Kokor is back with his team

August 25, 2018

Carl Kokor is back with his team.

Back with Larry Sanders, Joe Hood, Freddie Wilson and Bob Van Horn — his “Tuscaloosa Kids.”

Back with Rick Tolley, Frank Loria, Al Carelli, Deke Brackett and Shorty Moss — his fellow coaches.

Back with the Marshall team that lost most of its players and coaches on Nov. 14, 1970, in a deadly plane crash that Kokor averted by a quirk of fate — his team.

It took 48 years, but Kokor rejoined his team Wednesday when the former Marshall defensive line coach passed away at the age of 85 in Boardman, Ohio.

And how did he spend those 48 years?

Coaching football and remembering Marshall — two of the loves of his life.

In Kokor’s home in Brookfield, Ohio, there was an antique table with tributes to the 1970 Marshall football team scattered here and there atop it.

That special team never was more than a thought away for Kokor.

So he kept and treasured all things Marshall. From newspaper clippings to game programs to an autographed Marshall helmet and even an emerald-studded ring honoring the Young Thundering Herd.

Seven years ago, Kokor told the Pittsburgh Tribune newspaper, “I’ve done a lot of speaking engagements over the years, especially since (the movie) ‘We Are Marshall’ came out. It gives me a chance to speak for those who can’t.

“I tell everyone that the movie isn’t a story about a football team. It’s a story of how parents, families, cities and schools heal after a tragedy — that’s what it was basically about, but it was expressed through football.”

Kokor was a gentle, soft-spoken bear of a man. I had him for a physical education class named “Methods of Football Coaching” and Kokor was the best teacher among the coaches who rotated.

He was on crutches in those days after breaking a leg shortly after moving to Huntington from Pittsburgh. That’s where the “Tuscaloosa Kids” stepped in. Since Kokor’s wife and children still were in Pittsburgh, they took care of him during the rehabilitation.

“Those Tuscaloosa kids sort of adopted me,” Kokor told the Pittsburgh newspaper. “They brought me food, a television to watch and they did my laundry. They took over, and I dearly, dearly love them.”

Yet Kokor wasn’t with them on that fateful night because in those days scouting was much different. Instead of exchanging videotapes, schools had to scout future opponents in person. So, instead of making the trip to East Carolina, Kokor and fellow assistant Mickey Jackson were scouting Ohio University’s game at Penn State.

That’s why Kokor suffered from survivor’s guilt.

“When something like this happens, you feel like you didn’t do your job,” explained Kokor. “I don’t think the guilt ever goes away.”

Until now.

Because now, Kokor is resting in peace with his team.

He is back where he belongs.

CRASHING IRONY: Sometimes irony is merely coincidental. But other times it seems predestined.

For example:

Bob Seaman became Wichita State’s interim head football coach after a plane crash killed 31 people, including some coaches and players, on Oct. 2, 1970. Then, one month later, the Marshall plane crash occurred.

So, the Wichita State plane crash and the Marshall plane crash always have been inexorably linked.

And still are.

On Aug. 13, Bob Seaman passed away.

The next day, Aug. 14, Reggie Oliver, the quarterback who led Marshall’s rise from the ashes, passed away.

The irony is compelling.

Chuck Landon is a sports columnist for The Herald-Dispatch. Contact him at clandon@herald-dispatch.com.

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