God’s Football Team

While the rest of the country marks the solemn occasion of the 20th year since the terrorist attacks along our East Coast, those of us in Gunnison have a second sad event to commemorate on this same day.

Fifty years ago, a bus carrying the Gunnison High School junior varsity football team set off over Monarch Pass to a game in Salida. The bus, its brakes having failed, never made it off the pass, rolling instead down the mountainside just past Garfield. Eight players and a coach did not make it out of the wreckage alive, and numerous others were injured.

That’s awful anyplace, but in a town the size of Gunnison, perhaps 5,000 souls, it was catastrophic — it touched everyone in town.

My family had moved to Gunnison only two years before, and on Sept. 11, 1971, I was one day away from my ninth birthday. All I remember of that day is my mom and our next-door neighbor, Micki, sitting on the steps that made up the Bartleson sidewalk, listening intently to a transistor radio. It was a beautiful fall day, perfect for the football game that never happened.

My family didn’t go to the high school football games. We did attend college games, where my dad volunteered in the booth as a spotter, using binoculars to pick up the player numbers so the announcer — our other next-door neighbor, Jim Baril — could tell the crowd who was in on the play.

High school games came to our household through the radio. And while I didn’t pay any more attention than I did to the college games where I spent the afternoons sliding down the grassy sides of Mountaineer Bowl, I would hear the names of the players as my dad listened far more carefully to the games.

But these boys on the bus were with the junior varsity, 14 and 15 years old, freshmen and sophomores preparing for the season or two down the road when theirs would be the names broadcast on the radio and announced in the Bowl. (Up until a few years ago, all high school games were played on the college field.)

Being fairly new to town, with an oldest child just starting fourth grade, our family might seem initially to not have been impacted by this crash. But it was all around us. The house we lived in had been bought from the Burgess family; their son spent months in a body cast. The young man directly across the street, whose father was the new head coach at Western State, was on the bus. My friend John Hanfelt, who lived on Irwin Street a couple houses down from where I bought my first house, had an older brother whose back was broken. Matt later became one of our babysitters.

Sometime that 1971-72 school year my class was scheduled to go on a field trip to Blue Mesa Dam, but we got off to a late start because John’s mom would not let him on the bus, and she didn’t get to the school on time to give him a ride in their family car. Nothing was said about our tardiness.

Terri’s kindergarten teacher, who also lived on Irwin, had a boy on the bus. He survived and today will be bicycling from Salida over Monarch Pass with the game ball for the GHS Homecoming game and remembrance ceremony.

The largest impact I noticed, at age 9, concerned a new classmate. Back in those days, three-quarters of students went to school at the O’Leary-Blackstock complex, while the remaining quarter of us, mostly Palisades subdivision residents, attended Lake Elementary. My classmates were the same year after year, except when new students moved into the Lake service area.

That school year, which could have been about one or two weeks old by Sept. 11, we got a new classmate named Susan. Her father, although I didn’t know this until the accident, was the junior varsity coach. He was killed that day, at age 28, and that was a weird thing to me, that a child could lose her parent.

Susan wasn’t with us much longer: her mom must have moved them, along with Susan’s little sister, back to wherever they’d come from. I still sometimes wonder what became of the family and how Susan, whom I barely knew, coped.

My mom volunteered for the safety committee that formed in the aftermath of the wreck. Part of the accident was an inexperienced driver, although it sounds like he made every effort to avoid making the accident worse, opting to try passing traffic on the right rather than hitting an oncoming car head-on. It was after the bus ran through a gas station sign and rolled two and a half times that the real problem — the bus itself — became apparent.

The vehicle fairly shattered, flinging occupants, including Stu Kaplan, a college student serving as an assistant coach who maybe became one of my dad’s students (I remember him being around the house), onto the mountainside and up into trees. Landing on its top, the bus crushed downward to the level of the seats.

Under the direction of Paul Medina, the transportation director whose work eventually achieved national recognition, Gunnison collaborated with the Wayne Bus Company to produce the safest buses money could buy. With lots more rivets, additional, sturdier struts between windows, and seat backs so high kids couldn’t see over them (or be crushed), this bus body became known as “the Gunnison Package.”

And then came silence. As a community, we stopped talking about this terrible tragedy. It was always there, in the background, but it just wasn’t something that was discussed.

By the time I got to junior high, I don’t even know if I was aware that my new friend Jim, from Blackstock Elementary, had lost his brother in the accident, nor was I maybe conscious of the loss of one of the PE teacher’s sons.

Back then there was very little concept of crisis counseling, and I guess our notion of dealing with this awful thing, which rated mention in the national news, was to let everyone grieve silently.

I was a reporter at the school board meeting nearly two decades later when one of the board members very gingerly — and well aware, as a GHS graduate himself, of the enormity of what he was proposing — suggested not paying for the Gunnison Package for its buses any longer. The Wayne Company was charging a hefty penny for this package, and over 20 years and thanks in no small part to Mr. Medina’s hard work, aided by small contributions such as those of my mom, buses in general were much better built and safer than they had been.

If I recall correctly (and I might not), the board after a very thoughtful discussion that night opted to continue with the Gunnison Package for another year or two. Or maybe the rumblings from the board caused Wayne to rethink its price gouging.

Somewhere around this same time one of my newspaper colleagues, Evan Lukassen (now an elementary teacher in the district), wanted to do a story on the bus crash, perhaps for the 20th anniversary. I advised him not to. No one talks about this, I said, worried it might rip a bandage off a very large sore.

To his credit, Evan ignored me. He talked to people in a sensitive manner and put together a respectful story that seemed to serve as a catalyst: this was something we should talk about, a pain we should acknowledge.

By the 25th anniversary football jerseys with the boys’ names and numbers, along with a coaching jacket, went up on the gymnasium wall. When the high school got remodeled the jerseys moved to the front lobby, so they are among the first things people see as they come in the door.

Matt Robbins, who would have been on that bus except that he had played a lot in the varsity game the day before, started talking with some of his teammates, and together they established a scholarship that honors their lost comrades. When Bill Marshall rides his bicycle from Salida today, he will be raising funds for the scholarship.

And today, 50 years after so many young lives were taken from our small community, there will be a dedication to a memorial that will stand at the entrance to the high school football field — the place where those boys long ago practiced for the game that never happened.

When I was 9, high school boys seemed like grown men to me. Now, as I look at their pictures, frozen in time, they seem so absurdly young, including their coach.

Most, if not all, of them are buried together in a corner of our cemetery. A monument stands tall over their graves, with their football pictures, names and numbers. At the base of the monument it suggests, “Perhaps God needed a football team in Heaven.” It’s the best reason we’re likely to come up with as to why this horrible thing happened.

What we can do, on this awful 50th anniversary, is remember and honor them. And talk about them and what happened. As a community, together.

Here is a link to a story 9News aired yesterday.

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