In the words of the Catholic novelist Ford Madox Ford, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”
No, I’m not speaking about the all-too-early departures of Notre Dame and Villanova from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament (let alone the what-might-have-beens of Creighton, and the perennial disappointment of St. John’s). Rather, I’m talking about a true story of four Catholic College basketball fans who took their fandom to new heights, which ultimately cost them their lives. It’s impossible for me to watch any Catholic schools in the men’s NCAA tourney (and right now we’re down to just Gonzaga and Xavier), and not think that on Feb. 14, 1953, the big game was St. Bonaventure vs. Niagara. And four N.U. students were about to pay for it with their very lives.
It started innocently enough: the four Niagara students chartered a small airplane with the idea of flying over rival St. Bonaventure’s (a Franciscan college about one hundred miles southeast of Niagara Falls) and dropping leaflets that said “Niagara Beats Bonnies!”
The problem was, in western New York, freak blizzards come barreling off Lake Erie and Lake Ontario faster than a last-second-buzzer beating jump-shot — and that’s exactly the predicament these four young men found themselves in.
The pilot was 19-year-old freshman James Sweeney, who perished along with seniors William J. Murphy, Donald Nickel and Richard Hens. They crashed a few miles outside of Franklinville the night before the big game was to be held at Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium on St. Valentine’s Day.
Once the aircraft vanished it took a full week before the remains were discovered in a steep, wooded gulley in a state forest preserve eight miles east of Franklinville. A farmer by the name of Eben Stalcup made the grisly discovery.
Hindsight is always 20/20, so the thought of a college freshman piloting a small, rented aircraft in the dead of winter outside of notoriously-snowy Buffalo was, at very best, a plan not well-thought-through by these poor souls.
In fact, forty years later when I myself was a student at Niagara, we used to joke that we probably should not even be allowed to drive to St. Bonaventure’s while throwing leaflets out of a station-wagon window.
Still, this tragedy gave Niagara University four instant heroes and they have never been forgotten, whether as a cautionary tale of school spirit taken way too far, or as reminders that no matter how big the game may be, we may be called home at any moment. And, of course, it puts any college sporting event in perspective.
Since three of the four of the students were natives of western New York, the pain was redoubled in accounts of the student’s funeral Masses and the Solemn Requiem Mass sung at Niagara’s Alumni Chapel.
Stepping back with a bit of critical distance one may reasonably ask, while in no way maligning the innocent dead, what on earth was worth all the effort and the risking of life?
A couple of things to note:
First, “The Little Three”. Unless you grew up in western New York, it’s impossible to relate how important the Niagara-St. Bonaventure-Canisius basketball rivalry was from 1905 until the mid-1970s. Until the Buffalo Bills came along as an expansion team in the NFL in the 1960s, Buffalo was home to “The Little Three”, who played not only for bragging rights but for recruits. There was no other major sport: the Buffalo Sabres of the NHL didn’t show up until 1970, the same year the ill-fated NBA Buffalo Braves debuted (only to leave for San Diego eight years later).
Second, this was a time before “power conferences”—the Big East (which was largely a Catholic creation) was still over a generation away. So smaller rivalries meant something, at least on a local level. The equivalent in, say, Philadelphia was the Big Five (St. Joseph’s, LaSalle, Villanova, Temple and University of Pennsylvania).
Third, there was little (if any) television coverage of these games so if you didn’t want to miss out, you had to actually attend the game—Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium regularly sold out its 12,000 seats. And most of those in attendance were not students — not alumnae, but just regular sports fans.
Fourth, there was no expansive NCAA tournament as we know it today—something so big that March Madness lasts, inexplicably, into April. True, there was the NIT, but it was (a) always held in New York City, and (b) was designed to not take more than a couple of teams from each region (the exact opposite of how the NCAA tournament is designed today).
Finally, this may have been a Catholic contest, but it gave each school a chance to show off its charism: the Jesuits of Canisius, the Vincentians of Niagara, and the Franciscans of St. Bonaventure’s.
Later, each school could claim at least one major name to play in the NBA: Calvin Murphy of N.U. (San Diego/Houston Rockets, and an NBA All-Star), Bob Lanier of St. Bonaventure’s (Detroit Pistons/Milwaukee Bucks, also an NBA All-Star), and Johnny McCarthy of Canisius (who won a championship with the Boston Celtics).
The “Little Three” is no more. Every now and then one of the teams will creep into the first round of the NCAA tournament (or, more often, the NIT), but with the plethora of sports entertainment being beamed at us twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, buying a ticket to see Niagara play St. Bonaventure’s seems an almost quaint thing to do.
Still, it’s worth recalling the souls of those four young men who died too soon. What they may have lacked in common sense, they more than made up for in school spirit.