Menacing mountain touched so many

Next month will be the 66th anniversary of an event that changed, or at least impacted, my life. A plane crash, on a wintry December night at the top of a British Columbia mountain, forever sealed the mountain’s name in my mind.

Mount Slesse.

A plane crash in Mount Slease in British Columbia took the life of 62 passengers and crew, including five football players. The events of that day have left a lasting memory for many.

The death toll was 62 crew and passengers. Five were football players, one from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, my team. I was just a kid football fan and I was glued to the radio every night after the crash, waiting for Amos ’n Andy to end — I know, how old are you? — so I could hear the players were alive. Such was the extent of my childhood naiveté that as the search “continued” through the harsh mountain winter, I continued to hope they survived.

The players had left Vancouver after the Canadian Football League’s second All-Star Game. In part because of the crash and a combination of the brutal weather conditions that caused it, along with indifference from players and fans, the All-Star Game disappeared two years later. It was revived three times, its final demise 34 years ago.

The game became a bitter memory.

This football fan never forgot the date (December 9) and the names of the players: Calvin Jones (the Bomber, who wore No. 62), Mario DeMarco, Gordon Sturtridge, Ray Syrnyk and Mel Becket, all Saskatchewan Roughriders. DeMarco, known as the “world’s worst white knuckle” flier, and Syrnyk had gone to the game as spectators, to watch their teammates play.

From articles, books, films and personal experiences, I gradually learned more about the crash. With the game on the West Coast, most of the greatest CFL players of that era were flying east the next day, stars like Sam Etcheverry, Ken Carpenter, Cookie Gilchrist, Dick Shatto, Normie Kwong and Rollie Miles “could” have been on Flight 810. Annis Stukus, the B.C. Lions first coach, once told me Jackie Parker was scheduled to be on the plane, as was Bobby Marlow, whose seat Calvin Jones took. Bud Grant, having played his last football game, was on the flight’s passenger manifest after the crash — but had changed to an earlier flight.

What devastated this naive 9-year-old was that the Bombers lost an All-Star. Calvin Jones was largely unknown, just 23 and did not start in the game. He’d been the first black to win the Outland Trophy as America’s best college lineman, and the first U.S. college football player ever to appear on a Sports Illustrated cover. A three-time All-American, he’d fled north to Canada after being drafted by Detroit, because the NFL paid blacks less than whites.

Calvin’s best play for the Bombers may have been selling a University of Iowa teammate, a quarterback, on Canadian football. “We talked a lot about his decision to play in Canada,” the quarterback wrote in a book many years later. “He really loved Winnipeg and he recommended it to me.”

That quarterback was Kenny Ploen, who led the Bombers to six Grey Cup games and four victories.

Jones may have been his teammate again, but for Mount Slesse with a unique peak that looks like a giant arrowhead. I’ve driven past it or flown over it many, many times. Not once have I seen Mount Slesse without remembering the crash.