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.

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