Painful memory still lingers West Virginia

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Pete Naputano saw his name in The Pittsburgh Press the day after, Nov. 15, 1970, counted among the dead.

Of all the grief and distress connected with being part of the Marshall University football team that lost 37 players and eight coaches in the worst air disaster in American sports history, missing that ill-fated flight because of an arm injury was a blessing. And one that, initially, few outside his family realized.

"You know what, some papers grabbed a team roster and actually listed me as dead," said Naputano, an Altoona native who lives in Moon. "It's still very uncomfortable to talk about. After all these years, you still get a lump in your throat."

Today at Mountaineer Field, Marshall opens its 36th season since the team's DC-9 crashed Nov. 14, 1970. Naputano isn't going to the game, but talk this week about his alma mater -- and the "We Are Marshall" movie that brought him back to Huntington, W.Va., last April for filming -- stirred memories.

He was a backup defensive end, a January 1970 transfer from a Dover, Del., junior college. The 3-6 Herd boarded a Southern Airways charter flight on Friday for East Carolina, although at least eight players were held back: Ed Carter was late returning from his father's funeral, and among the injured were co-captain Nate Ruffin, Felix Jordan, Wes Hickman, Frank James, Greg Finn, Jon Calvin and Naputano.

"At the time, you didn't complain about a bruise or anything unless the bone was coming through the skin," Naputano recalled. "But I had calcium deposit on my biceps from getting winged all the time. It swelled down to my hand. I wound up seeing the team doctor, and he told me I couldn't play the last two weeks.

"I'm home back in Altoona, relaxing, having a few beers with my buddies. I was going by the radio station and I heard, 'Marshall University, plane crash.' I went in and I saw it come right across the teletype: 'Marshall University football team plane crash, 75 killed. ...' "

Naputano said he graduated from Marshall in 1972 and moved to Pittsburgh, where he played for the semipro Ironmen and WolfPak, along with ex-Steelers quarterback Joe Gilliam.

A former sales and insurance man, Naputano now works six days a week, strangely enough, around airports: He delivers air freight in the Tri-State area and drives for a hotel near Pittsburgh International.

"I take a ride down [to Marshall] once every couple years," Naputano said, who still has his Herd jersey and a copy of the jet's black-box recording. "I go visit the cemetery and drive back."

The lost Marshall players are memorialized at that Spring Hill Cemetery overlooking the campus. Ruffin, who avoided Southern Airways 932 with the same injury as Naputano, was buried there in 2001. Naputano said he has written into his will that his ashes are to be spread over that ground. Forever a team.


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