COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (March 14, 2020) – 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 anything 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!”
Below is a complete list of the 1980 U.S. Boxing Delegation who died in the aforementioned plane crash in Warsaw:
The 1980 United States Boxing Delegation to Warsaw, Poland, March 14, 1980