POULSBO — On Nov. 14, 1970, Marshall University’s football team was heading back from North Carolina after a game at East Carolina University. But Southern Airways Flight 932 never made it back safely and the 75 athletes, coaches and boosters on board were killed when the plane crashed shortly before landing.
It still stands as the deadliest tragedy in American sports history, and Mark Smaha, now an athletic trainer at Poulsbo Athletic Club, was nearly onboard that flight.
Smaha was an assistant athletic trainer for Marshall’s football and basketball teams while working toward his master’s degree at the time. He was planning on joining the trip until an assignment he fell behind on came due that week. In a fateful move, he stayed behind and Donald Tackett went instead.
“I let [Tackett] go in my place, who had never been on a plane,” he said. “He was from a poverty-stricken, coal-mining town. [Tackett] was a senior and didn’t think he’d ever have a chance to go on a plane again, which he didn’t.”
Being a first responder at age 23, Smaha had to identify the bodies of his friends, who he described as being “burned beyond recognition.”
The tragic accident brought on symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and horrific flashbacks in the 1990s.
The imagery was nightmarish. “Things started to trigger it,” he said. “My flashbacks were when I was awake, not asleep — like barbecuing chicken. I’d see bodies marinating in jet fuel oil.”
From 1978 to 1999, Smaha was director of athletic medicine for football and baseball at Washington State University, where he encountered more tragic situations — he had four CPR cases in his first three years in Pullman, including one in 1978 when he lost an athlete in his arms.
“Yeah, I guess I’ve experienced a lot of death,” he said.
Jackie Smaha, who worked as the head athletic trainer just 10 minutes away at the University of Idaho, met and eventually married Mark. The couple left the Palouse in 1999 for Poulsbo, moving closer to Mark’s daughter.
Then, everything took a turn for the worse when Jackie was diagnosed in 2002 with Stage 3 ovarian cancer. This type of cancer is rarely discovered before it develops into Stage 2, according to the American Cancer Society. And the survival rate was, and still is, well below 50 percent, Mark said.
Two major abdominal surgeries, three rounds of chemotherapy and four long years of uncertainty financially bankrupted the couple.
“She’s still here — she’s 16 years surviving,” he said. “Although we lost everything. We lost all of our assets, our house and we went bankrupt from out-of-pocket expenses and lost wages. So, we had to start over.”
In the long process of fighting and beating cancer, Mark said his wife started a nonprofit organization called Kitsap Cancer Services. Its purpose is to help individuals and families in Kitsap County who are at or below the poverty level and can’t afford the staggering expenses that often accompany cancer treatment, he said.
The nonprofit will have raised and dispensed over $500,000 in this region by the summer of 2018, Mark said, adding that it has five major programs with an operating budget of over $100,000.
At a time when Jackie came close to death in 2006, the couple was hit with yet more tribulations.
On the Friday before Easter, Mark lost his brother to a heart attack. Days later, Jackie lost her mom to Alzheimer’s disease.
Health problems persisted for Mark; he has had over 30 surgeries, including seven on his knee and six on his spine. In 2011, he fell down some stairs, going head-first into a wall, requiring six screws to stabilize his neck from the damage.
“Then in 2015, I woke up on a Saturday morning, paralyzed from the waist down,” he said. “No rhyme or reason — didn’t have a clue. Nothing worked, and I mean nothing. I spent 38 days in the hospital to learn that I had a rare spinal cord stroke.”
It’s far rarer than a stroke that affects the brain. It’s more common in dogs, Mark said, and there have only been about 600 reported cases in humans. Most do not survive.
While the two have certainly faced misfortune and hardship, they’ve also learned about how to best cope with it.
Today, Mark gives keynote speeches throughout the nation about how to deal with tragedy. Along with the importance of relationships and the idea that nobody should be afraid to seek help, he’s learned that no one escapes experiencing difficulty. But the act of surviving is in how you deal with that adversity.
“One of the things I share is that there’s all these parts of who you are,” he said, “but not any one part should define who you are — especially if it’s tragedy.”
During counseling, he learned to think of it like a cupboard.
“You have a cupboard with all your dishes,” Mark said. “Well, you have a cupboard, too, with all your parts of who you are in it. The grieving process is not a sign of weakness or lack of faith. It’s the simple price we pay for love. And it’s a big price we pay because it hurts.”
— Jacob Moore is a reporter for Kitsap Daily News. Contact him at Jmoore@soundpublishing.com or follow him on Twitter @JMooreKDN.