By Ben Walker
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.
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 (linked here) and it’s easy to find ticket stubs — stamped with “Benefit Cal Poly Plane Crash Fund” — and souvenir programs for sale.