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Come, Sit, Listen

Here inside the museum of death, the young men live on.

On the narrow walls of the survivor, they still smile as if the world could not harm them. They remain young, athletic, eternal. In their faces are the looks of men who believe tomorrow is promised, the future is bright and life is good.

Once, the old man's eyes held the fire of an athlete. Now, however, Sauro Toma leans forward, squinting through heavy glasses at the picture frame in his gnarled hands. He talks about the smiling images one by one, tapping the glass lightly. He sighs and shakes his head.

Dead. All of them.

Only Toma lives on.

The Man Who Didn't Get on the Plane sits in his den, sorting through the past like the faded photographs in his lap. His memories are crisp, and his sorrow is fresh, and his stories about fallen comrades come quickly. Sit, he tells you. Listen.

This is the story of the Final Heartbeat of the Wonder Team. Fifty-seven years have passed since an airplane crashed into a hillside and into the back wall of the Basilica Superga, killing everyone on board. The Grande Torino soccer team, the dynasty of a nation, the soul of a city, was dead.

In Turin, the memories have not dimmed. Even young people can tell you about the 18 players who died that day - 31 people in all - and about the magnificent collection of talent that was on its way to its fifth straight Italian championship. The Day Italian Football Died, it is called. Nearby, at the Basilica, candles are lighted and roses are placed daily in the memory of that team. Books have been written. Movies have been made.

No one, however, tells the story better than Toma, the man who has spent many of his nights remembering, many of his days making sure others would never forget.

"The shock never disappears," Toma says through an interpreter. "The love people showed to me helped me stand. I am happy that the people recognize me, because when they do, it is a way of paying tribute to them."

He is 80 now, and the onset of Alzheimer's affects his short-term memory. His daughter believes the years of sadness are partially to blame. But when he talks about his teammates - his brothers, he calls them - his mind is as sharp as ever. "Like yesterday," Toma said.

Toma gestures around the crowded walls of his den toward the dozens of photographs. The team in Brazil. The team in Milan. The team posing after one championship or another. Young men, handsome men with dark eyes and athletic bearing. The room, he says, is a dialogue with the dead.

There are other photos, too. The one of Toma sprawling over a goaltender in a game in Milan. The one of him being carried from the field, his hands on his head from the pain. The one of him lying in his hospital bed, his leg stiff from the surgery to repair his shattered left knee.

It was that injury, 2 1/2 months earlier, that kept Toma from joining Grande Torino on its trip to Portugal. That, and the plea of a pregnant wife asking him not to go.

"She had a gut feeling," Vita Paolillo, Toma's son-in-law and interpreter, says of Giovanna, Toma's wife. "You have to follow the advice of women when they speak a certain way. It was fate. Destiny."

Toma was a young man then, a 24-year-old reserve defender with thick hair and a strong chin. The Italian Tyrone Power, he was called. Toma was a smart player, good with his head, good in the air. He was the youngest on the team.

Ah, but he was a part of Grande Torino, the pride of Turin. Grande Torino was the team of the people, the team that helped Italians forget about the Nazis and the Fascists and the bombing and the second World War. With Grande Torino, there was a reason to feel pride.

"It was the team that helped us restore our country," Paolillo said. Even now, the best team in Turin is Juventus, but it is not embraced with the same passion. "It is the big boss' team. Grande Torino was the people's team."

How long could the Grande Torino run have continued? Who knows? It felt as if it would last forever. That was before May 4, 1949, when the plane crashed. The theory is that the pilot was trying to get below the fog to see the runway and clipped a hilltop. "In those days," Paolillo said, "we had thunderstorms like the end of the world."

In a nearby soccer field, Toma was with friends. A man he knew drove up in a car and said something had happened. Toma jumped in the car and went to the crash site, but officials of the team would not let him near.

The photos of the crash are grisly, and the lined coffins at the funeral now seem intrusive. A half-million people, it is said, attended the service.

Each May 4, Toma returns to the Basilica to greet the families of his teammates. He does not go to the museum there. In his apartment, he has his own.

The walls of his den are lined with photos and banners. There are trophies and a soccer ball in the corner. A team that will never grow old smiles back at him. The two books Toma has written himself are on a nearby shelf.

There was the talented Mazzola, the captain, Toma's roommate. Mazzola was so talented, a teammate once said, he was half of the team. There was Gabetto, the ladies' man. And Castigliano, the funniest man in the locker room.

Toma takes a half-Euro coin to show you one of Castigliano's old tricks. He drops it, and he kicks it with his right foot, a move that seems too nimble for a man of his years. It bounces wide. He tries it again, then again. The third time, it rims out of his pocket. Castiglianocould bounce it into his shirt pocket. There are other players, other stories.

How do you explain it? How do you talk about 57 unpromised years? How do you tell a stranger about the whims of fate that leave one man to live a happy life while snuffing out those of his friends? How do you explain the photo of 16 faces in the frame, and how only one of them does not have a black ribbon in the lower left hand corner to denote death. His picture.

"I greet them in my head," Toma said. "But I do not see ghosts."

Toma returned to the dressing room shortly afterward, finishing the season with junior players. He would play for eight more years. He tried coaching, but instead found work as a heating contractor. He had a good life, but he was never the same. The men he had played with, traveled with, laughed with, were gone.

On his walls, the faces never change. Time, however, has faded Toma. His two children are grown, and he has two granddaughters. His wife is suffering from advanced stages of breast cancer. His thick hair has thinned and grayed.

Still, he remembers. Even on nights he sits on his balcony and looks to the left where, a few blocks away, he can see the Olympic flame. Inside his heart, another torch burns.

He is the keeper of the story. He is the guardian of the memories. He is the one who lived, and he has ensured the memory of his team has done the same.


Here are some fatal plane crashes that involved athletic teams:

May 4, 1949 - The Grande Torino soccer team crashes on its way home from Turin when it clips a mountain. Thirty-one people die, 18 of them players.

Feb. 6, 1958 - Eight members of the Manchester United soccer team die in a crash in Munich.

Oct. 29, 1960 - Cal Poly San Luis Obispo crashed near Toledo, Ohio, killing 22 of the 48 passengers, including 16 players.

Feb. 15, 1961 - The entire figure skating team of the United States, 18 people in all, die in a plane crash in Belgium.

Oct. 2, 1970 - A plane carried 31 members of the Wichita State football team crashes.

Nov. 14, 1970 - Seventy-five members of the Marshall football team are killed in a plane crash.

Dec. 13, 1977 - Fourteen Evansville players and their coach died in a plane crash in Evansville, Indiana.

March 14, 1980 - A crash in Poland kills 14 members of the U.S. boxing team.

April 28, 1993 - Eighteen members of the Zambia soccer team are killed off the coast of Gambia.

Jan. 29, 2001 - Two players and six support staff members of the Oklahoma State men's basketball program are killed in a crash.

Some notable individuals who died in plane crashes: Knute Rockne (1931), Ken Hubbs (1964), Rocky Marciano (1969), Roberto Clemente (1975), Graham Hill (1975), Thurman Munson (1979), Bo Rein (1980), Alan Kulwicki (1993), Davey Allison (1993), Payne Stewart (1999)