one in the Daily Oklahoman yesterday morning: "OSU's three planes arrive safely in Nebraska."

Takeoffs and landings don't usually get a lot of coverage in sports sections, but this was different. This was the Oklahoma State basketball team's first road trip since the Jan. 27 plane crash that claimed the lives of two players and eight other members of the school's hoops family. It was a very big deal for everyone involved when the Cowboys' three jets set down in Lincoln on Tuesday night.

One of the players, freshman center Jack Marlow, wasn't sure he wanted to get on the plane and told coach Eddie Sutton so. That's OK, Sutton said. I'll get somebody to drive you up there. But Marlow toughed it out and flew to Nebraska with his teammates and another psychological hurdle was cleared.

For nearly two weeks in Stillwater, Okla., the focus had been on the departed, on players Nate Fleming and Daniel Lawson and basketball publicist Will Hancock and the rest. There were six funerals in the space of five days and tears shed by the water bucket. But now the attention is on the other players, the ones who skirted death, the ones who could have been on the ill-fated prop jet if they hadn't been so darn lucky. How are they coping? What are their scars?

Tragedies like these Marshall in 1970, Evansville in '77 don't usually leave anybody behind. A plane goes down, a program is wiped out. Utterly. There is one case, though, that's similar to Oklahoma State's: the crash involving the 1970 Wichita State football team. A handful of Shockers players, seven in all, miraculously survived (and 23 more players were fortunate enough to be traveling on another plane).

Years ago, when I was working for another paper, I tracked down six of the survivors. Their story is as instructive now as it was then. One of them, Glenn Kostal, told me he and his wife had become extremely close to the parents of one of the players killed, Randy Kiesau. "He was my roommate," Glenn said. "The Kiesaus have kind of adopted us, and we've kind of adopted them."

Another survivor, Mike Bruce, said he circled the date of the crash (Oct. 2) on his calendar every year. "I don't have to do anything else," he said. "I don't have to write anything."

Most of the survivors never played football again (though one, running back Randy Jackson, actually made it to the NFL). And it was nearly eight years before a financial settlement was reached with the state of Kansas, which was held liable for the crash. The players some of whom were awarded as little as $15,000 couldn't help feeling the university had turned its back on them.

"They told me they'd take care of my schooling," Jackson said. "But when I went to the pros a semester short of my degree, they wanted to renege. When I came back to finish up, they paid my tuition, but I paid for everything else which was far more expensive. I thought it was unfair."

Wichita State football never recovered; indeed, there is no Wichita State football today. The survivors, however, managed to go on with their lives. "I've learned to deal with what happened," Mike Bruce said. "It's like any other burden people carry around in their hip pocket. But I still feel some guilt [about having survived], all these years later. When you face some of the parents [of the players who were killed] one on one, you wish you could do something. But you know the only thing you can do is not be there."

The atmosphere at Oklahoma State on Monday night was decidedly different. The crowd of 13,611 for the game against Missouri "supported [OSU] like never before," the Daily Oklahoman reported. "They should be given a letter jacket for what they helped us do tonight," Sutton said.

Former Cowboys stars Joe Adkins and Brian Montonati sat on the bench in memory of Fleming and Lawson, and forward Fredrik Jonzen wore Fleming's No. 11 practice jersey under his game uniform. It wasn't the greatest fit Jonzen is 6-10 and Fleming, his roommate, was 6 feet but it didn't seem to bother the big Swede. He scored 26 points, tying his career high, to lead Oklahoma State to a 69-66 win.

And the next night, the Cowboys 14-4 on the season, 18-0 in our hearts filed onto their three planes for the flight to Lincoln, Neb. When they landed, safely, 50 minutes later, well, the exhaling was almost audible. There just has to be a place for these guys in the NCAA tournament, don't you think?

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