Near tragedy still weighs on UNLV athletic director

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Steve Marcus

UNLV athletic director Mike Hamrick was on board a single-engine Cessna that stalled over a North Carolina field in 1995. Hamrick oversaw the athletic program at East Carolina University at the time.

At 5,000 feet, the single engine on the Cessna stalled, then quit. No fuel. The plane glided. Mike Hamrick heard the pilot say, We’re in trouble.

“I thought it was over,” Hamrick said.

When the UNLV athletic director served in the same capacity at East Carolina in 1995, the unthinkable happened to him and a small contingent of ECU officials. Hamrick was no stranger to air disasters. He played football at Marshall several years after a 1970 crash killed all 75 passengers, including 37 Thundering Herd players. Flashbacks were inevitable.

They still are. Hamrick and his wife, Soletta, rarely travel on the same plane together. “For our kids,” Hamrick said of the couple’s twin sons, Brett and Justin, and daughter, Mollie Ann.

Soletta Hamrick made one trip last football season, to Wyoming, where Justin was going to school.

Sitting on the patio of his Anthem home, Mike Hamrick acknowledged he thought about the Marshall crash as the Cessna’s engine went silent in 1995.

“I think about that every time I fly,” he said. “It sticks in your mind.”

That tragedy still was fresh when Hamrick went to Marshall in 1976. He met people who didn't board the twin-engine Douglas DC-9.

Soletta Hamrick grew up two miles from the university. Her two best friends lost both of their parents in the crash.

When she attended Marshall, she roomed in a sorority with the daughter of the late Charles E. Kautz, the Marshall athletic director who was on the doomed plane.

Hamrick played linebacker for the Thundering Herd. His plain white jersey with the green "92" numbers is framed and hangs in his second-floor family room.

Records show he had 14 tackles in a 45-0 loss to East Carolina, in Greenville, in 1978.

“I never figured out where that came from,” said Hamrick, laughing, “but I never denied it.”

The head of a prized 10-point deer hangs on another wall. After some prodding, he also revealed he likes to fish for trout, camp and navigate whitewater in a raft.

The Cessna crash that nearly ended his life in a soybean field in 1995 is a subject that Hamrick has rarely broached, publicly or otherwise.

In the foyer of her home, Soletta Hamrick, who first heard about the crash on a television special report, didn’t care to hear those details again.

“She freaked out,” Mike Hamrick said. “She was very upset I was on a private plane. I’ve never really talked much about this. I don’t talk to people about this. None of us have said much.”

In Charlotte, Hamrick and football coach Steve Logan had inked a deal to play four games against North Carolina State. The Wolfpack had never played in Greenville, but political pressure brought them together.

Norm Reilly, the Pirates’ sports information director, and play-by-play announcer Jeff Charles also were aboard the Cessna when it went down in Princeton, N.C., about 50 miles from Greenville. The pilot, retired Air Force, was a flight instructor.

“It’s one of those things you’ll remember forever,” Hamrick said. “Thank God the pilot was a very good pilot. He landed that thing right in the middle of the soybean field.

“Fortunately, at that time of the year, the ground was hard and the soybeans were waist high. They were thick, and they grabbed the airplane.”

It stopped 20 feet from a long, deep ditch. The back end rose, nearly flipping the plane, before settling back down.

“We got out real quick,” Hamrick said.

A truck pulled up and two farmers -- both wearing red North Carolina State Wolfpack shirts -- bounced out toward them.

“You guys really didn’t want to play those games, huh?” Hamrick said.

Someone offered to fly the quartet to Greenville in his private plane. Hamrick said he’d walk back to ECU before getting back on such a small craft so soon.

The owner of the soybean field sent Hamrick a bill of $500 for damages. Each of ECU’s five-member Board of Trustees gave him a $100 bill.

He once jokingly told someone the pilot said he had good news and bad news. The bad news? We’re 5,000 feet up, the engine’s not working and we’re out of gas.

“The good news,” said Hamrick, mocking the pilot, “is we’re making great time.”

Hamrick might joke about the incident on the odd occasion he’s asked about it, but he will remember the DC-9 and the Cessna this weekend when he flies to Salt Lake City for UNLV’s game against Utah.

He will turn his head to either side. Soletta won’t be there.

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