Family ties to Cal Poly football plane crash

My grandfather’s office was like a football time capsule. It was filled with NFL playbooks from the New York Giants and Detroit Lions and 8 mm game film from teams that he helped lead during his more than 30 years as a professional and college football coach. A sign that read, “Old coaches never die — they just smell that way” hung on the wall next to an old, cluttered desk.

Two months ago, I sat in that office in his Fort Myers, Fla., home and spent hours flipping through the playbooks and manila folders stuffed with newspaper clippings, marveling at each piece along the way. But I did it alone. Bob Gibson, my grandfather, was not there to share the stories of each fragment of his life. Just a few weeks earlier, he passed away in a nearby hospital shortly after his 88th birthday and just 11 days after his wife, Cynthia, died.

After their deaths, I drove five hours from my home in Jacksonville to help my family clean up their modest southwest Florida home. I organized the garage and pressure washed the outside of the home, but my uncle encouraged me to comb through my grandfather’s office and take what I wanted before the estate sale. He knew that’s what my grandfather would want.

Every piece of memorabilia and yellowed clipping that I found tucked away was fascinating, but one folder caught my eye. “CAL POLY PLANE CRASH” was written in blue pen in his distinctive all caps handwriting. As I started to flip through its contents, I started to remember why a folder like this would be in his archives.

In 1960, Bob Gibson was the offensive line coach for the nationally ranked Bowling Green State football team. On Oct. 29 of that year, he helped lead the Falcons to a convincing 50-6 win over the Cal Poly Mustangs. As many on the Central Coast already know, after the game, 25 miles away, tragedy struck. The twin-engine C-46 propliner carrying the team from the Midwest back to the West Coast crashed at the Toledo airport.

The crash killed 22 on board, including 16 players, a student manager and a Cal Poly football booster. It was a national tragedy and one of the worst catastrophes in San Luis Obispo history.

The crash not only had a profound impact on the Central Coast community and the entire country, but on my grandfather as well.

The proof was in the folder. Newspaper clippings from the Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune, the Toledo Blade and the Cleveland Plain Dealer with stories printed in the days following the crash stayed with him for 55 years. Pages of the same headline were clipped over and over. At least four carefully cut pages contained the names of the victims. It is like the crash haunted him.

I remembered him sharing stories of the crash as we sat together and watched football during my visits.

He talked about the experience of coaching against Fresno State in the Mercy Bowl — hosted on Thanksgiving Day in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to raise money for the victims’ families — the following year.

Those were the moments that I thought about sitting by myself in that empty house. I also thought about how strange it was that just one day earlier I had a phone interview with the San Luis Obispo Tribune located in the city hurt most by the tragedy that my grandfather could never forget.

Now that folder, along with other relics from my grandparents’ lives, is with me in my apartment located right next to the Cal Poly campus as I begin a new life as a sports reporter at The Tribune.

Travis Gibson is a sports reporter for The Tribune. He can be reached at tgibson@thetribune