Ted Tollner, quarterback of the 1960 Cal Poly football team, was on the plane the night it crashed in Ohio, killing 22 of the 48 on board. The plane fells hundreds of feet, landing nose first, splitting the plane in two. “Pretty much the players that didn’t make it were in front of me,” Tollner said. “That was where all the fire and stuff was.”
Brian De Los Santos
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It’s been 50 years since that foggy night in Toledo, Ohio. The night when the simple decision to board a twin-engine C-46 meant life or death.
Former Cal Poly fullback Carl Bowser hasn’t forgotten that day. As each anniversary passes, Bowser remembers the people who were lost on Oct. 29. Around the time that day rolls around this year, he will drive to the cemeteries where his old teammates are buried with three red roses in hand.
Each rose will honor a certain teammate of his from the 1960 Cal Poly football team, a team that became nationally known after the plane they were in crashed flying out of Toledo.
Bowser was on that plane, the flight in which 22 of the 48 on board lost their lives.
The first rose will honor Larry Austin, a former end who left behind a wife and a baby. The second will honor Joe Copeland, a former center who also left behind a wife. The final rose will be in honor of Curtis Hill, a former Cal Poly end who many thought would reach NFL stardom.
“I was around those guys my whole life,” Bowser said. “Larry Austin was my best friend, he was sitting right in front of me … What I couldn’t understand was why did I live?”
Bowser has made routine trips like this for years. He stops by when he can to visit his old buddies. Most of the time, he said, there are no words. He’ll stand there in silence. But this year — the 50th anniversary — as he lays each rose over each grave, he will make sure to deliver a message.
“Hang in there boys,” he plans to say. “I am going to catch up with you.”
Cal Poly had what you could call a powerhouse football program in the late 1950s. Under head coach LeRoy Hughes, whose 12-year career ended in 1961, the Mustangs went 73-37-1. From 1952-1959, Cal Poly combined for a 59-18 overall record, including an undefeated season when the team went 9-0 in 1953. Prior to 1960, most of the team’s successes were due to an experienced senior class.
But most graduated coming into the 1960 season, leaving sophomores and juniors to try and keep the tradition going. Guys like quarterback Ted Tollner and center Gil Stork tried to live up to the expectations of the experienced team the year before, who went 6-3 overall.
“They had a great senior core,” Stork said. “But by the time we (underclassmen) arrived at the varsity scene, there were only eight seniors … we were mostly a sophomore and junior football team with a powerhouse schedule.”
Cal Poly opened the season at Brigham Young University and lost by a score of 34-14. The Mustangs came home to defeat San Diego State 34-6 and then suffered three straight losses to Montana State, Fresno State and Long Beach State.
Their next game forced them to travel to Ohio for a matchup against Bowling Green. Cal Poly would have to pull out one of its best performances of the season in order to win. Bowling Green was no pushover, former Cal Poly running back Roger Kelly said.
“We probably shouldn’t have been playing them,” Kelly said.
Kelly was right, the Mustangs couldn’t compete. The team fell for the fifth time that season, losing 50-6. Kelly scored the only touchdown, a 60-yard or so punt return, he said.
“They beat the tar out of us,” Kelly said. “It was a very humiliating experience.”
The game stood out in Kelly’s and many players’ minds, but what may have been more memorable was the flight home.
The game finished mid-afternoon and there was some time to burn on campus until the flight, Stork said. Their flight was scheduled to depart at 8 p.m.
That wasn’t exactly the news the Mustangs wanted to hear. Quite frankly the team just wanted to get home as soon as possible, former offensive guard Roy Scialabba said. The team was already burdened with one of the worst records in recent years, and another loss didn’t remedy the pain.
“No one was feeling well,” Scialabba said. “We were all trying to get to the plane and get out of there.”
When the time came to make the trip to the airport, a blanket of fog set in on the area. It became thicker and thicker as the night drew on and soon enough, it was almost impossible to make out anything from a distance.
Bowser certainly couldn’t.
“When we got out of the bus we were maybe 20-15 feet from the aircraft,” Bowser said. “And you couldn’t even see the airplane. I just said ‘Where is it?’”
Former end Brent Jobe wanted nothing to do with the plane. He said he didn’t want to leave the airport that night. The conditions were far too bad for an aircraft to fly. He was ready to stay behind and leave home in the morning on the train. He didn’t like anything about the potential idea of taking off, he said.
Looking back, “we never should’ve been flying in that kind of weather in that airplane,” Jobe said.
Planes like that twin-engine C-46 airliner had been used as military transports in World War II, but this one was being used to transport traveling football teams. It had just gotten to Toledo after returning Youngstown-Southern Connecticut College home safely.
Under the foggy conditions, it took pilots approximately two hours to decide whether or not to face the fog and take off. When they did, Jobe joined the team aboard the plane. He said he feared if he were to disband from the team that day, the team would never let him play again.
“I don’t remember exactly what I said,” Jobe said. “It’s about 50 years ago now, but I remember I wasn’t happy about going.”
For others, the decision brought a sigh of relief. Anything felt better than staying another minute in that place.
“We were 18, we weren’t pilots or anything like that,” Scialabba said. “We were just kids trying to get home.”
It wasn’t until a few moments after taking off that Tollner knew something was wrong.
“I was sitting right on the left wing and you could just tell,” Tollner said. “The engine sputtered and then it just stopped.”
No one knows how high the plane got up. The Blade, a newspaper in Toledo, reported that the plane fell from approximately 100 feet in the air.
Bowser said he thought it must have been at least 600 feet, then the plane started shaking and vibrating uncontrollably. At that moment, the left engine quit, causing the plane to plunge back toward the airport.
“I knew we were going to go down,” Tollner said. “You just kind of tucked up into a ball and covered your head. The next thing you know, there was a crash.”
The plane landed on its nose on the other runway of the airport. The impact was so strong it split the plane in half, from front to back. Upon contact, some players were thrown out of the aircraft and onto the ground surrounding the plane.
“It was chaos,” Tollner said.
For most players, it was a blur. Fire, the sounds of people scrambling and explosions were just some of the things Tollner could recollect. Once he regained consciousness, he gathered he was OK but in shock. Through all the debris and fire, his first instinct was to get up and help his teammates.
“But I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t walk,” he said.
He had an injury to his foot that immobilized him, an injury that was nothing compared to some others. He was one of the lucky ones. His seat on the wing almost drew the line of life and death.
“Pretty much the players that didn’t make it were in front of me,” Tollner said. “That was where all the fire and stuff was.”
After Tollner tried to get up and realized he couldn’t, Bowser and a couple other teammates found him and dragged him to safety. Bowser had sustained cuts and bruises, but he was OK as well.
“I wanted to keep helping,” Bowser said. “But I couldn’t see anybody else.”
Kelly did his part in helping as well. The impact of the crash caused Kelly’s seat to eject from the plane and land facedown on the runway. As soon as he was able to get out of his seat, he began searching for others, he said.
“I got up and started helping, then my back, which was broken in five places, started hurting,” Kelly said.
He wanted to keep helping, but couldn’t get to Scialabba and 24 other survivors who were all out somewhere scattered about the runway. For Scialabba, that whole night is hard to recall. He can’t remember the thoughts he had in the plane or during the crash. It all happened so fast, he said, he didn’t have time to think.
“It’s like a blank spot,” Scialabba said. “All these things are happening and before you know it you wake up in a hospital room.”
Lost but not forgotten
It wasn’t until Stork was in the hospital that he found out the details of what happened that night. He had no idea which of his friends had passed away. He had no idea what caused the plane to crash. He was in the dark, he said, and no one wanted the burden of telling him the unbearable news.
Stork said it wasn’t until someone brought in a newspaper that he saw the figures and the names of all the people who died.
“That was a real shock for me,” Stork said. “People that were friends of mine were suddenly gone, it was the first time I had ever experienced anything like that.”
He couldn’t understand why he was so lucky.
“How was I allowed to survive and someone who had four girls was killed?” Stork said “It just didn’t make any sense at all.”
Sixteen players, one student manager, a member of the Mustang Booster Club, the two pilots and two others died that night. The crash, the first involving a U.S. sports team, also left five women widowed and nine children without fathers.
“All of them were great people,” Scialabba said. “They were hard working people. Hard working, dedicated people. We miss all of them.”
The deaths sent a shock wave around the country. A game called the Mercy Bowl was played in their honor and reportedly raised anywhere from $170,000 to $275,000 for the families who had lost sons, husbands and fathers. More than 33,000 fans attended the Mercy Bowl to see Fresno State defeat Bowling Green 36-6.
Cal Poly alumnus John Madden helped as well. Madden, who had played football at Cal Poly from 1957-1958, pieced together a benefit match with the Allan Hancock Junior College team, where he coached at the time.
The Arctic-Pacific company — the team in charge of the C-46 that night — lost its license to fly. On Nov. 1, 1960, The Blade reported that the government “issued an order grounding all planes operated by Arctic Pacific.” In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reviewed its procedures concerning taking off with poor visibility. Previously, pilots had the final decision on whether or not to take off for flight. After the crash, the FAA gave air traffic controllers the final say.
Cal Poly felt the impact immediately. On Oct. 31, classes were dismissed at 10 a.m. so students could attend a memorial in Crandall Gymnasium. It was filled to capacity.
Back in Ohio, the players remained in three different hospitals. For guys with injuries such as Kelly’s, it wasn’t until late December that they were allowed to return home.
“I wasn’t able to talk to many people when I was in the hospital,” Kelly said. “I was pretty sick and I had tubes running everywhere in my body. I was in and out of it. I’d lost probably 35 pounds in probably a week, week and a half.”
His injuries kept him in a full body cast for about three months he said, but once he got better he started playing football again. Kelly was one of 10 survivors to play on the football team the next season, one many people thought would never see the field.
“After the crash they could have just dropped football and never had a program again,” Tollner said. “It could have been very easy to do that just because they had to rebuild everything … There was so much pressure put on the university, the president and administration to drop football. They kept the sport alive and I am very appreciative.”
The Mustangs finished the season prematurely in 1960, canceling their last three games and ending the season with a record of 1-5. In the season after the tragic crash, the Mustangs returned to the field with 35 players. That team blew the previous season’s record out of the water, finishing 5-3 in Hughes’ last year as head coach.
“Once they decided we are going to have a season and we were able to win a couple games, we wanted to help overcome a tragedy so that the university can continue to have a football program as part of its athletic department,” Tollner said. “We were very proud.”
Still, not even a winning record could make mourning the deaths of their teammates less painful. It wasn’t easy to move past the crash and for most, it took years, Stork said. As he views it, there is a reason each one of those players aboard that plane lived. It was a second chance of sorts, he said, and he and his teammates are determined to make the most of it.
Most have come a long way. Tollner is now the passing game coordinator with the Oakland Raiders, Bowser spent most of his days coaching football for multiple teams in Bakersfield, Calif. and Stork is the president of Cuesta Community College in San Luis Obispo.
But no matter how far they have gone in their lives, no matter what they have done or how far they have traveled, most just want to make one thing clear: Their teammates who died that day are far from forgotten.
“We never want to forget, we never want it to go away in our minds,” Stork said. “If it goes away we will have lost that importance of what that event meant to us. If I forget them, I will forget the reason I do what I do.”
— Stefan Ball, Kristy Gonzalez, J.J. Jenkins and Leticia Rodriguez contributed to this article.