Out West, the initial report said there were no survivors. Tollner’s wife heard that while she was playing cards with the wives of other Cal Poly players.
The next day, Madden returned to the Cal Poly campus to console friends and families. He played there in 1957-58 before going to coach at Hancock Junior College. Over time, stories spread that he was on the plane, and that the crash triggered his aversion to flying.
“Neither one is true,” he said. “I didn’t like getting on planes before that. I got claustrophobic, and it got worse over the years.”
Cal Poly canceled its final three games of the season. Shaken by the crash, Bowling Green decided to avoid air travel and instead took a train to its next road game — a 2½-day ride to play Texas Western in El Paso.
After the crash, the Arctic-Pacific company lost its certificate and the FAA reviewed its procedure on takeoffs under certain conditions of poor visibility.
Five wives in the Cal Poly family lost their husbands and nine children lost their fathers. Many of the survivors spent months in Toledo hospitals and left with burns and crippling injuries.
By the following spring, a game was in the works. Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times endorsed it in his column:
“On Thanksgiving morning this year in the Coliseum, a ’Mercy Bowl’ benefit game will be played to help San Luis Obispo write off its obligations to the tragedy victims, the children they left behind them, and the survivors.
“My feeling is, it is not only their obligation. It is the obligation of all of us interested in athletics. I can think of no better way to give thanks on that day that we are here and healthy, than to contribute to those who are alone with only memories on that day.”
Bowling Green was picked to play because of its association with the crash. Fresno State College earned its spot by winning the California Collegiate Athletic Association — among the teams the Bulldogs beat was Cal Poly, which decided to continue its program in 1961 with 10 crash survivors on its team and went 5-3.
A day before the Nov. 23 game, JFK wired a telegram to the president of the Fresno State student body.
“Your efforts to aid survivors and families of victims are most commendable and merit support. Heartiest congratulations to the Mercy Bowl game and best wishes to the participating schools,” it said.
While a 26-station radio network broadcast the game and asked for donations, Beau Carter threw two touchdown passes and ran for two scores. Fresno State won with a unique strategy, sending in 11 new players midway through each quarter — substitution rules at the time stated that once a player exited, he couldn’t return until the next quarter.
Years afterward, Tollner visited a Fresno State team reunion.
“He told us how much it meant to them,” Carter said. “I think it really hit us later, when it was all over. I still live here in the Fresno area, a lot of us do. I still run into people who tell me they were at the game and how much it meant.”
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
“There are so many bowls now, I have trouble keeping track of all of them, and I’m in the business. I’ve been lucky and gotten to coach at a lot of bowl games. Head coach at a Rose Bowl win,” he said. “But I don’t think any of them were any more meaningful than the Mercy Bowl.”
All the proceeds went to the memorial fund, providing $278,000 to those affected. In 2006, Tollner spoke at the dedication of Mustang Memorial Plaza on the Cal Poly campus, honoring those killed.
In 1971, there was a hastily arranged Mercy Bowl II, with Cal State Fullerton beating Fresno State 17-14 in Anaheim. The game was a benefit for the children of three Cal State Fullerton assistant coaches and a pilot killed in a plane crash a month earlier.
“You know, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to play a game like that again,” Madden said. “Hold a bowl game for a cause. There are a lot of good ones. I’d like to see that.”
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