L.A.'s last bowl? 1961 Mercy Bowl
Game was played as benefit to honor the Cal Poly football team killed in plane crash
Diana Owings vividly remembers going to the Mercy Bowl at the Coliseum on Thanksgiving Day 1961. She was only 7 years old but she remembers the game and the marching bands and the smile on her face as she took it all in from the stands with her family. What wasn't as clear to her at the time was why the game was being played and why she needed to be there. A year before the game, Owings' father, Ray Porras, died when a plane carrying the Cal Poly football team crashed shortly after takeoff in Toledo, Ohio, on Oct. 29, 1960. The accident killed 22 of the 48 people on board, including 16 football players, the team manager and a booster.
The randomness of it all still sticks with the surviving Cal Poly players all these years later. Oct. 29, 1960 wasn't supposed to be a memorable day in the history of Cal Poly football. Most of the players on the Mustangs that dreary Saturday afternoon simply wanted to forget it had ever happened long before the sun had set in northern Ohio as Bowling Green put the finishing touches on a 50-6 blowout win. Everyone wanted to get on the plane as soon as possible and get back home. Simply seeing the plane, a twin-engine C-46 propliner, a relic from World War II, in the thick fog proved to be difficult, though. "When we got out of the bus we were about 25 feet from the airplane and we couldn't even see it," said Carl Bowser, who was a 23-year-old fullback on that Cal Poly team. "We thought maybe the plane hadn't arrived yet. That's how bad it was." Ted Tollner relives the fateful takeoff every time he is on a plane. He has experienced it more times than he cares to count since that foggy October night in 1960.
“Tollner, now 71, was Cal Poly's quarterback and a team captain and would later go on to have a 47-year coaching career which included head-coaching stints at USC and San Diego State. He remembers Curtis Hill, a star receiver and the one player on the team most likely to play in the NFL, coming up to him after the game and asking if they could switch seats. Hill had gotten nauseous on the flight over and felt more comfortable sitting toward the front of the plane. "As a captain, I usually sat in the front, but because I didn't get sick, I said I can certainly change seats," Tollner said. "I didn't think much about it at the time; I was just doing a favor for a friend." Hill was one of the 22 who died in the crash. When the plane went down the fuselage snapped in two and fire engulfed the right wing, cockpit and forward cabin areas. Others have similar stories of being saved by a simple seat change. Don Adams, a senior guard on Cal Poly, gave his seat to Vic Hall, Cal Poly's speedy running back and cornerback, who was also an alternate sprinter on the 1960 U.S. Olympic team. Bowser was actually knocked out of his front-row seat by a lineman, which nearly caused a fight before Bowser said he would take care of the lineman when they got back home. "There was really no significance in changing seats until I realized that everyone sitting in front of me died," Tollner said. "I was sitting on the wing and everyone on my row and behind me survived. The significance and irony of someone asking you to change seats becomes greater then. Curtis lost his life and I was spared because he asked to change seats." Bowser wasn't supposed to be one of the survivors. He was supposed to be sitting in the first row next to his friends. He has lived with this thought in the back of his mind for the past 50 years and it always comes to the forefront whenever he goes to the Greenlawn Memorial Park in Bakersfield, Calif., where his teammates Larry Austin and Joe Copeland are buried. The three of them were always together. They grew up in the same neighborhood and played on the same football team in high school, junior college and at Cal Poly. They had made plans to become coaches after graduating and raise their families in Bakersfield. Austin had already gotten a head start by marrying his high school sweetheart, Marlene, and having a 2-year old son, Thane, while Copeland had recently married his girlfriend, Kay. Austin and Copeland were born in the same maternity ward two days apart and were buried at the same cemetery 23 years later, 90 minutes apart. Bowser would name his only son Larry Joe in honor of his fallen friends and teammates. "I flew back even though I didn't want to fly after the crash because I wanted to be at the funeral for Larry and Joe," said Bowser, who spent 28 years as the coach and later the athletic director at Bakersfield College from 1968 to 1996. "It was a sad day and it still is. Not a day goes by that I don't think about those guys. When I worked at Bakersfield College, I would drive up there every day and I would stop at the cemetery where they're buried. I would go see my mom's grave and their grave and I put a rose on them."
There was really no significance in changing seats until I realized that everyone sitting in front of me died. I was sitting on the wing and everyone on my row and behind me survived. The significance and irony of someone asking you to change seats becomes greater then. Curtis lost his life and I was spared because he asked to change seats.” -- Ted Tollner, Cal Poly QB and later a head coach at San Diego State and USC
Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLA.com.