Thursday, November 15, 2012

Hicks has heavy heart in remembering crash

       Editor’s Note: The following article was published in the Herald-Dispatch newspaper in Huntington, West Virginia on Wednesday, November 14, which marked the 42nd anniversary of the Marshall plane crash. Hicks, a former defensive end has written a book about his days as a member of the Young Thundering Herd in the early 1970s. His book, “Against All Odds: Fourth Down & Forever,” is scheduled for release in December. Herald-Dispatch sportswriter David Walsh and Hicks were football teammates at MU.

The Herald-Dispatch

       HUNTINGTON -- Lester Hicks heads to work Wednesday at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Marietta, Ga., with a heavy heart.
       Hicks will be thinking about Marshall University where his alma mater holds the annual plane crash memorial service at noon at Memorial Student Center. The ceremony honors the Thundering Herd players, coaches, staff, fans and flight crew -- 75 in all -- who lost their lives on Nov. 14, 1970, when the chartered jet bringing the them back from a 17-14 loss at East Carolina earlier in the day crashed short of the runway at Tri-State Airport in Kenova.
Les Hicks
       Hicks played for coach Jack Lengyel and the Young Thundering Herd in 1972-73. The 6-foot-5 defensive end came to Marshall after two years at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls, Iowa. Hicks and his fellow teammates -- surviving freshmen from the 1970 class who didn't make the fateful trip, walk-ons, athletes recruited from other sports and the first post-crash recruiting class -- became one with the mission to revive a football  program that had been all but wiped out by the greatest air disaster in sports history.
       “That day will always etched in my heart,” Hicks said in a telephone interview from his home in Powder Springs, Ga. “I treat it like the loss of a family member. Every time someone talks about it, my heart breaks. The guys who went before me made the ultimate sacrifice.”
       To some people, the Marshall plane crash is a tragic footnote in sports history. To Hicks, it served as an inspiration to write a book about the event and how it inspired him to embrace a life of service. The title is, “Against All Odds -- 4th Down and Forever. How the Marshall football team plane crash inspired me.” Hicks hoped to have the books out in time for the crash anniversary, but said they should be available in early December. He is planning to do a Huntington book signing.
       “InSite,” a corporate publication of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, did an article on Hicks, an environmental safety engineer with Environmental, Safety and Health. Fellow employees and others -- thanks to all the social media -- either read or heard about that story and wanted to know more about Hicks and Marshall's rise from the ashes. Hicks later had a conversation with Dr. Marvin Mills, former safety department director at Marshall who is 91 and living in Lexington, Ky.
       “Dr. Mills told me that he wanted me to write this book,” Hicks said. “He said start writing it today.” Hicks received a big assist from Craig T. Greenlee, a Marshall graduate and former football player whose book about the Marshall plane crash – November Ever After – came out last year.
       Hicks, 61, talks about experiences ranging from age 4 when he lived in Reynolds, Ga., and his father George worked as a sharecropper all the way to earning college degrees, raising a family, climbing the ladder in business and blossoming into a community leader.
       He was a standout defensive end for Steubenville High School in 1969. Notre Dame, Ohio State, Nebraska, Pitt and other big-time schools made recruiting visits to the Ohio steel town. So did Marshall, but he didn't measure up when it came to grades, so it was off to community college.
       “I goofed off and it cost me,” Hicks said.
       As the first season at Ellsworth concluded, Hicks was in his room on that cold November night eating pizza and watching a football game when news about the Marshall plane crash came across the screen.
“I was in shock,” he said. “It was gut-wrenching. Eighteen to 21-year-olds flying off to play a football game, their girl friends and family waiting for them. In minutes, life was gone. There was a lot of heartbreak everywhere."
       Two quality seasons at Ellsworth meant Hicks had the big-time schools wanting him again. This time, Lengyel and the Young Thundering Herd won out over Notre Dame, Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa State, Syracuse and Dayton to name a few.
       “Coach Lengyel was persistent,” Hicks said. “He said, 'I want you to be part of something. A lot of people want you, we need you. Step in and make a difference.' I thought about what if I'd gone there (1970). I could have been on that team. To lose them then would have been very difficult.”
       During his recruiting visit to Marshall in 1972, Hicks said he was walking in Gullickson Hall and saw a picture of the crash victims. One player, defensive end Scottie Reese, got his attention.
“I looked at the photo, saw Scottie Reese and said I want to play for him,” Hicks said. “He's a lot like me. I could play for this guy.”
       While at Ellsworth, Hicks battled injuries. At Marshall, the injury bug struck again. A partially torn deltoid muscle forced Hicks to wear a shoulder harness for two seasons. He passed out during a weight lifting session his first season and later nearly died before he learned he had viral hepatitis. He said he considered suicide in 1972.
       “My shoulder was constantly hurting and I was suffering with hepatitis, I felt like I let myself and my teammates down,” Hicks said. “I was always tired and weary. I thought where is my life going? Nowhere.”
Thank goodness for the talk Hicks had with Marshall supporter Nick Diniaco. “He talked me out of it. I made the decision I wanted to live. I became the citizen that Diniaco encouraged me to be.”
       Hicks wore No. 80, was known as “Praying Mantis,” and made yards tough to come by for opponents despite being undersized (212 pounds). Needless to say, Senior Day in 1973 was tough for Hicks. A 6-16 record for two years isn't what Hicks was used to.
       “I let Scottie down,” Hicks said. “I was never healthy. I didn't have my shoulder surgically repaired. That was not smart. However, I had a high threshold for pain. The competition kept getting better. You had to bring it or sit.”
       Marshall's down time in football continued until 1984 when the Thundering Herd won the final game that season at East Tennessee State to finish 6-5, its first winning record since 1964.
       Notoriety for something besides the plane crash.
       Championships in the Southern Conference and Mid-American Conference followed. Marshall won two NCAA Division I-AA national titles and was runner-up four times. The Herd went on to become the nation's winningest Division I program in the 1990s (114-25). Victories in six of eight bowl games, a No. 10 national ranking in 1999 after going undefeated, three Heisman Trophy candidates in wide-out Randy Moss and quarterbacks Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich, and former Herd players suiting up for Super Bowl champions led by Troy Brown with three rings while with the New England Patriots.
       Hicks said having a part in helping the dreams become reality makes those days of playing in pain and making sacrifices worth it.
       “We kept the program going,” he said “We laid the foundation, one brick at a time. It didn't go well for a while, we were kind of mediocre, then came the late 1980s and 1990s. We took off. It made what we went through worthwhile. Seeing guys in the pros and on TV, success at the national level, Heisman candidates, all the bowls, the Joan (Marshall's Joan C. Edwards Stadium). ... Wow. We had staying power. It was meant to be.
       “Johnathan Goddard (former Herd linebacker who died in 2008 from injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident) is my favorite player. I loved his motor. I loved his heart.”
       Hicks said he got inspiration early in life from his mother Clifford Simmons Hicks, who died on Mother's Day in 1966. She was 51. He was one of 14 children and the first to go to college.
       “Her passion fueled my fire,” he said. “She literally worked herself to death. Football was my ticket out.”
       Adversity followed Hicks after he left Marshall. 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.
Hicks returned to the campus in October 2011 for a reunion of teams from the early 1970s. Hicks and the Young Herd also got attention from the 2006 movie “We Are Marshall” that made the world aware of one of the greatest comeback stories of all time.
       In 2005, Marshall University's Black Legends named Hicks as one of its 125 Most Impactful Black Athletes of the 20th Century.
       On Feb. 23, 2012, the Marietta Diversity Council and the African American Leadership Forum (AALF) held the 2012 Black History Month Celebration with a special employee recognition ceremony called, “Celebrating Our Legends of the Past, Present and Future.” Hicks was one of 22 Lockheed Martin employees honored. He was recognized for achievements in Sports/Community Service. He's been with the company 28 years.
       Hicks met his wife, Della, who is from Charleston, while he was at Marshall. They have a son Brian and three daughters, LeShea, Tiffany and Shante'. 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, serves on the Cobb County (Ga.) Literacy Council to decrease the dropout rate and to improve literacy in the county and contacts colleges for prospective student-athletes if they first make it in the classroom.
       Yes, Hicks admits he will have mixed emotions Wednesday. Sorrow for the 75 individuals who had their lives cut way too short in his eyes. For the rise that university and that town has made from that dark day, the opportunity that university afforded a student-athlete and the tools it provided to help frame his character and prepare him to touch the lives of others through service and mentoring. ... grateful says it all.

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