Lou Tabor flashes back to Oct. 2, 1970 and he is overtaken by a wave of emotions as if the events surrounding that day happened just yesterday.
"In the past 40 years, not a single day has gone by where I didn't think about Oct. 2 (1970) in some way," Tabor said. "Every single day of my life, something occurs that brings me back."
A lifelong Niles resident, Tabor graduated from McKinley High in 1969. As a junior in high school, he led the Red Dragons in rushing and was the top-scorer in the All American Conference. During his senior year, Tabor was captain of both the Niles football and basketball teams. Tabor's exploits earned him a scholarship to Wichita State.
Tabor was a sophomore on the 1970 Wichita State football team which lost its head coach and 14 players when a team plane crashed in the mountains of Colorado. The players and coach were among 31 fatalities on a plane which carried 37 passengers and three crew members. Eight other players, along with a flight attendant survived the wreckage.
The Friday afternoon flight was bound for Logan, Utah where Wichita State was scheduled to play Utah State the following day.
Tabor, along with the remainder of his teammates and coaches were on a second plane. At the time, the team traveled on a pair of charter planes, dubbed Gold and Black. The Gold plane carried starters, the head coach and school administrators, along with family and other school dignitaries. The Black plane carried backup players and assistant coaches.
Among the casualties were four of Tabor's closest friends.
Ironically, Tabor had begun the season as a starter. Following a sub-par game against Texas A&M he was moved to second string. His replacement, Marvin Brown, was among those who died.
In addition to Tabor, the Ohio connection to Wichita State football was deep. The head coach who perished in the accident was Ben Wilson, a Cadiz native who served as the head coach at Warren G. Harding from 1960-1964. Wilson's wife also lost her life in the crash. Wilson was hired just prior to Tabor's freshman season.
Two former Niles coaches - Fred Conti and and Glen Stennett - were assistant coaches who were on board the Black plane. The Wichita State coaching staff also included three former Massillon High coaches. Among them, Bob Seaman took over the program following the crash. The roster listed at least five players from Ohio. Two of Tabor's high school teammates joined him at Wichita State, but left the school during their freshmen year.
In 1968, former Niles coaches Tony Mason and Bob Shaw were both offered the Wichita State job, but both turned down the offer before Wilson was eventually hired.
"The program was really focused on Ohio," Tabor said. "Coach Wilson's goal was to fill his staff and roster with as many Ohio coaches and players that he could get. Ohio, and especially our area, had an incredible national football reputation back then."
Tabor's initial recollections of the fateful day focuses on the beauty that surrounded him as he made his way to the airport
"After breakfast, we boarded a bus and went to the airport as a team," Tabor said. "Heading there, I remember thinking to myself that it was an absolutely beautiful day. Sunshine, no humidity and just as clear as could be. It was perfect."
Once at the Wichita airport, the team split up into the two groups and boarded the Gold and Black planes. The planes landed together in Denver for refueling, then departed for Utah.
"During the refueling process, we all got out of the planes and just spent the time talking. Little did I know that would be the last time I would see my coach and many of my teammates," Tabor said.
The Black plane left the Denver airport shortly after the Gold plane departed. It took the scheduled flight plan around the Rocky Mountains and landed in Utah on schedule.
At the persistence of a passenger, the Gold plane took a scenic route between the mountains. The combination of an overweight plane and low altitude prevented the plane from pulling itself out of the mountains before it clipped a line of trees.
"When we landed, we kind of joked that we had beaten the Gold plane to Utah. We were still seated when Coach Seaman was called off the plane," Tabor said. "He returned, and just seeing his face, you knew something was wrong.
"Hearing Coach tell us that the plane went down, to this day I still can't describe the feeling or reaction. We just all started crying, and I don't remember when the tears stopped. I think we all just sat there feeling as though this couldn't be real."
Tabor and the rest of the passengers on the Black plane were bussed to a hotel, where they spend the rest of the day trying to get information on the wreck. Back home, Tabor's family had heard about the accident on the radio, but it would be hours before they learned of Lou's fate.
"It was crazy. It seemed impossible to get accurate information," Tabor said. "Finally that evening, our coaches came back and read the names of the survivors. I kept sitting there waiting to hear my buddies' names, but none of the four were ever called.
"Quite honestly, the weeks following were a giant blur. The entire campus was in a dazed state."
Tabor later learned that none of the survivors were wearing seat belts at the time of the crash. The impact either threw those survivors from the plane, or allowed them a quick escape. Many of the passengers survived the initial crash, but were unable to free themselves before the plane ignited into flames.
A survivor told Tabor of how he unsuccessfully tried to pull a burning teammate free from his seat belt through a window.
"Every time I heard something about the accident, it just added to the shock. It was like a horror story, but it was real and it was personal," Tabor said.
Tabor and his remaining teammates and coaches returned to Wichita one day after the crash. Tabor then returned to Ohio to attend three memorial services. When he returned to Wichita, he and his teammates voted to resume their season following a three-week hiatus. At the time, freshmen players were not eligible, however the NCAA waived the rule so that Wichita State could field a team.
"We didn't win any games, but that was irrelevant. In fact, I doubt that any of us even looked at the scoreboard the rest of that year," Tabor said. "For us, the games and practice was an escape. And we felt as though we owed it to our fallen teammates to move forward."
Tabor eventually left Wichita State following his sophomore year and returned to Niles. Though he insists that he "will never use the accident as an excuse for leaving," his trembling voice suggests otherwise. Once home, he played five years of semi-pro football for the Youngstown Hardhats. He also had a stint with a semi-pro basketball team.
Tabor married in 1982. His former wife Donna recently passed away as a result of cancer. He is the father of three children, Jada, Joaquin and Tawnyka.
For the past 18 years, Tabor has been employed by the City of Niles with the water department.
Forty years after an incident that changed his life forever, Tabor says that he can recall every detail about Oct. 2, 1970 as if were yesterday. He still keeps in contact with a number of former teammates, and he has attended past memorial services at Wichita State.
"Even today, I find myself asking 'did this really happen,'" Tabor said. "The memories are as clear as day but the thought of what happened still seems like it had to have been a bad dream.
"Those men who lost their lives. A part of them will be with me until the day I die."