Part Two of CINCINNATI’S TAFT HIGH SCHOOL BACKFIELD which will continue the Part One feature of November 2016, will be published as the Helmet News/Reflections column of January 2017

By Dr. Ken 


The 2016 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision, previously known as Division 1 Football, will end with forty bowl games excluding the two semi-final and concluding championship contests. The NCAA Football Championship Subdivision, the previous D-1AA, has its own championship playoff schedule and an all-star game but it is almost mind-numbing that there would be forty post-season bowl match-ups. These games include the traditional Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl games as well as the recently minted Bahamas Bowl, Cure Bowl, and Arizona Bowl games. The proposed slate for the near future includes games in Dubai, Australia, and Ireland. Purists don’t like it and those who love the game of football for its fundamental aspects don’t usually like the glut of bowls either. We are saddled with mediocre teams that may have failed to manage a break-even season, often with players less than fully motivated to play in a third-tier bowl game that requires additional weeks of post-season practice during time that would otherwise be spent healing previous injuries and contusions and catching up with their academic and social activities. For the same reasons that players often dislike participating in bowl games, football coaches love it.


Once the season is over for a team that is not bowl-bound, it is over until spring practice begins. Of course there will be winter workouts, supervised strength training and running activities but actual football workouts are prohibited unless... The “unless” is participation in a sanctioned bowl game. This allows coaches three to six weeks of legal, additional, “just like if we were in the middle of the season” practice. It allows blocking, tackling, drills, film sessions, and everything else that goes into making a football program successful and every bowl participating team has this additional “work time” advantage that those that are not bowl invited, will not have prior to going into spring ball or fall camp. Thus, is it any wonder that coaches love bowl games? Let’s be very upfront in our bowl related conversation. Not one of the forty bowl games to be played in this year’s post-season period has been arranged in order to lose money. With payouts to each team, advertising, gift bags to coaches, players, and staff members, meals, banquets, organized tours of local attractions, travel related expenses, staff salaries, stadium rentals, and numerous other associated expenses, there obviously exists an opportunity to make a profit and the belief that one can in fact be made. Even if the profit is not realized in quantified dollars, the exposure for the host city, the money made in tourism at the time of the game or from future visits, and the national and repetitive mention of sponsors all bring in revenue at some point in time. The television exposure and mention of the participating universities’ names prior to, during, and after the game is often “the kind of advertising you just can’t pay enough for” and one can add the recruiting prestige of having played in a recent bowl game. Thus, one might ask, “How can they have forty bowl games?” but happily, somewhere along the bowl contest journey, everyone seems to benefit.


Many bowl games “attach themselves” to a local charity. This enhances the “acceptability” of the game and the bowl committee, legitimizes and attracts attention to the game and its broadcast. The public is more inclined to look favorably on a bowl game that features the participating athletes visiting local hospitals or other needy projects as opposed to one that lacks this sentimental note. This is not to state or imply that the bowl games affiliated with a specific charity or cause are in any way disingenuous but as today’s media relations experts would say, “it provides a better optic.” On a personal note and as an obvious example, I always looked forward to the television broadcast of The East – West Shrine Game, the annual all-star game played each January following the various bowl and college playoff contests. This is a long established game that has been sponsored by the fraternal group, Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, better known as “The Shriners,” and the funds that come from this game go to a number of their projects, most obviously the Shriners Hospitals for Children. During the 1960s when my interest was greatest, the East – West Shrine Game always seemed to have a few of the biggest names in college football while the Blue – Gray Classic, played on Christmas Day, had to “settle” for players whose teams did not qualify for any bowl contests. Even when there were but four major bowls and few others such as the Sun Bowl, the Blue – Gray Classic had more relatively unknown players or those from smaller colleges. This factor made it a very interesting game to me as unlike much of the public, my obsessive reading and study of college football, especially during my own years of participation, forearmed me with some knowledge of each player prior to the game’s start. The Blue – Gray Classic also featured many players from the “deep south” schools which from the late ‘50s through early 1970s meant fast, hard-hitting football, even weeks after the end of the regular season. This game too was affiliated with charitable works and always exciting.






One of the best bowl games was held on Thanksgiving Day of 1961 with “one of the best” defined as “being done for all of the right reasons.” Before delving into the specifics of this bowl game however, it is necessary to mention the tragedy of October 29, 1960. The football game between California Polytechnic State University located in San Luis Obispo, California and host team Bowling Green State University in Ohio had been a 50 – 6 romp for the home team. Although Cal Poly had played well for their head coach LeRoy Hughes, winning approximately two-thirds of their games every season since his 1950 arrival, the Bowling Green game left the Mustangs at 1-5 for the ’60 season. The trip east for the Cal Poly team was in itself a bit of a departure from its usual games against other California state supported universities, most members of the California Collegiate Athletic Association. The C-46 military transport plane used for the trip by Arctic – Pacific Charter was described as “a relic from World War II” and put in a busy day. The round trip between California and Toledo was augmented by a flight to Connecticut where the airplane transported the Youngstown University team home from its game against UConn. With a few hours of waiting time to deal with, many of the Cal Poly players attended Halloween parties on the Bowling Green campus or sat and became acquainted with their Bowling Green Falcons opponents. When it was time to depart, there were further delays due to the dreary weather and dense fog that fell upon the area.




Track star Bernie Casey was also Bowling Green’s major weapon on the football field. He later went on to careers as an actor and artist 


Former Cal Poly quarterback and long-time college and NFL coach Ted Tollner stated, “It was real foggy, real hard to see. I’ve heard that some of the guys said, ‘Let’s give it the ol’ college try.’ They might’ve, but I didn’t hear that.” Fullback Carl Bowser recalled that "When we got out of the bus we were about twenty-five feet from the airplane and we couldn't even see it. We thought maybe the plane hadn't arrived yet. That's how bad it was." The Civil Aeronautics Board later concluded that visibility was absolute zero but standard for the time, Donald Chesher, the pilot, had the final decision on whether to take off and just prior to midnight, his decision was made. Although Chesher was obviously and justly criticized for his judgment, and much was made of the fact that his license had been revoked for several violations, he was flying legally pending an appeal and he had been lauded for his piloting skill fifteen years before at the conclusion of World War II. Flying a U.S. Army B-25 bomber over Washington D.C., one of the engines failed almost immediately after take-off, making it impossible for Chesher to get into a flight traffic pattern. He flew across the city at a dangerously low altitude, maneuvered his way back to the airport, and according to Captain Philip Warth of the Air Transport Command who observed the landing, "He made a beautiful landing and he certainly did a fine piece of piloting to beat his way back here.”





Chesher was not to be as lucky on this, his final flight. Through the decades there has been a great deal of comment that some of the Cal Poly players switched seats, Tollner among them since Tollner’s location proved to be the “cut-off point” where those in front of him perished while those behind survived, albeit with many serious injuries. The significance of this being the first time an entire athletic team had been involved in a fatal plane crash on United States soil was immediate and extreme, garnering world-wide attention. Twenty-two of the forty-eight passengers including sixteen football players, a team manager, and a booster died. There remains disagreement if the plane was able to even lift off but the fact that the left engine failed and the plane broke apart and skidded into an orchard that adjoined the Toledo Express Airport is indisputable. Some passengers were ejected while strapped to their seats while others remained inside the plane’s body. Some of the survivors attempted to go back into the plane to rescue teammates but the fuselage quickly burst into flames and then blew up. Bernie Casey, Olympic Trials finalist in the hurdles, the star of Bowling Green’s squad and later an effective receiver for the Forty Niners and Rams in his eight-year pro career before turning to acting, was haunted by the images he and his teammates encountered when they rushed to the airport to help. “At the terminal, the people that couldn’t be saved, their bodies were wrapped in blankets and stacked up. Not disrespectful, but they had nowhere to put them.” 




Many of the Cal Poly players who survived spent months in Toledo area hospitals, some needing multiple surgeries, others left with life- long disability. Five players left widows and children behind and the entire university remained stunned for months afterwards. With the immediate cancellation of the 1960’s season final three games, there was discussion about dropping the football program and the effect on the entire campus was immediate and saddening. A memorial fund was organized “to accept and administer charitable funds and contributions to aid survivors and the families of students killed in the airplane accident.” Donations were made from local sources and Cal Poly Pomona staff members with much of it matched by gifts from Bowling Green State and Toledo area citizens. The later-to-be-famous John Madden, a recent graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a member of the Mustangs football team, arranged a benefit with the Hancock Junior College team he was then coaching and the National Football League too made a contribution. Despite concerns about continuing the program, the Mustangs returned strongly in ’61 with a 5-3 record, led by ten of the plane crash survivors while others still recovering from injuries, contributed their emotional support. The real power in the California Collegiate Athletic Association however, spanning 1959 through 1961 was at Fresno State where Head Coach Cecil Coleman had put together a small college juggernaut. The 1960 team was lauded as one of the best in the country, one that could have played against the largest schools in the West, and included linemen Doug Brown and Sonny Bishop and 165 pound halfback Dale Messer. Coleman arrived at Fresno for the ’59 season with a two-platoon offensive system that was a bit unique. As described by Messer, a 175-pound whirlwind who played on both offense and defense as a halfback for the Bulldogs and then did the same for the San Francisco Forty Niners for five seasons, each offensive unit played exactly seven-and-a-half minutes each quarter, and “it didn’t matter whether you were on a drive, or ready to score, when the seven-and-a-half minutes was up, the whole squad came out.”  



FSU halfback Dale Messer led the Bulldogs to the conference championship against Cal State LA in 1959



The Bulldogs went 7-3 in 1959, 9-1 in 1960 with that only loss a 22-20 heart breaker against Montana State in a game decided in the final five seconds, and with the return of future pros Bishop and Brown, 10-0 in 1961. There was unanimous agreement that the Fresno State squad was the most appropriate “small college” football representative on the West Coast for what was to be a Thanksgiving Day charitable bowl game, instituted to add to the Memorial Fund and aid the crash survivors and affected families. The idea for The Mercy Bowl came from entertainer Bob Hope, then one of the owners of the Los Angeles Rams, and Los Angeles County Supervisor Warren Dorn and was organized by Dorn and L.A. State Athletic Director Ferron Losee.     




The most influential sportswriter on the West Coast was Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times. He also believed that a benefit bowl game designed to assist the families of the deceased Cal Poly players was necessary. In the spring of ’61 when Hope, Dorn, and others had begun the movement to promote some sort of major fund raising effort and in the spirit of the times, Murray helped to get everyone involved in football on the Coast behind the idea. Hope rallied other Hollywood associates to do the same and President John F. Kennedy gave his blessing, with the purpose of the bowl game stated to be to offset burial costs, pay medical expenses, and establish an educational fund for the families and survivors of the victims. Murray gave a strong endorsement, writing,

“On Thanksgiving morning this year in the Coliseum, a ‘Mercy Bowl’ benefit game will be played to help San Luis Obispo write off its obligations to the tragedy victims, the children they left behind them, and the survivors. My feeling is, it is not only their obligation. It is the obligation of all of us interested in athletics. I can think of no better way to give thanks on that day that we are here and healthy, than to contribute to those who are alone with only memories on that day.”


The Southern Pacific Railroad scheduled a special train to carry San Luis Obispo residents to the game and Roy Easley, captain of the L.A. State team, sent letters to captains of most of the country’s college teams, urging them to buy a symbolic eleven tickets. The one-time event attracted a crowd of 33,145 and enhanced the Memorial Fund. The Memorial Fund Committee disbursed almost $300,000.00 before it was dissolved in 1971, with a number of the deceased players’ children having their college educations paid for. 




Bowling Green was chosen as Fresno State’s opponent for a number of reasons, the most obvious being its association with the airplane crash. They were also the Mid America Conference Champions sporting an 8-1 record and a stifling defense that had given up but forty-two points in their nine game regular season. The Falcons entered the game as a significant favorite. Under their head coach Doyt Perry, they won a lot, turned out pro players annually, and usually buried foes like West Texas State and Southern Illinois that were seen as being on the same level as Fresno State. In fact, Perry stated prior to the Mercy Bowl when describing his team, “I would not hesitate to send this team against any in the Big 10 and would not be surprised if we came out on top.” The game, played at the famed Los Angeles Coliseum, drew 33,146 patrons and has been a number of area newspapers’ choice as “the greatest game” in California’s San Joaquin Valley history, greatest because of its purpose and level of play.  



Bulldog Jan Barrett puts the sticks to a Bowling Green rusher and was named the Outstanding Lineman of The Mercy Bowl


The rushing game oriented Falcons, playing in the rushing oriented Midwest, as FSU line coach Bob Burgess recalled, “…were big but we kicked their butt. We knew they couldn’t defend the forward pass.” Pushed hard, Bowling Green lost three fumbles and threw three interceptions. Fresno State passed an unseemly forty-three times with two-way end Jan Barrett hauling in six of those for 161 yards. When the game ended, the Bulldogs decisive 36-6 win shocked everyone but the Fresno State family and they noted that there was a great deal of motivation in playing well for the widows and children of the deceased Cal Poly players. Beating back the suggestion that football be dropped, if only temporarily, Cal Poly was a competitive 5-3 in their eight game schedule of 1961. Although Fresno State defeated them 42 – 13, Fresno State center Pete Mehas noted that "They were very competitive, their team was depleted but they never gave up. I just remember after one play toward the end of our game, one of their players screaming, 'Don't feel sorry for us!' They just never quit." Mehas also recalled more fuel for the FSU competitive fires, “I remember when we were walking out of the tunnel at the Coliseum there was a man in a Cal Poly letterman jacket and he yelled, 'Remember our guys. This one's for them.’ We all heard that and knew what it meant. It was a very special game.” 



The red-clad Fresno State Bulldogs, many in externally padded helmets, delivered an unexpected beating to Bowling Green State in The 1961 Mercy Bowl


In the aftermath of the tragedy and the Mercy Bowl game, there are identical plaques commemorating the Cal Poly deceased at both the Los Angeles Coliseum and the Mustang Memorial Plaza located on the campus of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. The football team was in fact revived but would not fly to any road games for the nine year period following the crash and would not travel east of the Rocky Mountains until 1978. A number of children of the deceased players completed their college educations because of the funds raised in part through the Mercy Bowl and there is no doubt that this game was carried forth for all of the right reasons!


Cal Poly Head Coach LeRoy Hughes with the surviving members of the crash