Tuesday, September 19, 2017

'You could tell that the plane crash had a tremendous impact on him'

A bust of Nate Ruffin is housed in the Erickson
Alumni Center on the Marshall University campus.
Award-winning sculptot Carter Taylor Seaton had no reason to mull over this one particular offer. Marshall University’s Alumni Association wanted Seaton to create a bust of Nate Ruffin, a former Thundering Herd defensive back. She was overjoyed about the assignment.

Ruffin, a former teammate of mine, was among the handful of players who missed the horrific plane flight that killed most of Marshall’s football team on November 14, 1970. There were no survivors on the flight that had 75 people on board. Due to a season-ending arm injury, Ruffin did not make the road trip to East Carolina.

Ruffin provided emotional uplift for youthful squad

On the night the crash, Ruffin was part of the school's staff of phone callers who notified the parents and loved ones of the passengers on Marshall's chartered jet. The next day, he helped identify bodies from the crash. As the Thundering Herd began the process of rebuilding its football program from scratch, Nate provided much-needed emotional uplift for a team composed primarily of untested freshmen and sophomores.

After graduating from Marshall, Nate served as a human resources and community relations executive for several organizations. Throughout his professional career, Ruffin's passion for Marshall football never faded. He was an avid supporter and was deeply involved as a member of several boards and search committees at Marshall.

Ruffin passed away in October 2001 of leukemia.

In 2010, a sports lounge housed in the school’s Erickson Alumni Center was named in honor of Ruffin. The bust of Ruffin was unveiled during dedication ceremonies as part of a reception that was jointly sponsored by Marshall's alumni organization and the Black Alumni of MU.

Carter Taylor Seaton
  'Thrilled to get the opportunity'

Seaton, a Marshall graduate, is very familiar with the tragedy from nearly 47 years ago. "I was just thrilled to get the opportunity," she said. "I was grateful to accept the job."

Before completing this project, Seaton faced some challenges. Pictures of Nate were not easy to come by. A photo from the school’s yearbook and the sports information office were helpful. But what Seaton needed most was a profile shot, which would help her to accurately re-create Nate as a three-dimensional figure.

Eventually, she discovered a profile at Marshall’s Hall of Fame Café. “Having a profile makes a huge difference in the way you portray the facial features,” she said. “Without it, you can’t really get those features in the right perspective.”

Profile picture proved to be very helpful

As it turned out, the profile shot was even more helpful because of what it revealed to the probing eye of the sculptor. The profile shot was taken in 1971, a year after the crash. It was the season in which Ruffin took charge as the undisputed leader of Marshall's new football team, which was aptly named “Young Thundering Herd.”

“The look in Nate’s face (as a senior in 1971) is so different from the look he had as a freshman,” Seaton said. “It was really heart-breaking. You could see the tragedy etched in his face, around his eyes in particular. It (profile shot) just didn’t look like the same guy. You could tell that the plane crash had a tremendous impact on him.”

Carter Taylor Seaton is a sculptor and author who lives in HuntingtonWest Virginia. For more information, visit http://www.carterseaton.com/

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Does the story about the Marshall plane crash still matter? Yes it does

The Marshall football plane crash happened such a long time ago. So, what’s all the commotion about trumpeting another version of an old story that most people know about? 

Does it really matter?

Those are excellent questions. Glad that you asked.
In the minds of a lot of people, November 14, 1970 seems like eons ago – going on 47 years to be exact. Even so, the time element really doesn't matter. This story will never lose its significance. 

Learn the whole story

That's all because the whole story needs to be told. Since this all comes down to paying tribute to those who perished, why should any portion of the story be left out?

The media accounts that most folks are familiar with – several documentaries; a history book on Marshall football; and the movie We Are Marshall – are certainly inspiring and thought-provoking. No doubt, these media portrayals help readers and viewers get a better understanding of what took place at Marshall on the night of the crash and the weeks, months and years that followed.

Other sources are just the tip of the iceberg

Most people are amazed by what they discover when they read The Marshall Story and they frequently reflect on what they learned from the movie and the documentaries. But as I conducted interviews and did the research for my memoir about Thundering Herd football from back in the day, I came to realize that there is yet another revelation about this story.

As amazed as folks are, they have no idea that what they’ve gleaned from other sources is really just the tip of the iceberg. The complete story – November Ever After -- is even more amazing than what they already know. So much of it sounds like a Hollywood scripts, but that's hardly the case.

Memoir gets high marks on reader reviews posted on Amazon website

But hey, you don't have to take my word for it. Go to the Amazon website and see for yourself. Check out the reader reviews and you'll find that there's a recurring sentiment. There's so much new information in November Ever After that people didn't even know about. It's an intriguing story that continues to captivate readers of all ages and backgrounds.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Story line sounds like fiction, but it's not

Yes, football is the centerpiece for the memoir November Ever After. Yet, there’s more to this story than the fatal plane crash that claimed the lives of most of Marshall University’s football team.

The shock and widespread personal devastation caused by the tragedy is well-known and well-documented. But what’s been left out – for far too long in my opinion – is the story of those who were there at that time.

The essence of November Ever After goes beyond the mind-numbing events from the night of the crash. It delves into the aftermath of the tragedy as seen through the eyes of those who were impacted in the months and years after the crash.

They suffered deeply. For some, the pain did not disappear completely. On the flip side, these same people witnessed the restoration of a football program that could have easily folded in the face of adverse circumstances.

Yes, this story has a focus on football and the memories of a horrible night that none of us will ever forget. But it’s also a story that captures the imagination. 

In so many instances, the personal accounts provided by those who were interviewed for the book sound too much like a Hollywood script. It’s so strange. For those who aren’t familiar with the Marshall saga, it really sounds like fiction.

But it's not.

Even today, there are a sizable number of people who are still alive, who can validate the actual events that took place over forty years ago. This memoir has all the ingredients to keep readers moving forward from one chapter to the next.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

'I Can't Even Imagine'

Carl Lee was a three-time Pro Bowl cornerback during his 11 seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.
Since writing the memoir "November Ever After," I've done a fair share of interviews on sports talk radio shows. One of the most memorable happened a few months after the book's initial release.

It wasn't until several days after this interview when I realized how special it was -- and for several reasons. One of the show's hosts was a former Marshall football star who played a dozen seasons in the NFL. 

Carl Lee is one of the most accomplished athletes to ever compete for the Thundering Herd. A three-time Pro Bowl cornerback, Lee played all but one season with the Minnesota Vikings and he ended his career with the New Orleans Saints. 

Lee and I played the same position in college (free safety) and I got to see him play when I attended graduate school at Marshall in the late '70s/early '80s. I got a sideline view of his college playing days as a free-lance photographer who covered Marshall's football team for the school yearbook.

During this interview, Lee had some interesting perspectives. He arrived on campus nine years after the 1970 crash that wiped out most of Marshall's varsity football team. And although he was familiar with the tragedy as a native West Virginian (born and raised in South Charleston), there was so much about this topic that he did not know.

I sincerely believe that "November Ever After" helped him to get a clearer picture of the impact the plane crash had on a college campus and its surrounding community. There's no doubt in my mind that when you read what he had to say during the course of the interview (see below), that you will agree with my assessment.

Carl Lee: "I thought the movie (We Are Marshall) was a great movie. And with me being a Marshall guy, it gave me a completely different perspective (about the tragedy). And a lot of the guys I played with, we all talked about this.

We didn’t get it. We really didn’t get the gist of how big this story was when we were there (playing football at MU from ’79 to ’82). We knew about it (plane crash), but we really didn’t get it.
I’m trying to fathom what it was like the week, two weeks after this happened. You’re on campus and you’re trying to go to class. You go to the cafeteria; you go to the gym. I just can’t see what campus could look like or even feel like in those couple of weeks after the crash. Is there any way to articulate what that was like?

What I can’t imagine is empty rooms. We were in Hodges Hall (dormitory) and I can remember how loud Hodges Hall always was. All the time, all hours of the night, there were always people roaming around. I can’t imagine walking down the hallways of Hodges Hall and seeing empty rooms with clothes still in the closets.

I can’t even imagine what that would have been like."

Note: Last spring, Carl Lee was inducted into the West Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. In 1995, he was inducted into the Marshall University Athletics Hall of Fame (football, track and field). Lee also served as head football coach at West Virginia State for 10 seasons.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

My only regret about writing my memoir

There are times when I reflect on the writing of my first book -- November Ever After. And every time I go into that mode, I can honestly say that there is one regret.

Don't get me wrong. The whole process was an absolute blast. The research, the interviewing and the actual writing took me on an exhilarating journey that I will never forget. Along the way, I learned a lot about how memories can remain vivid, even when those memories span 40 years or more. With all the joy that I experienced in putting together my memoir about the 1970 Marshall football plane crash, there remains one missing element.

Winnie F. Greenlee

Wish Mom was still around in 2011

I just wish that my mother, Winnie F. Greenlee, was still around when November Ever After was published in 2011. My deepest desire was to present her with her own personal copy. In our conversations, I never told her about it and I had my reasons. 

Maybe it just wasn't meant to be. Mom passed away the year before the memoir was published. But she did find out about it, in a very round-about way.

When Mom moved into an assisted living facility, I was talking with one of the administrators (can't remember her name) and learned that she grew up in Charleston, West Virginia, which less than 50 miles from Huntington, where Marshall University is located. Because of that, she was very familiar with the tragedy from so many years ago.

Told West Virginia connection about my memoir-in-progress

As we talked, she asked me about my time at Marshall because Mom had told her that I went to school there. So, when the administrator asked if I was in school at the time of the crash, I told her about the book project I was working on.  The next day when I visited Mom, it didn't take long for the subject to come up. The conversation went something like this:

"I found out the other day, from some other people, that my son is writing a book. Why didn't you tell me?," Mom asked.

I froze momentarily, not knowing exactly what to say next. The question caught me completely off-guard. "Mommmm," I answered slowly, "I just wanted to wait until the book was finished, so I could surprise you."

Mom gave me one of those motherly looks that let me know that I was forgiven for being closed-mouthed about the topic. 
"Well OK," she replied. "I can't wait to read it."

A personal source of inspiration

Winnie F. Greenlee is the most determined person I have ever known. As someone who decided to return to college during her "golden years," she set an example that serves as continuous encouragement on a personal level. In the year 2000, Mom graduated from college with a degree in business management -- at the age of 80.

My plan was to surprise her with my memoir, which I dedicated to her. Although she knew about the book, she didn't know about the dedication part of it. Just wish I could have had that opportunity to share that moment with Mom.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Book review: 'Greenlee makes you understand'

Editor's Note: Here's a published review of "November Ever After" that appeared in the News & Record, the daily newspaper in Greensboro, NC.

When Craig T. Greenlee says, “We are Marshall,” he means it.

Greenlee played football at Marshall University in the late 1960s and was still a student at the school when a plane crash left 75 people dead and wiped out most of the varsity team on November 14, 1970.

The author during his playing days with the Thundering Herd.
In his memoir November Ever After, Greenlee, a former News & Record sports reporter and copy editor, tells the story of that time period and its effect on the community. His personal recollections, combined with a journalist’s penchant for detail and research, make November Ever After a compelling read.

Greenlee makes no effort to recount what might have happened on the airplane, instead sticking to the reaction on the ground. He conducted numerous interviews with surviving friends and family members, along with some who might have been on the plane had circumstances not intervened. That helped to create a picture of the atmosphere in Huntington, West Virginia during the era.

Overwhelming sense of loss

Many of the victims were Greenlee’s best friends at Marshall. In fact, he was so close to the situation that some members of his own family believed he was on the doomed plane, which had taken off from Kinston, NC after the Thundering Herd’s loss to East Carolina. But the defensive back had quit football at the end of the 1969 season, saying his heart wasn’t in it anymore. And that decision, he realized, saved his life.

Greenlee’s closest friend on the plane was Scottie Reese, an outside linebacker and defensive end. Three weeks before the crash, Greenlee was engaged and had just recently asked Reese to be his best man for the December wedding.

“Even though we (Greenlee and his fiancée) realized that the crash did happen, it was like we were both frozen in a state of being numbfounded,” Greenlee wrote. “No tears, no bawling and no wailing. No escape from the inner turmoil that seemed to be everlasting.”

A night that was memorable for all the wrong reasons

Some of the most powerful passages in the book involve the moments when Greenlee and his classmates in a campus dormitory heard about the crash, then learned there were no survivors. Some snuck around police barricades to get closer to the wreckage and see for themselves. Others made tearful phone calls to victims’ families. And some, like Greenlee, tried to escape public displays and deal with the shock on their own.

The shared sorrow did bring the campus together. Greenlee tells the story of a fight between black and white campus groups the day before the crash, revealing racial tension he believes could have resulted in a full-blown riot if not for the distraction.

Later, black students chartered a bus to attend four memorial services in four states in five days. The 1,500-mile trip was dubbed the Homegoing Caravan.

Hollywood influenced author's decision to write a memoir

Greenlee said he was inspired to tell his own story after seeing embellishments, omissions and untruths in the 2006 feature film We Are Marshall, and a documentary released around the same time.

November Ever After fills those gaps. In a conversational, first-person style, Greenlee makes you understand what the 1970 Marshall crash meant to those who were affected, then and now.

-Jay Reddick