By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
In early 1972, Les Hicks was at Marshall University on a recruiting visit. He had been a highly regarded prospect out of Ohio prep powerhouse Steubenville High, but an admitted lack of focus in the classroom forced him to go the junior college route.
He starred as a defensive end at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls, Iowa. After a successful two years there, the same big-time programs — Notre Dame, Ohio State, Syracuse, among many others — that recruited Hicks while he was in high school came calling again.
Naturally, Hicks — who emerged from a devastatingly poor childhood — had his eye on playing for the big boys. He was accustomed to success, first at Steubenville and then at Ellsworth, and never saw himself playing for a program like Marshall, which had not had a winning season since 1964.
But on that recruiting visit, while standing in Gullickson Hall with his hosts, Thundering Herd quarterback Reggie Oliver and linebacker Charles Henry, Hicks saw a photo of the 1970 team.
Nearly everyone in that picture died on Nov. 14, 1970, the night of the tragic plane crash that killed all 75 people aboard in what remains the worst air tragedy in American sports history.
As he was looking at the photo, one player in particular caught Hicks’ eye — Scotty Reese, who wore No. 83 and, like Hicks, played defensive end.
Hicks felt a connection to the program, and decided he would play not only for Marshall, but for Scotty Reese.
Besides, who could resist the words of Marshall head coach Jack Lengyel?
“Other schools may want you, but we need you,” Lengyel said to Hicks.
And so Hicks signed with Marshall, officially becoming a member of the Young Thundering Herd II as the rebuilding of Marshall football continued. Hicks wasn’t there when the tragedy occurred (as a freshman, he would not have made the ill-fated trip to East Carolina) but he spent two important years helping the program eventually rise from the ashes.
Those experiences provide the basis for Hicks’ book, “Against All Odds — Fourth Down and Forever: How the 1970 Marshall University Football Team Plane Crash Inspired Me.” The book — Hicks’ account of several aspects of his life, but notably how he was affected by the tragedy — was released early this year.
The crash and its aftermath had a profound effect on Hicks, but that wasn’t his sole reason for writing the book. His current employer, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. in Marietta, Ga., took a special interest in Hicks’ story, and Dr. Marvin Mills, one of Hicks’ professors at Marshall, played perhaps the biggest role in urging him to put it all in writing.
“He said, ‘Les, I am a dying man. I want to see the book before I die,’” Hicks said in a recent telephone interview. “That was Feb. 20, 2012, and I started writing that day.”
Hicks finished the book one year ago today — fittingly, Nov. 14.
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In the book, Hicks takes the reader on his journey from a life of impoverishment in his native Reynolds, Ga., where he was one of 14 kids and four grandkids raised by his sharecropper father, George, and mother, Clifford, to a stellar football career and successful professional life.
The family lived in a two-room shack located behind the mansion of the landowners for which George and Clifford worked. Even in the 1950s, the Deep South was mired in oppression.
One January night, Hicks’ dad decided enough was enough. The entire family crammed into the bed of the family truck and headed north, all the way to Steubenville, Ohio.
“Even when I was 4, I knew there had to be a better life somewhere,” Hicks said. “We didn’t have running water. You had to relieve yourself behind the highest bush; we didn’t even have an outhouse. We had no running water. We retrieved water from a well or a creek. Our bathtub was a 5-gallon tub. Our light was a candle.”
Hicks became a star defensive end for the Steubenville Big Red, and he had visions of playing for any of the great major college programs. A 1.9 grade-point average kept that from happening, or at least delayed it.
He wound up playing two years at Ellsworth and helped the Panthers to a victory over Arizona Western in the 1971 El Toro Bowl in Yuma, Ariz.
The recruiting game started back, and Hicks again seemingly had his choice of suitors. But his feeling of a connection to Reese and the strong recruiting skills of Lengyel led him to Huntington.
“(Oliver and Henry) showed me around. We walked into Gullickson Hall and I saw the team picture. I just felt a raw fascination with the players,” Hicks said. “I asked them about Scotty Reese and they said we were similar. I decided I wanted to play for him.”
Hicks went on to play two years for the Young Thundering Herd, but his time at Marshall was about more than football. There was the good — he met his wife, Della, who was born in Beckley — and there was plenty of bad.
He played both seasons with a deltoid injury, and later was even diagnosed with hepatitis. The pain caused him to lose his starting position.
Things got so bad that Hicks contemplated suicide. He had a gun in his hands one night when he suddenly received a call from his friend, Nick Diniaco. Unaware of how close his friend was to taking his own life, but knowing Hicks was hurting, Diniaco told Hicks that everyone who died on Nov. 14, 1970, would want to have the good and the bad of his life.
Hicks decided against suicide, thanks to Diniaco’s call.
Today, Hicks is enjoying a successful career as an environmental safety engineer at Lockheed Martin. He has been cited numerous times for his advancements in safety, a career choice that began when he worked as a teenager at Weirton Steel Mill and was solidified by Mills, the head of the safety engineering department at Marshall.
He and Della return to West Virginia as often as they can, including Marshall homecomings and for summer trips. They try to visit Della’s 77-year-old mother Shirley Rogers and 88-year-old stepfather “Salty.”
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Hicks went on a series of booksignings in Huntington and Steubenville. He has been pleased with sales in Steubenville, but says sales in Huntington have been “very disappointing.” He remains confident that sales will increase and the book will eventually be a best-seller.
Lengyel wrote the book’s introduction.
“Not only has he helped me, he has helped numerous players over the years overcome an assortment of adversities,” Hicks said. “I love coach Lengyel, because he has a heart for those who need him.”
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Nov. 14, 1970, will always be a significant date for Hicks, who remembers finding out about the plane crash while watching TV in his dorm room at Ellsworth.
But another important date for Hicks was April 25, 2013 — the day he got to bring his book to Dr. Mills.
“I had hoped God would allow him to live long enough for him to see it,” Hicks said.
Mills was undoubtedly proud of his student-athlete.
— E-mail: gfauber
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