When sports are its best…

You may think sports is at its best when your team wins it all, whatever “all” is.

Or, you may think sports is at its best when an underdog rises up and slays the giant in a huge upset.

Or, you may think sports is at its best when two teams battle it out on the field or the court all the way to an exciting nail-biting finish.

Perhaps you think sports is at its best when an athlete plays astonishingly well in leading his or her team to victory.

All of those examples make sports exhilarating. But sports is at its best when we’re reminded there’s far more to sports than winning or losing a game.

Imagine a home crowd of 45,000 giving the visiting team members a standing ovation as they entered the football stadium. Imagine the fans of the highly ranked home team cheering any success the visiting team has on the football field during the game.

Granted, the visiting team didn’t have much success, as the final 62-0 score would indicate. Then again, it all depends on how you define success.

I was a Hillsboro High School senior in 1970. It was on Oct. 2 that one of two planes carrying Wichita State University coaches, players and supporters crashed in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Thirty-one people died.

My dad was representing Tabor College at a meeting in Kansas City on that fateful day. It was in that meeting when Wichita State student affairs administrator James Rhatigan got the call informing him of the horrific accident.

A short time after the dust settled and many tears were shed, the WSU athletes voted 76-1 to continue their season against the ninth-ranked Arkansas Razor­backs.

The NCAA granted WSU special permission to play freshmen.

If not for the record books, no one would remember the score. Instead, what people remember was WSU’s courage and Arkansas’s reception.

“It was 22 days after the plane crash… so you know it was an emotional roller coaster for us,” said John Potts, 1970 Wichita State punter. “We had funerals we attended before that and we started practicing almost immediately once we voted to resume the season.

“Sometimes you wonder how their heart could go back in, but they did and I’ve always had a lot of respect for them,” said Bruce James, 1970 Arkansas defensive end.

Many of the players from WSU and Arkansas who played the first game of WSU’s second season in 1970 met recently at a North Little Rock hotel and devoted the weekend to those memories and the bond of college football.

In a recent Wichita Eagle story, WSU defensive back Bruce Gerleman said, “Most people were totally unaware how emotionally involved and how they took us into their hearts and into their lives. We were just unaware of the connection that we had made with them.”

Sixteen former Shockers, one assistant coach and family members attended the unofficial reunion, along with about 15 former Razor­backs and family members.

Kevin Crass, chairman of the War Memorial Stadium Commission, told his story of watching the game as an 11-year-old and broke down in tears.

This season, on Saturday, Oct. 1, after the first quarter of a football game at Arkan­sas Univer­sity, members from both of those 1970 teams made an appearance on the field a day before the 46th anniversary of the crash.

“This is the best of what college athletics should be about,” said WSU athletic director Darron Boatright during the reception.

Wichita State hasn’t played a football game since fall 1986, and yet, what happened in 1970 is indelibly etched into its history.

Of all the games played by the student-athletes from the 1970 Wichita State and Arkansas football teams, none probably generated more memories than that one autumn day in Arkan­sas.

It is a rare day when players, coaches and fans all get it right. Let’s hope we don’t always need tragedies to do so.

Hillsboro resident Joe Klein­sasser is director of news and media relations at Wichita State University. You can reached him at Joe.Klein­­sasser@wich­ita.edu.

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