One of the darkest days in American sports history occurred 40 years ago today, when Polish Airlines flight #7 that had departed John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City crashed a half-mile from Okecie Airport in Warsaw, Poland.
All 87 passengers died, including 14 boxers and eight officials on the USA Boxing team, due to a disintegration of a turbine disc in one of the plane’s engines that ultimately failed.
Team USA was traveling to Poland to compete in two international amateur boxing dual events. The average age of the 14 boxers was only 20 ½, ranging from 27-year-old Walter Harris to 16-year-old Byron Payton.
The potential Olympic dreams of the 14 boxers were destroyed in the horrific accident. Although most of the boxers were still in their developmental stage, outside of prospective medal challenger Lemuel Steeples, each member aspired to represent the United States in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. (The United States eventually led a boycott of the 1980 Olympics because of the Soviet-Afghan War.)
“I remember coming home from my boxing gym on March 14, 1980 and hearing the news of the plane crash on the evening news,” stated USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee.
“As an aspiring Olympic-style boxer I was shocked and felt a sense of loss like every American boxer, coach and official. Today we are reminded that life is precious, and every day is a blessing. On behalf of USA Boxing’s Board of Directors, 48,000 boxers, coaches and officials and the national office staff we remember the 1980 USA Boxing Team Members and Staff. Please keep them, their families and the worldwide Olympic-style boxing family in your thoughts and prayers.”
“Down But Not Out… Lost But Not Forgotten”
USA Boxing Head Coach Billy Walsh remembers the crash to this day. “I remember it well, as I was a 16-year-old dreaming of the Olympics,” said Walsh. “It was massive news in Europe, a big tragedy with some of the world’s best boxers and staff wiped out. We lost a generation of great fighters, and most importantly loved ones.”
Patricia Chavis was only seven years old when she learned her father, Sgt. Elliott Chavis, had perished in the crash. She was playing outdoors with friends when she noticed a lot of people crying as they entered and left her home. Her mother called her inside, sat her down with people watching, and said that her father wasn’t coming back because he had been killed in a plane crash.
“She asked me if I understood and I did, because we had recently lost my great grandmother and paternal grandfather,” an emotional Patricia explained. “I went back outside and told my friends. They were a little older and they didn’t understand why I hadn’t stayed inside with family. It didn’t really hit me that my dad wasn’t coming home until my teenage years. I remember sitting in bed and writing letters to him.
“Every year still affects me every March. We usually have a family dinner with my mom and grandchildren. They listen to stories about a man they never met. He’s buried in South Carolina and we’ve laid flowers on his grave. Every year on March 14th it brings back memories and we celebrate his life.”
Sgt. Chavis, who died at the age of 25, was stationed at Ft. Bragg (N.C.), where he learned to box. He was a member of the 118th Military Police Company and during his boxing career, the light heavyweight was All-Army and All-Southeastern.
“My parents married young,” Patricia continued. “My mom told me he was always athletic. He played football and was a pole vaulter on the track team in high school. But I didn’t know any-thing about his boxing until we went to a reunion at Ft. Bragg. Around the 30th anniversary I got in touch with some of his Army buddies when I saw on Facebook that they were having a reunion. I went there with my mom and listened to stories they told me about his boxing career. I found it so interesting because I hadn’t known about that. There are quite a few memorials I’ve seen on Facebook and I try to get in touch with other family members (of her father’s teammates who died in the crash). We’ll never forget!”
Memorial messages and letters of condolence were sent from friends and boxing organizations from around the world, including U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Executive Director Col. F. Don Miller, Montana AAU, Oklahoma Boxing Association, Amateur Basketball Association of the USA, Salina Boxing Team, South Texas AAU, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Diving, U.S. Swimming, Wisconsin AAU, Wrestling Division of AAU, National AAU Boxing Committee, National AAU, Florida Boxing Commission, Hawaii AAU, U.S. Soccer Federation, Jacksonville (FL) Sports and Entertainment Commission, Georgia Amateur Boxing Association, WSOC Television, Alleghany Mountain Association, U.S. Olympic Training Center, Mack Truck, Inc., Southwestern AAU Boxing Commission, U.S. Olympic Committee, West Nally Group, Charlotte Motor Speedway, AAU Regional Coordinator, Council of Social Work Education, National Rifle Association of America, and Davidson County Department Boxing Team,
Also from the Greek Boxing Federation, Mexican Boxing Federation, New Zealand Boxing Association, Canadian Amateur Boxing Association, Nova Scotia Branch of Canadian Amateur Boxing Commission, Ontario Boxing Association, Ambassador of Poland, Polish Boxing Association, AIPS Boxing Commission, Canadian Amateur Boxing Association, Heretaunga Boxing Club of New Zealand, International Bobsled and Tobogganing Federation, Italian Boxing Federation, LOT Polish Airlines, La Crosse Amateur Boxing Club, Polish Olympic Committee, AIBA, Champion D’Afrique Magazine, African AIBA Board and Tunisian Boxing Federation, Venezuelan Boxing Federation, German Amateur Boxing Federation, Amateur Boxing Federation of England, Israel Sports Federation, Portuguese Amateur Boxing Federation, Romanian Boxing Federation, Rotunda A.B.C., Amateur Boxing Federation of Thailand, National Advertising Benevolent Society, Turkey Boxing Federation, AIBA France, El Salvador Boxing Federation, German Democratic Republic Boxing Association, Danish Amateur Boxing Union, Guatemalan Amateur Sports Federation, Israel Olympic Committee, Oceana Boxing Federation, Nigeria Boxing Association, Old Actonian Association Amateur Boxing Club, Seychelles Amateur Boxing Federation, Council of Ministers of Cuba, Hungarian Boxing Federation, Norwegian Amateur Boxing Association, International Amateur Boxing Association, Claridad, Peru Amateur Boxing Association, Dominican Re-public Department of Education, Health and Recreation, Panamanian Boxing Federation, Head of the Cuban Interests Section.
In 1984 a statue was dedicated to the USA Boxing Team members who died in Warsaw was placed on the training grounds in Colorado Springs. Names of the 23 members of Team USA are inscribed on the memorial.
Elliott Chavis Light Heavyweight U.S. Army / Ft. Bragg, NC
Walter Harris Light Heavyweight San Francisco, CA
Andrea McCoy Middleweight New Bedford, MA
Byron Payton Light Middleweight Troup, TX
Chuck Robinson Light Middleweight Port Townsend, WA
Paul Palomino Welterweight Westminster, CA
Lemuel Steeples Light Welterweight St. Louis, MO
Byron Linsay Light Welterweight San Diego, CA
Gary Tyrone Clayton Lightweight Philadelphia, PA
Jerome Stewart Bantamweight U.S. Navy / Norfolk, VA
George Pimentel Flyweight Elmhurst, NY
Lonnie Young Flyweight Philadelphia, PA
David Rodriguez Light Flyweight Pomona, CA
Joseph F. Bland Team Manager High Point, NC
Col. Bernard Callahan Referee/Judge Carlisle, PA
Thomas “Sarge” Johnson Head Coach Indianapolis, IN
John Radison Referee/Judge St. Louis, MO
Junior Robles Assistant Coach National City, CA
Steve Smigiel Interpreter Boca Raton, FL
Delores Wesson Team Assistant Ocean Springs, MS
Dr. Ray Wesson Team Physician Ocean Springs, MS