Thanksgiving a day of reflection for Tollner

Knight Ridder TribuneNovember 28, 2003 

SANTA CLARA — Low visibility and bumpy conditions still make Ted Tollner break into a sweat on airplanes, even in first class. The "little arthritis" doctors promised for his left ankle doesn't seem so little after a long day of coaching the 49ers quarterbacks at practice.

Tollner doesn't need Thanksgiving to remind him of what he's enjoyed in life, a life he almost lost Oct. 29, 1960.

Fog blanketed Toledo Express Airport's runway that night in northwest Ohio. So much so that Tollner and his Cal Poly football teammates couldn't see 10 yards in front of them, where an Arctic-Pacific C-46 plane waited to whisk them away from a 50-6 loss to Bowling Green. But the overweight charter crashed soon after takeoff, killing 22 on board, including 16 players.

Tollner and 25 others survived.

"I've had other deals, but that one there, where there was death around you, and friends, and lots of it, and fire ..., " Tollner said. "It was a plane that basically, after we crashed, was full of fuel and I just happened to be right at the break-off point."

Thursday, like so many past Thanksgivings, Tollner said, he would give thanks for everything he's experienced with his family and friends since "fate" spared him from the first major plane crash involving an American sports team.

"We were spread out over 100 yards. Everyone was all over the place, " said Carl Bowser, the Mustangs' fullback and one of the many close friends Tollner keeps in touch with. "It was utter chaos. Then the sucker blew up."

All were feared dead. That's what the first bulletin said when it broke into the "Ed Sullivan Show, " which Tollner's wife, Barbara, was watching on television at home in San Luis Obispo with their infant daughter, Linda. Hours later, word came of survivors, and a nurse from Toledo's Mercy Hospital phoned Tollner's wife to confirm that he was among them.

How close was he to perishing?

Tollner, who threw for a career-best 246 yards hours earlier against then-unbeaten Bowling Green, initially had a seat in the front of the plane. Fatefully, he was approached by his No. 1 target, wide receiver Curtis Hill.

"I got sick back where I was (on the flight to Toledo), " Hill said to Tollner, then a junior quarterback. "Would you switch?"

Tollner obliged, grabbed a seat near the left wing and slid his lanky legs under the footrest attached to the seat in front of him.

Soon, everything in front of him was gone. Shortly after takeoff, the left engine went out on the twin-engine plane; the tail flipped over the nose; and the fuselage snapped in two upon impact. Federal investigators blamed the crash on the plane being overweight by 2,000 pounds, the engine going out and the weather.

"Most everybody behind the break and a few in front survived, " said Gil Stork, a sophomore center in 1960 and now a vice president at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo. "People across the aisle from me were thrown forward and perished in that."

Hill died, too. Tollner got thrown from the plane, still strapped in his seat.

Bowser awoke in the main wreckage and then scurried away with Dick McBride, Tollner's backup. About 100 yards away, they rescued Tollner.

"I dragged Ted out of the sucker, " Bowser said. "He was laying there.

"He still says he's going to sue me because he thinks I screwed up his ankle, " added Bowser with a laugh.

Tollner's dislocated left ankle wrenched his foot backward, and doctors initially doubted it could be saved because of a lack of blood supply.

"If we're not going to fuse your leg and you want to try to keep some of your mobility, " doctors told Tollner, "you're going to have a little arthritis when you get old."

"I said, 'What's arthritis?' You really don't know, " Tollner, 63, said. "So I get a little bit. It swells up on me a lot when I'm on it. But it's all relative. When I see some of the friends I have that are still alive, their burden of what they've had to carry injury-wise is far more serious."

Case in point: Tollner's best pass protector, Al Marinai, a freshman tackle who arrived from San Francisco as a pro prospect.

"I was supposed to make something out of myself, and the accident wiped it away, " said Marinai, who spent eight months in a Toledo hospital. "I was all broken up. My back, my legs, my arm."

Marinai, a teammate of George Seifert's at San Francisco Polytechnic High School, returned to Cal Poly three years ago for the first time since he and the team flew out for the Bowling Green game.

"We did good things and bad things, but we lost. Then a few hours later, we lost the flight, too, " Marinai said. "It was just a bad, bad weekend--crash and death and all that. But I'm one of the lucky ones who can still talk about it."

Tollner reunites with Marinai, Bowser, Roy Scialabba and other survivors every June at former teammate Rich Max's home on the Russian River.

"Between 10 to 14 couples, the last full weekend in June, " Bowser said. "Don't check your calendar, just show up."

Said Tollner: "We don't really talk about (the crash). You kind of move on with your life. Time doesn't make it go away, but it heals to some degree."

That's not to say they didn't use to talk about those who died and those who left behind wives and children. But that was back when they could tap a few kegs, float on the river and play tennis at Max's.

"Now, we shoot the breeze and play darts, " Bowser said. "We pretty much don't talk about (the crash) anymore. It doesn't come up within our group of guys. But it really bonded us. I don't know of any group of guys that are as close as we are with our families."

Scialabba, who played right guard, said his teammates' camaraderie showed during the lopsided loss to Bowling Green. "Everybody gave their best, " Scialabba said, "and that's why we're close friends."

Tollner's smarts and savvy had him commanding respect on the field. "He was a natural-born leader, " Stork said. "You knew who was in charge when he walked on the field and brought everybody together. ... He lost a lot of mobility because of his ankle problem, but he could still throw the heck out of the ball."

And that he did in Cal Poly's improbable return the following season, when it went 5-3 on a schedule that featured three road games--San Diego State, Cal State Northridge and Cal State Los Angeles.

In remembrance of the 1960 team, Cal Poly plans to rename its stadium Mustang Memorial Stadium as part of an upcoming renovation that also will display an honorary pillar for each team member who perished and a pillar for the survivors.

Tollner completed 49 percent of his passes (158 of 323) for 2,244 yards, 19 touchdowns and 34 interceptions in his three-year career. He enjoyed more success on the baseball diamond as a pitcher, even representing the United States in the Pan-American Games.

But after earning his bachelor's degree in physical education and a master's in education at Cal Poly, he followed his calling and became a coach.

Tollner, who graduated from Cubberly High School in Palo Alto, returned to the Bay Area to take his first head coaching gig at Woodside High School (1964-67).

Next up were the college ranks, from the College of San Mateo, to San Diego State, to Brigham Young University and Southern Cal. His four seasons as the Trojans head coach peaked when he won a Rose Bowl and was named Pac-10 Coach of the Year in 1985. A year later, he was fired.

"In coaching, you can get awfully hung up on a season not going right, the stress and the criticism, especially if you're a head coach, " Tollner said. "It can become extremely stressful. If you let it get to you, you start feeling sorry for yourself, and you can't do that.

"(The plane crash) helped get me through those times, whether it was at SC or different jobs where more of the vocal criticism goes to you."

He spent six seasons as an NFL assistant with the Buffalo Bills, San Diego Chargers and Los Angeles Rams before heading the San Diego State program from 1994-2001. He joined the 49ers last season.

Tollner understood flying came with coaching, and he accepted that decades ago. Some of his former teammates still can't. Said Marinai: "I haven't flown since (the crash). I had enough (of a) ride that last time."

John Madden, Cal Poly football's most celebrated product, played offensive and defensive tackle for the Mustangs in 1957 and '58. When his former teammates crashed, he was embarking on his coaching career some 30 miles south of San Luis Obispo at Hancock College in Santa Maria.

Madden declined repeated interview requests for this story. Tollner said he believes the Cal Poly plane crash added to Madden's "personal values of flying"--Madden doesn't fly--and his preference to cruise the country in a bus as the NFL's most celebrated broadcaster.

Tollner's fears of flying have faded but still return on occasion.

"If we get into any kind of situation that is similar to that night, which is basically no visibility ... and the plane gets bumped around pretty good, my body just flashes back, " Tollner said. "At times, if it's real similar, I'll break into a sweat, and I try to talk myself out of it. My mind just flashes back."

Holidays, such as Thanksgiving, also cause him to reflect.

"Anybody that's been in any kind of accident or something where people didn't survive, you reflect on the really important things in your life, " Tollner said. "That's the biggest thing that's come out of it for me. Don't dwell on anything negative that has happened. Do something productive because of the good fortune that you are still here."

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