Thursday, July 19, 2012

MU crash inspired Hicks to embrace a life of service

Les Hicks was honored by the Black Legends at MU in 2005.
Editor’s Note:   Les Hicks wasn’t around at the time of the Marshall plane crash that wiped out most of the school’s football team over forty-one years ago. Hicks, however, did play a significant role as one of the athletes who helped in the rebuilding of the football program. 
In 2005, Marshall University’s Black Legends named Hicks as one of its 125 Most Impactful Black Athletes to compete for any of the school’s sports teams in the 20th Century. A news article about Hicks was published in “InSite,” a corporate publication of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, an industry leader in aerospace, defense, and information security. 
Hicks, who earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Marshall, is a member of the environment senior safety engineer staff at Lockheed. Here's the "InSite" article in its entirety which was initially published in February of this year.

        For most people, the tragic aircraft accident that killed players, coaches and fans of Marshall University’s football team on Nov. 14, 1970, is a tragic footnote in sports history, as well as the subject of the 2006 movie, “We Are Marshall.”
       For Les Hicks, an environmental safety engineer with Environmental, Safety and Health at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics’ Marietta (Ga.) site, it is part of his life story. 
       Hicks was a member of the Marshall football program in 1972 and 1973, teams that took on the emotionally staggering task of re-establishing football at the school. A 6-feet-5 defensive end on what was dubbed the “Young Thundering Herd,” Hicks returned to the campus last October when the school held a 40th anniversary reunion of the Marshall teams of the early ‘70s that helped the school to rebuild the football program in the years immediately following the crash. Hicks and his teammates were honored during halftime of the 2011 Homecoming game against Rice University.
       The event allowed him to renew the bond he shares with his former teammates. Recently, he recalled the life-altering decision to choose Marshall over a range of more prominent suitors, such as Notre Dame, Ohio State, Iowa, Iowa State, Nebraska, California, Purdue, Illinois, West Virginia and Syracuse. 
       “Right after high school, I played at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa,” Hicks said. “When Jack Lengyel, the Marshall head coach, recruited me, he said, ‘other schools may want you, but we need you.’ It was then that I decided I needed to be at Marshall.”
       Hicks would join an eclectic group of athletes recruited from other sports, along with surviving freshmen players who didn’t make the fateful trip, and a host of walk-ons. Their task wasn’t so much to win championships, but to simply play competitively and position the program for future success.
       Along the way, the program endured its lumps, recording consecutive 2-9 seasons in 1971 and 1972 before managing a slight improvement to 4-7 in 1973. In an effort to get the program off the ground, Hicks and his teammates made their fair share of sacrifices, gaining perspective along the way.
       “I learned to sacrifice my talent for the betterment of the team by playing hurt and playing almost every position, including defensive tackle at 212 pounds, which probably cost me a potential career in the National Football League,” Hicks said. “On the football field, I worked as if I was to play for 100 years, and I prayed as if I was to die tomorrow.”
       Although the program struggled, the efforts of Hicks and his teammates eventually paid off. Marshall football would weather the lean years, grow stronger and ascend to elite status in Division I-AA, winning national championships in 1992 and 1996, along with eight conference titles. In 1997, the Thundering Herd would return to Division I-A, college football’s highest classification, as a member of the Mid-American Conference and would make eight bowl appearances from 1997 to 2009, winning six of the games.
       Marshall football would send noteworthy players to the NFL during that stretch, including wide receiver Randy Moss, quarterbacks Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich and running back Ahmad Bradshaw, among others.
       All of that would not have happened without the dedication and perseverance that Hicks and his teammates demonstrated during the difficult years of rebuilding.
        “The program could have gone away,” Hicks said. “But we committed to the program, and later, guys like Moss, Pennington and Bradshaw would come through. It gives you a great sense of pride knowing you were part of the foundation of making that possible.”
       During his time at Marshall and in the years to follow, Hicks faced his share of adversity. He nearly died after passing out during a weight training session in college due to undetected viral hepatitis. He had a near-fatal blood clot after a knee scope in 1992. And he was almost killed in a car crash in 2005, and later that year, suffered a ruptured appendix.
       Those travails, as well as the memory of those who perished in the aircraft accident in 1971, taught him to treasure each moment and each breath.
       “I personally have learned that life is fragile. The loss of the players’ lives taught me to never take life for granted, regardless of my age. I felt privileged to be a Marshall University football player, and I felt an obligation to play through frustration, fatigue and a partially torn deltoid muscle.
       “I learned not to complain about anything because millions would love to have the good and the bad of my life. I treat each day as if it is my last day of living. As a result, I accomplish what I can by not leaving anything for tomorrow.”
       Hicks has been with Lockheed Martin for 27 years. His experience at Marshall cultivated life lessons that he brings to work each day, and, in fact, drove him to his career choice.
       “One thing about safety is that there are no trade secrets in this profession,” Hicks said. “The safety profession is a humanistic way of extending Godly love to the workforce by helping them stay safe. I am very passionate regarding the enforcement of safety rules because my father lost his eye while working on a job, and I have had a couple of childhood friends killed on the job.” 
       Hicks is actively engaged in the community, pouring the benefit of his experiences into others’ lives on multiple fronts. He serves as a mentor to troubled youth, teaches Sunday school to 4 to 7-year-old children at church and serves on the Cobb County (Ga.) Literacy Council to decrease the dropout rate and to improve literacy in the county.
       Hicks still stays in touch with Lengyel and shares something of a connection to the former coach with Tom Burbage, Aeronautics executive vice president and general manager of F-35 Program Integration at t Lockheed Martin.
       Burbage played football at the Naval Academy while attending there from 1965 to 1969; Lengyel served as athletic director at the academy from 1988 to 2001. Hicks and Burbage share occasional contact, discussing their football playing days and how their respective alma maters’ teams are performing.  
       In his wallet, Hicks keeps a lifetime pass to all Marshall University athletic events, a reward he and his teammates received for their crucial role in re-establishing the football program. It’s a fitting visual reminder for Hicks, who maintains an emotional tie to the program and university that did so much to form his character and prepare him to touch the lives of others through service and mentoring.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I’ll never forget my first public talk about ’70 crash

The author as a college DB from back in the day.

Two years ago, I agreed to go to Marshall University and speak about my recollections of the 1970 plane crash. Even though I accepted the invite, I had reservations.
        Evangelist Ed Carter issued the invitation. Ed was an MU offensive lineman in the early ‘70s. But his life was spared because of an advance warning from his mother who pleaded with him to not go on the road trip to East Carolina because there would be plane crash and no one would survive.
       The Marshall plane crash claimed the lives of seventy-five people, which included most of Marshall’s varsity football team. It’s considered to be the worst aviation disaster in the history of sports in America.
       Ed and I have known each other for over forty years. I got to know Ed as a teammate and when we both worked at the H.K. Porter Steel Mill one summer. The steel mill was only a 15-minute walk from Marshall’s campus.
       Over the years, Ed has visited Marshall quite frequently. During that time, he has spoken about his time at Marshall and how the tragedy eventually led to him starting Death Unto Life Ministries, a vibrant evangelistic ministry that’s now in its 36th year of existence.
        Ed had a speaking engagement at Marshall scheduled in November 2010, a few days after the 40th anniversary of the crash. He asked me to come because he felt it would be beneficial for another former Marshall player to share a different perspective about the night of November 14, 1970.
        It’s somewhat ironic that at the time, I was still working on finishing my first book November Ever After, which is a memoir about the plane crash, its aftermath, and how it affected the people who were left behind (book released in late August 2011).
       Looking back, I was somewhat nervous and apprehensive about this speaking engagement, mainly because I had no idea of what to expect. So many questions kept bouncing back and forth in my head.
  • What aspects of the tragedy should I talk about?
  • Would people really be interested in what I had to say about an event that happened such a long time ago?
  • How many people would come out to hear what Ed and I had to say?
  • Would they be receptive, and to what degree?
       We didn’t pack the house that night at the Don Morris Room which is housed inside Memorial Student Center on the MU campus. I’m guessing there were around 100 people who showed up.
       When my time came to speak, it was a moment in which all my questions about how I would do as a speaker and how the audience would react were answered in resounding fashion. I kept telling myself --- just tell the story, and let the story captivate and inspire.
        That’s when it became even more apparent that there’s so much more to the Marshall plane crash story than most folks realize. The audience was comprised of people of all age groups – some were college students, some were not. And what I enjoyed most was that afterwards, they didn’t mind asking questions.
        That was just another early confirmation of what I had felt since I started writing my memoir. The story about the Marshall plane crash, as told by those in my book November Ever After, is a story is whose time has finally come.

Photo courtesy of Huntington Advertiser archives