L.A.'s last bowl? 1961 Mercy Bowl

Sixteen Cal Poly players, a team manager and a booster were killed in a plane crash in 1960. AP Photo

There are 57 bronze plaques mounted throughout the arches on the peristyle end of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Most of the names and faces of the athletes, coaches and presidents in the "Court of Honor" are easily recognizable from a distance and need no explanation for their inclusion.

Underneath the center arch, below the Olympic torch and gold-leafed painting, rests a bronze plaque that despite its prominent placement and unique design -- a fallen plane in the background of 11 football players lined up on a field -- has gone relatively unnoticed by the millions who have walked past it over the past 50 years.

USC players walking through the oversized entrance before home games with dreams of playing in the Rose Bowl would be hard-pressed to explain the meaning of the plaque or know the story behind the last college bowl game ever played in Los Angeles. It was a one-time game so unique in nature and so tragic in circumstance it was never held again and was almost forgotten by many as soon as it was over.

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.

It was the first time an entire athletic team had been involved in a fatal plane crash in the United States.

Porras was a 27-year-old fullback and the oldest player on the Cal Poly team after serving in the Navy. He married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy, when he was 20 and she was 18. They met at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles and were married before moving up north to attend Bakersfield College.

Ray and Dorothy had four daughters: Diana, who was 7 at the time of the crash; Kathy, who was 5; Eileen, who was 2; and Rebecca, who was just 3 months old.

Owings remembers sitting in front of the television with her sisters and watching an episode of "Bonanza" when a special bulletin came on the screen saying that the Cal Poly football team had been involved in a plane crash.

"I ran to go get my mother," Owings said. "She was in the kitchen. We still didn't know exactly what had happened or if there were any survivors. My mother didn't tell me about my father passing until the next day. It took hours for them to find out what had happened."

Suddenly at the young age of 25, Dorothy Porras was forced to raise four young daughters by herself.

In all, five women were widowed and 11 children lost their fathers as a result of the crash.

The images of the widows and children stuck with Los Angeles County Supervisor Warren Dorn, who was the president of the Coliseum Commission at the time, and Ferron Losee, the athletic director at Cal State L.A . They came up with the idea of staging a Mercy Bowl game on Thanksgiving Day 1961 to raise money for the Cal Poly Memorial Fund, which would later be primarily used to fund scholarships for the children of the crash victims.

The game played between Bowling Green and Fresno State attracted a crowd of 33,145 and helped raise $278,000 for the memorial fund but was discontinued soon after. Of all the bowls games currently being held today, none is staged for the sole purpose of benefitting a charitable cause like the Mercy Bowl, which remains the last college bowl game ever played in Los Angeles.

"I've often wondered what happened to the spirit of the Mercy Bowl," said Gil Stork, who was a 19-year-old center on the 1961 Cal Poly team. "We have 35 bowls this season and they're sponsored by everything from candy bars to potato chips. Now it's all about big money for the universities, conferences, television networks and advertisers. The spirit of the Mercy Bowl was all about helping people deal with a tragedy. It really did change a lot of lives. I'm not sure how many bowl games can say that anymore."

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.

Ted Tollner 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

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 some thought given to eliminating the Cal Poly football program after the crash.

Cal Poly canceled the final three games of the 1960 season and after some deliberation decided to keep the football team and hold an eight-game season in 1961. The Mustangs finished a surprising 5-3 with a 35-man roster that included 10 crash survivors. The football team, however, wouldn't fly to a road game for nine years after the crash and wouldn't play another road game east of the Rocky Mountains until 1978. For nearly a decade it would play only schools in California or in bordering states accessible by train.

"They were very competitive," said Pete Mehas, who was the center on Fresno State's Mercy Bowl team and is now on the board of trustees for the California State University system. "When we played them the next year their team was depleted but they never gave up. I just remember after one play toward the end of our game, one of their players screaming, 'Don't feel sorry for us!' They just never quit."

Fresno State actually beat Cal Poly 42-13 en route to a 10-0 season in 1961, which ended with a 36-6 upset win over an 8-1 Bowling Green team that came into the Mercy Bowl heavily favored.
Although the name Mercy Bowl sounds jarring compared with the more commercialized names of bowl games today, it made perfect sense to the players.

"I don't think it was a bad thing because everyone felt mercy for the guys who had the misfortune of being on that plane," said Bill Violet, a center and linebacker for Bowling Green in the Mercy Bowl. "I think it was a very touching and very apropos name. We were just kids and we felt very sorry for them."

Even though Fresno State is Cal Poly's rival, the Bulldogs felt as if they were representing Cal Poly in the game and playing for them against Bowling Green that Thanksgiving Day.

"I remember when we were walking out of the tunnel at the Coliseum there was a man in a Cal Poly letterman jacket and he yelled, 'Remember our guys. This one's for them,'" Mehas said. "We all heard that and knew what it meant. It was a very special game."

Most of the Cal Poly football team, survivors of the plane crash and families of the victims traveled to Los Angeles for the Mercy Bowl and were brought onto the field at halftime, when they were presented with the bronze plaque that would later be hung in the peristyle end of the Coliseum.

Stork rode down to the game on the "Mercy Bowl Express," a special train service from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles for the game.

"It was kind of light-hearted in the beginning when we were there and the closer it got to halftime the quieter and more serious we all became," Stork said. "Then we went down onto the field for the ceremony. It was hard. It was hardly a year before that we were in a hospital after being on an airstrip trying to figure out what the heck had happened and what was going to happen."

Every survivor who saw Dorothy Porras and her daughters after the crash wondered why he was spared and Ray was not.

Stork, who was seated a couple rows behind Porras, has often asked himself that question.

"It was a real haunting experience when you think back to where you were sitting in relation to those that died," said Stork, who is now the president at Cuesta College next to Cal Poly. "There's a lot of survivor guilt entered into this. Ray Porras died and he was married and had four little girls. Why did I survive and not him? I didn't understand that. The impact on his family was so tragic and so significant."

The significance didn't fully hit Owings until she had twin daughters, Megan and Jennifer, who are now 30. When her children turned 7 years old, the same age she was when she lost her father, suddenly her memories of going to her father's football practices and sitting on his lap after he came home from working two jobs rushed back and were as fresh as ever.

"The loss actually struck me more when I had my own children and saw what it was like for them to have a relationship with their father and it made me feel more of the loss of losing my dad in a lot of ways," Owings said. "Throughout my life I have thought of that. When I had my children, I think of my dad missing out on seeing his children growing up and his grandchildren growing up. There's sadness to that. I think whenever you have a loss like that it never goes away. It reappears in different times in your life and you think about it in different ways. It never goes away."

The money raised during the Mercy Bowl ended up covering the expenses for Porras' four daughters to attend college, something they admit might not have been financially possible otherwise. Diana graduated from UC Berkeley, Kathy graduated from UC Santa Barbara, and Eileen and Rebecca graduated from Cal State Fullerton.

"The Mercy Bowl was really pivotal and it really changed our lives," Owings said. "My sisters and I are extremely grateful because my mother wasn't in the position to send all four of us to college. She had limited funds so it made a big difference. My father would have been very proud of us to have had that opportunity to go to college and accomplish something. It really is an honor to him."

For 45 years, until 2006, the Mercy Bowl and the bronze plaque at the Coliseum and a similar plaque underneath the flagpole of Cal Poly's football stadium were the most prominent reminders of the tragedy.

After years of urging by many of the surviving players, the school finally built Mustang Memorial Plaza, a 15,000-square-foot area in front of the remodeled Alex G. Spanos Stadium, in memory of the 16 football players, team manager and booster who lost their lives in the plane crash.

There are 18 copper pillars, each standing the exact height of its honoree, situated in a circular huddle around a life-size bronze sculpture of a mustang. Each pillar has a granite display with the honoree's photo and biographical information and is topped with a light that illuminates at night.

No one fought for the memorial harder than Al Marinai, the all-city guard out of San Francisco who suffered the worst injuries of the survivors. Marinai, 72, was in and out of hospitals for three years after the crash and has walked with a brace on his right leg and a walking cane since the accident.

Marinai returned home to San Francisco after the crash and didn't return to campus for 40 years until he was finally inducted into the Cal Poly Athletics Hall of Fame in 2000.

"I didn't want to go back. They forgot about us," Marinai said. "Everybody told me that's life but for a long time I lived with that. When I went back and was inducted into the hall of fame, they asked me to help out with the new stadium and I said that I wanted them to finally honor my teammates. I never had a chance to say goodbye to them but I didn't want them to be forgotten."

As much as the survivors wished the memorial plaza had been built sooner, the unveiling on Sept. 29, 2006 gave survivors and the families of the victims a chance to reconnect for the first time. Nearly 400 friends and family members of the 1960 team attended the ceremony.

All four of Ray Porras' daughters and their families attended the ceremony, but their mother, Dorothy Porras, who never remarried or fully recovered from the loss of her husband, did not. She has never talked about the crash publicly and refuses to go on campus. As much as Owings wanted her mother to be there with the family that day, she understood the emotions behind her mother's decision as she walked up to her dad's pillar and stared at his 27-year-old face etched into the granite plaque for the first time.

"It was very moving and very emotional when I first stood in front of it and looked at my father," Owings said. "It gave us that connection to him which we were missing, especially for my two youngest sisters and his grandchildren, who had no memories of him. It really made us feel like we had come full circle."

Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLA.com.