The Mercy Bowl in 1961 is often forgotten, but it helped raise money for Cal Poly after 16 of its players were killed earlier that season in a plane crash.
Exactly how high the plane got off the ground is hard to say. No one could really be sure that foggy night in Ohio nearly a half-century ago. Some folks swear the old C-46, a leftover from World War II, never lifted off at all.
Ted Tollner, a quarterback at Cal Poly, was sitting over the left wing, on the side where the engine gave out. “After we hit, it was all a blur,” he said.
The Arctic-Pacific charter split in two and caught on fire at Toledo Express Airport on Oct. 29, 1960. It was the first airline crash involving a U.S. sports team. Of the 22 people killed, there were 16 Cal Poly players, a manager and a booster.
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The next year, with support from Bob Hope and a blessing from President Kennedy, a game was held at the Los Angeles Coliseum to offset burial costs, pay medical expenses and set up an educational fund for the victims’ families and survivors.
They called it the Mercy Bowl.
Almost 50 years since that game, the college postseason is now filled with 34 bowls that make millions of dollars for the schools and conferences that participate. None is held to solely benefit a greater cause.
Today, most fans don’t even recall the Mercy Bowl or why it was played.
“It did get lost,” said NFL Hall of Fame coach John Madden, who anchored Cal Poly’s lines in the late 1950s. “It’s like it just went away.”
A crowd of more than 33,000 turned out to see Fresno State beat Bowling Green 36-6 that Thanksgiving Day in 1961. Check eBay and it’s easy to find ticket stubs — stamped with “Benefit Cal Poly Plane Crash Fund” — and souvenir programs for sale.
Tollner was there as a spectator, still nursing the right ankle smashed in the accident. He went to a life of coaching in the NFL and college, always wondering why he was allowed to survive.
Shortly before the flight, Curtis Hill asked Tollner to switch seats. The gifted receiver became ill on the trip to play at Bowling Green, and figured he’d do better near the front of the plane going back home to San Luis Obispo.
Tollner traded, moving back a few rows. Minutes later the pilot, flying with a license that had been revoked by the Federal Aviation Administration, tried to take off.
“I was pretty much the cutoff,” said Tollner, now the quarterbacks coach for the San Francisco 49ers. “About 100 percent of the people sitting in front of me were killed. Curtis was one of them. The people in my row and back mostly survived.”
“A lot of things go through your mind when you get an extra bonus of 48 years to live. Why me? Why not them? You don’t know why. You think about those things when you’ve been spared,” he said.
Those tied to that day find it puzzling how the details faded so quickly.
Many fans are well aware of air disasters that impacted sports. Knute Rockne, Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson were killed in plane crashes, the U.S. figure skating team was lost in 1961, as was the Marshall football team in 1970, inspiring the movie “We Are Marshall.”
But during this blitz of almost three dozen bowls, chances are the old Astro-Bluebonnet will get mentioned more than a game that raised over a quarter-million dollars for a tragedy.
“You hear ‘Mercy Bowl’ and it sounds dreadful,” said Bernie Casey, a former Bowling Green star who became a Pro Bowl receiver in the NFL. “You think of bowls of being a celebration. We’re going to the Whoopee Bowl or Good Times Bowl.”
“I don’t have a clue why it didn’t get more attention,” he said. “It should have.”
An accomplished athlete, actor and artist, Casey was among the nation’s best collegiate receivers in 1960. His Falcons were unbeaten going into the game against overmatched Cal Poly that October.
Bowling Green romped 50-6.
With several hours to spare before their bus to the airport, some Cal Poly players went to Halloween parties at campus sororities. Others hung around the student union. That’s where Casey ran into Curtis Hill.
“We were talking about California. It had such a mystique for me, being raised in Ohio,” Casey said. “We were talking about the East-West Shrine game. I told him that maybe I’d see him out there.”
Already it had been a busy day for the C-46 plane, a military transport. Earlier it carried the Youngstown University team back from a game in Connecticut, then flew to Toledo.
“It was real foggy, real hard to see,” Tollner said. “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.”
There was zero visibility, in fact, the Civil Aeronautics Board later concluded.
The pilot got to make the final call on whether to take off, and Donald Chesher decided to roll with 48 people on board shortly before midnight. According to an FAA timeline, his license had been revoked for several violations. He kept flying, pending an appeal.
This turned out to be his last flight.
The twin-engine plane slammed into the ground on its left side, broke apart and wound up in an orchard. Several passengers were thrown from the crash, strapped to their seats.
“Some of the people on the plane could walk, some couldn’t. I couldn’t,” Tollner said. “The ones that could tried to go back in to help. Finally, some people started shouting that you couldn’t go back in, the plane’s on fire and is about to blow. It did, soon after that.”
Back at Bowling Green, Casey was hanging out with teammates when someone burst in with the horrific news. They ran to their cars and drove to the airport.
To this day, Casey is struck by one image.
“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,” Casey said. “And they were right under a sign that said ‘Get Your Insurance Here.’ I’m not sure why I remember that, but I do.”
Out west, the initial report said there were no survivors. Tollner’s wife heard that while she was playing cards with the wives of other Cal Poly players.
The next day, Madden returned to the Cal Poly campus to console friends and families. He played there in 1957-58 before going to coach at Hancock Junior College. Over time, stories spread that he was on the plane, and that the crash triggered his aversion to flying.
“Neither one is true,” he said. “I didn’t like getting on planes before that. I got claustrophobic, and it got worse over the years.”
Cal Poly canceled its final three games of the season. Shaken by the crash, Bowling Green decided to avoid air travel and instead took a train to its next road game — a 2 ½-day ride to play Texas Western in El Paso.
After the crash, the Arctic-Pacific company lost its certificate and the FAA reviewed its procedure on takeoffs under certain conditions of poor visibility.
Five wives in the Cal Poly family lost their husbands and nine children lost their fathers. Many of the survivors spent months in Toledo hospitals and left with burns and crippling injuries.
By the following spring, a game was in the works. Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times endorsed it in his column:
“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.”
Bowling Green was picked to play because of its association with the crash. Fresno State College earned its spot by winning the California Collegiate Athletic Association — among the teams the Bulldogs beat was Cal Poly, which decided to continue its program in 1961 with 10 crash survivors on its team and went 5-3.
A day before the Nov. 23 game, JFK wired a telegram to the president of the Fresno State student body.
“Your efforts to aid survivors and families of victims are most commendable and merit support. Heartiest congratulations to the Mercy Bowl game and best wishes to the participating schools,” it said.
While a 26-station radio network broadcast the game and asked for donations, Beau Carter threw two touchdown passes and ran for two scores. Fresno State won with a unique strategy, sending in 11 new players midway through each quarter — rules at the time stated that once a player exited, he couldn’t return until the next quarter.
Years afterward, Tollner visited a Fresno State team reunion.
“He told us how much it meant to them,” Carter said. “I think it really hit us later, when it was all over. I still live here in the Fresno area, a lot of us do. I still run into people who tell me they were at the game and how much it meant.”
Tollner was there, too. At halftime, he helped unveil a memorial plaque to the 1960 Cal Poly team that remains at the Coliseum. He often passed it when he coached at USC.
“There are so many bowls now, I have trouble keeping track of all of them, and I’m in the business. I’ve been lucky and gotten to coach at a lot of bowl games. Head coach at a Rose Bowl win,” he said. “But I don’t think any of them were any more meaningful than the Mercy Bowl.”
All the proceeds went to the memorial fund, providing $278,000 to those affected. In 2006, Tollner spoke at the dedication of Mustang Memorial Plaza on the Cal Poly campus, honoring those killed.
In 1971, there was a hastily arranged Mercy Bowl II, with Cal State Fullerton beating Fresno State 17-14 in Anaheim to help benefit the children of three Cal State Fullerton assistant coaches and a pilot killed in a plane crash a month earlier.
“You know, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to play a game like that again,” Madden said. “Hold a bowl game for a cause. There are a lot of good ones. I’d like to see that.”