TRAVERSE CITY — He wore a pink shirt in practice that week.
A knee injury forced Bill Burch onto the no-contact list and into the unusual hue. But he was a senior linebacker and football players in 1970 played.
Burch was going to do whatever it took to keep his spot on Wichita State University’s Gold plane — the one for the starters — that was headed west the morning of Oct. 2 for a game the next day against Utah State. Coach Ben Wilson decided to give Burch’s knee a week off to recover.
That hyperextended knee injury — one Burch called “a pure mistake” — likely saved his life. The Gold plane never made it to Logan, Utah.
One of the two Martin 404s changed its course to go sightseeing. The plane got stuck in a box canyon and crashed into Mount Trelease outside of Silver Plume, Colorado, about 40 miles west of Denver.
Twenty-nine of the 40 on board died at the scene and two others perished later from burns after the plane caught fire. Fourteen of the 31 were Wichita State football players. One of those was supposed to be Burch, today a 70-year-old Traverse City businessman.
“Probably one of the things I feel most guilty about is the guy that replaced me on the plane died,” said Burch, his words a whisper as they left his lips.
Shocking sceneThe Wichita State football team was originally supposed to fly on a single plane, a bigger DC-6. But the plane wasn’t available and Golden Eagle Aviation instead went with two smaller planes.
The Gold plane transported the starters and other key athletic personnel including Wilson and his wife, Helen, and athletic director Ben Katzenmeyer and his wife, Marian. All four died that day.
One of Wilson’s final decisions was the reason Burch was not on the plane. Doctors were worried another hit to his knee would cause further damage, especially since it was masked by painkillers.
Wilson had the final say.
“I sat down and talked to the coach and he said, ‘Bill, this is a non-conference game. We’re going to get ready to play Southern Illinois next week, which is a (Missouri Valley) conference game,’” Burch recalled. “He said, ‘Why don’t you stay back this week and rehabilitate your leg and be ready for next week.’ After being crushed, I had to agree.
“(Wilson) pulled my name off the roster,” Burch said. “The best I can remember was it was just 12 hours before the crash.”
The Black plane carried the reserves and the assistant coaches stayed on its flight plan which took it north into Wyoming and then west to Utah, landed safely.
“I’m back at school, I’m rehabilitating my leg and all of a sudden I get a call from Dorothy Harmon, who was the assistant to the athletic director, Mr. Katzenmeyer,” Burch said. “She came down and said, ‘Bill. There’s been a crash.’ She said, ‘We need you upstairs.’
“It was a cry session because we had no answers. All we heard was it was a plane crash. ... We didn’t know which plane had gone down until about two hours later.”
Burch knew he had to quickly connect with his mother, Gloria, back in his hometown of “Hannibal, Missoua.”
“The first thing I did was I picked up the phone and I called my mom (Gloria) and told her I was not on the trip this week because I hadn’t bothered to tell her before because I wasn’t too happy about it,” he recalled. “It was nothing to brag about. I had to let her know.
“Of course she called my dad and it wasn’t much longer after that the Hannibal Courier-Post (newspaper) was calling her up, ‘Did you hear? Did you hear?’ I was so thankful to get to her before they did.”
The minutes and hours that followed were awful, Burch said. Everyone wanted to go to the crash and help, but there was nothing that could be done. The Oct. 3 game was canceled as the campus dealt with the death of classmates and children instantly were orphans.
“This is where ... I don’t think I was treated right ... Dorothy, the secretary came up to me and said, ‘Bill. We need you to set an example. You’re a senior. They all look up to you. You need to pull up your bootstraps and just go to class and show the freshmen and everything that they need to go to class,’” Burch said, the emotion breaking into the cadence of his speech. “That was what I was given for my grieving session. That was it. That’s what I was given for my grief counseling.
“That’s what buried everything inside of me ... because I wasn’t allowed to release it.”
The scheduled game against Illinois State — the one that Burch was targeting — was canceled. An Oct. 17 home game against Cincinnati moved back two weeks.
A decision on the rest of the season was left up to a vote of all the players on Oct. 16, according to Denver Magazine.
“We had to vote as a team whether to continue or not continue,” Burch said. “We didn’t have enough players to field a team unless we used the freshmen. Wichita State went to the NCAA and asked for a special exception and that was granted. That became the start of freshmen being eligible in college.”
The vote to continue passed 75 or 76-1, depending on the source.
“You know who the one was? Glenn Kosta,” Burch quietly said, almost choking on the words. “One of the survivors. You weren’t in that room. We were in there. We kept saying we were playing for the memory of the guys that died.
“We were holding up the tradition. That was our calling card. Glenn said, ‘No you’re not. You’re not doing that because you can’t.’ He made a very good speech. But three seniors stood up, one being me, and said, ‘We’ve got to play’ ‘cause without a release of the emotions around the school, around each other, it was too pent up. The football game was the only release that we had.”
Dubbed the “Second Season,” Wichita State took 46 players — 39 of them freshmen and sophomores — to Little Rock to face No. 9 Arkansas on Oct. 24. According to several newspaper accounts, the 40,000 fans gave the Shockers, wearing their traditional home black jerseys, a standing ovation. The Razorbacks won 62-0 in a game where their starters were out of the game in the opening quarter and the outcome did not matter in the slightest.
Wichita State’s Parnassus 1971 yearbook quoted an Arkansas fan saying, “I don’t care what the score says — they didn’t lose ...”
The locker room was eerily quiet for the first home game versus Cincinnati on Oct. 31, a 35-5 loss. Road losses to Tulsa and Memphis were followed by home defeats against North Texas and Louisville.
The Second Season was mercifully over.
No looking back
Burch graduated in the spring of 1971 and never looked back. He married during his junior year and went into the Army, which included a tour in Vietnam. He declined every invitation to attend memorials every October.
“I had very deep, negative feelings for Wichita State,” he said. “Very deep.”
The decision to file for divorce in January 2000 caused Burch to return to Wichita for the 30th anniversary. Burch said it was no fault of his wife, but the crash and her were linked in a way he couldn’t break mentally. A call from WSU president Donald Beggs and his personal “fresh start” brought him back.
“What we did, we decided as a team, as a group of guys, to walk down to the field with nobody else but us,” Burch said. “I can’t begin to tell you what an emotional release that was because all the time I kept thinking, ‘Why did I survive? Why me, why me?’ survivor’s mentality. You think that you’re the only one.
“But when you sat and talked with them, I found out I wasn’t the only one. They had the same hard feelings (they were) going through.”
Beggs, president at WSU from 1999 until his retirement in 2012, said the 30th reunion was supposed to be a two-hour event and ended up lasting four. It started as a wake, but wound up more as a therapeutic reunion, he said.
“Each individual had to feel they were being helped,” said Beggs, who now lives in Bloomington, Illinois.
Burch said that Beggs’ invitation “changed my life.” He served on the president’s advisory board and helped establish a scholarship that would go to survivors of the crash and their families.
Beggs said the university needed people like Burch who “experienced that feeling and who cared for the university” to continue the healing process. Wichita State, which dropped the sport in 1986, inducted the 1970 football team into its Hall of Fame in 2004.
Burch led a whirlwind professional life that included working for Merrill Lynch, General Motors, opening his own brokerage firm and traveling extensively. He attended Cooley Law School at the age of 60 and graduated at 62.
A few years ago Burch decided to buy a franchise and open Cartridge World in Traverse City.
“Now I’m working on my sixth retirement,” he said. “When you say I can’t sit still, that’s pretty accurate.”
Burch charged ahead with his life. He said he volunteered for missions that others might reject.
“I still feel I should be dead,” he said. “God has his playbook, I just don’t know what it is yet.”
Burch spent decades not wanting to remember, but now he doesn’t want people to forget.
A similar incident happened to the Marshall University football team in November 1970 when a single airplane crash claimed the lives of 75 of the school’s football players, staff members and boosters.
The November crash eventually led to the 2006 “We Are Marshall” movie.
But Hollywood isn’t about to tell the tale of Wichita State. Burch blames the way the aftermath was handled and the finger-pointing that followed, including Federal Aviation Administration hearings, some of which featured eyewitness testimony from survivors lying in hospital beds, according to a KPTS documentary.
That’s why Burch is now telling his story.
“That’s the reason I’m doing this,” he said. “I don’t want it to be forgotten. Those were good people. Very good people.”
Burch has memorabilia from his time at Wichita State both in his East Bay Township condominium as well as his office. There’s a framed photograph of a Wichita State football helmet at the crash scene, letter sweaters and a jacket.
But one piece from his time there holds a special place in his heart. An Ezra Books bottle in the shape of the Shocker mascot.
The seal on the back of the bottle is still intact, waiting for a special date: Oct. 2, 2020.
“We’ve all kind of made a commitment to the 50th,” Burch said. “And that bottle of whiskey will be opened. Do you know what it’s like to keep a bottle of whiskey in a decorative bottle for 50 years through 29 moves?”
Burch will share it with his surviving teammates and he anticipates how it will taste: “Pretty smooth.”