Nate James: ‘I just never knew my family was a part of that’
Nate James’ first clue of a tragic family secret came with a cryptic Facebook post from an uncle last week.
A few days later, while he spoke to his grandmother on the phone setting up holiday travel plans, he learned the whole truth.
“She said she was terrified to fly,” said James, a former Duke basketball player and current assistant coach.
When James pressed her for the reason, he learned that his grandfather’s younger brother was Robert VanHorn, who perished on Nov. 14, 1970, when a plane carrying Marshall University’s football team home from a game at East Carolina crashed near Huntington, W.Va.
“I was floored,” James said. “All these years. No one every told me that.”
All 75 people on the plane, including players, coaches, airline personnel, fans and supporters, were killed in the worst air disaster in American sports history. “We are Marshall,” a movie starring Matthew McConaughey, told the story of the crash and how it affected Marshall athletics.
“I watched it,” James said. “I knew the story. I just never knew my family was a part of that.”
VanHorn wore No. 75 for Marshall in 1970. He was a sophomore defensive end who stood 6-2 and weighed 210 pounds.
He was the first person in his family to attend college.
Having grown up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., VanHorn joined four other teammates from Druid High School in matriculating to Marshall to play football. This was in the days before the Southeastern Conference had been integrated so Alabama and Auburn didn’t recruit them.
VanHorn and three of his former Druid High teammates, Joe Hood, Larry Sanders and Freddy Wilson, died in the plane crash.
Their friend, Florzell Horton Jr., also joined Marshall’s team, but a shoulder injury kept him out that season. He didn’t travel to East Carolina.
Another Druid High player, Joe Oliver, arrived at Marshall the following season and played quarterback in the 1971 season when the team resumed play.
Elijah VanHorn, James’ grandfather, never fully recovered from the loss of his brother, James’ grandmother, Florence VanHorn, told James this week.
“She told me it really crushed my grandfather and devastated the entire family,” James said. “They went to the funeral in West Virginia and it was the saddest thing they had ever seen.”
Elijah VanHorn never spoke about the accident again until his death in 1993 at age 52.
But now, in retrospect, James remembers a conversation he had with his grandfather some 20 years ago.
At that time, James was establishing himself as a standout basketball player in the Washington, D.C., area. His college recruitment, which would eventually bring him to Duke in 1996, was heating up.
Attending Saint John’s Catholic Prep School in Frederick, Md., James was also an outstanding student.
Elijah VanHorn noticed these things.
“He told me I was smart and I would be something in life,” James recalled. “I remember this because my grandfather didn’t speak much, so that day always stuck with me. It was a pretty heavy talk. And, in a way, it always stuck in the back of my mind.”
Florence VanHorn told James that he reminded his grandfather of his late brother.
James had a standout playing career with the Blue Devils. As a redshirt senior in the 2000-01 season, he earned All-ACC and ACC All-Defensive team honors while helping the Blue Devils win the 2001 NCAA championship.
When he earned his degree in sociology, with a minor in African-American studies, from Duke in 2001, he was the first member of his family to graduate from college.
Even though his grandfather didn’t live to see any of it, James always kept him in mind.
“I never wanted to let him down,” James said. “I think he would be very proud of me.”
Until this week, James never knew the depth of that emotional pride his grandfather held or the reason for it.