Elected officials in Tuscaloosa are proposing a monument to honor the four native sons on the 1970 plane crash that killed most of the Marshall University football team.

The city is considering what sort of public art to install at the new $12 million Benjamin Barnes YMCA under construction right now in west Tuscaloosa.  The Elevate Tuscaloosa tax plan primarily funds it and requires 1 percent of the construction budget to be spent on public art on-site.

On Tuesday afternoon, the city council's Public Projects Committee heard a proposal to install a more than $300,000 monument to honor Joe Hood, Larry Sanders, Robert Van Horn and Freddie Wilson.

"They were four Tuscaloosa natives first who played football for Druid High School, and then they were Marshall," said Kay Day, the city's Arts & Entertainment Director. "They tragically lost their lives in the plane crash on November 14th, 1970, and these four young men are buried at Cedar Oak Cemetery down 69 South."

Tuscaloosa's own Reggie Oliver, another Druid High player, was on the roster at Marshall but too young to play in 1970 and was not on the plane when it crashed. He played a pivotal role in keeping the football program alive at Marshall and was their starting quarterback for the next three years after the tragedy.

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The piece would be commissioned to world-class sculptor Caleb O'Connor, whose work is already on display in two places on the Tuscaloosa Riverwalk - the Minvera statue at Manderson Landing and the Deontay Wilder statue outside the Visit Tuscaloosa headquarters.

Photo by J. R. Moore - Tide 100.9 / Townsquare Media.
Photo by J. R. Moore - Tide 100.9 / Townsquare Media.

The projects committee recommended moving forward with the sculpture, which the full seven-member council will now consider. If they approve the $332,650 commission, O'Connor has said it could be finished in time for the grand opening at the new YMCA planned for December.

"The plane crash of the Marshall University football team on November 14th, 1970 is not only one of the most tragic moments in college athletic history it has become one of the more memorable," mayor Walt Maddox said. "Besides Huntington, West Virginia, Tuscaloosa had the most student-athletes who were lost in that plane crash."

Day said research shows at least two of the four Tuscaloosa athletes killed on the plane were on organized basketball teams at the Benjamin Barnes YMCA as kids, and councilman Cassius Lanier said it's all but certain all four of them went there to play at some point before their lives were cut short.

"It's just the right thing to do," Day said. "These four young men from Tuscaloosa were struggling and they were able to go to Marshall University and have the opportunity to play football. I think we focus on the way that they were living their lives, not the way they lost their lives tragically - I would say to you wherever we can put these statues and honor these four young men - most people in Tuscaloosa have seen the movie and they don't realize these athletes are actually buried here."

There was some debate over whether the Benjamin Barnes YMCA is the best place to honor these athletes, but ultimately the committee voted unanimously to recommend funding the sculpture.

"I really believe a lot more kids will see it there than many other places - they'll be walking to the Y, they'll be up there as much as they can, and how can you miss four seven-foot statues?" councilman John Faile said. "And they'll know what it means! Right now they don't know who those guys are, but it will mean something to them for the rest of their lives."

For updates on the project as it develops, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.

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