Devil coach remembers the late Allen Skeens
No farewell words were spoken,
no time to say goodbye,
you were gone before we knew it,
and only God knows why.
When a plane carrying the Marshall football team crashed into a hillside 50 years ago tomorrow (Saturday), communities located in 11 different states mourned the loss of 37 young men who suited up for the Thundering Herd earlier that November 14, 1970 against the East Carolina Pirates.
In all, 75 perished in the crash – labeled the worst sports tragedy in American history.
Besides the players, the bulk of the coaching staff died along with an abundance of support staff and supporters.
The tragedy certainly hit close to home as one of Ravenswood’s very own died in the crash.
Allen Skeens, a sophomore center for the Marshall football program, got the opportunity to be a part of the Thundering Herd travelling party that day.
Fred Taylor, who had the pleasure of coaching Skeens during his time as a Ravenswood Red Devil, remembers the day all too well.
“That was devastating,” Taylor said from his home in Spencer where he now lives. “It’s just something that a coach or parent never wants to go through or, teammates. It just hit our city and our team…it just broadsided us.”
Taylor coached Ravenswood football from 1966-1996. Along the way he won 193 games and guided two teams (1972 and 1976) to the Class AA state championship. He had several other playoff teams during his successful run. Ravenswood’s football venue Flinn (Elmer) Field is now known as Flinn Field at Spano-Taylor Stadium (also recognizing the late Jim Spano, who won a pair of state titles in the '50s).
Taylor coached Skeens early on his days as Ravenswood’s head coach. Skeens, a center and linebacker for the Red Devils, played in the seasons of 1966-68.
“Allen was a great ball player,” Taylor said of the 1969 graduate. “He started his junior year on offense and defense and then his senior year as a defensive player.
“Probably his big thing he was able to do was center the ball as a long snapper.”
Taylor first hoped Skeens, who was a walk-on at Marshall, had stayed behind when the Herd journeyed to the Greenville, North Carolina-based school.
“I didn’t really think that he was on that trip,” said Taylor. “He got to dress as a freshman and go on an away trip.
“When it (the news of the crash) hit, we didn’t really know if he was on the plane or not. When we found out, it was heartbreaking.”
The eyes of the legendary Devil coach misted as he spoke of his former player, whose No. 50 has never been worn since at Ravenswood High.
“He was a kid that got along with everyone and all of his teammates” said the legendary Devil coach, who is now 83. “He really tried hard. He could move. He was good-sized.”
Taylor and his entire staff struggled with the loss of Skeens.
Not to mention those who had played with him at Ravenswood.
“The players really broke down in the days following the crash,” Taylor said.
The head coach was proud of the effort Skeens had put forth to make a name for himself at Marshall, who was led then by 30-year-old Rick Tolley, a native of Mullens, West Virginia. Tolley, who was one of the youngest coaches in America, was among the 75 to die.
“Allen gave it a hundred percent as a walk-on,” Taylor said. “He wasn’t a scholarship-type player. He earned his way to a position and being able to go to an away game.”
Skeens was survived by his parents, Donald and Jeanette, along with a sister, Becky, and a brother, Dana.
His mother passed away several years ago.
Don Skeens died in February of 2017.
At the time of his passing, Don Skeens was the oldest living parent to lose a son in the Marshall plane crash.
One can bet Marshall’s success through the years has certainly had Allen Skeens smiling from the Heaven’s above.
Like Fred Taylor, the one-time Red Devil player dreamed of one-day coaching.
He didn’t get the chance as he died much too young.
But we can all take comfort in knowing Allen Gene Skeens did so doing something he truly loved…playing football for the Thundering Herd.