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Home / Time Machine: Iowa’s connections to boxing superstar Rocky Marciano
Boxing legend Rocky Marciano died in a plane crash near Newton in 1969 — one of three Marciano family connections to Iowa.
Marciano was the undefeated heavyweight boxing champion from 1952 until he retired in May 1956 at the age of 33.
He won 49 straight pro bouts in his career, 43 by knockouts. He was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1959.
Marciano was in Chicago on Aug. 31, 1969 — the day before his 46th birthday — where he had dinner with STP company CEO Andy Granatelli.
He then boarded a Cessna 172 single-engine plane to fly to Des Moines for a private birthday party.
Pilot Glenn Belz, a contractor, and insurance man Frank Ferrell, both of Des Moines, had flown the plane from Des Moines to pick up Marciano.
Belz had little experience with night flying and no instrument training. They hit bad weather, and Belz tried to land the plane at the airport outside of Newton.
At about 9 p.m., people on the ground heard a plane engine sputtering above the Henry Eilander farm, about 2 miles south of the airport. One witness saw the plane’s lights, heard the engine stop and then heard an “awful thud.”
The plane came down in a pasture 2 miles short of the runway. It hit an oak tree, breaking apart and killing the three men instantly.
The casket bearing Marciano’s body was loaded onto a United Airlines Boeing 727 the next day and flown to Brockton, Mass., his hometown. Following services there, the casket was flown to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he had lived for several years, for burial.
A story in the Baltimore News-American a few days after the crash said Marciano had been in Chicago to sign a young boxer to a contract. Farrell invited Marciano to come to Des Moines for an early birthday party.
Marciano decided to “stay a couple of hours” and then fly back to Chicago before heading home to Florida, Benny Trotta, a Marciano associate, said.
Trotta was invited to come along to the party but declined. “Rocky hugged me and kissed me, the way old Italian friends do, and left for Des Moines,” he said.
The National Transportation and Safety Board found that Belz flew into adverse conditions and “experienced spatial disorientation” just before the crash.
The next Marciano to connect with Iowa — almost — was the fighter’s younger brother, Peter.
Peter Marciano played baseball for the University of Miami in 1961, where he hit .319 before dropping out of college in December.
In 1962, he was signed as a catcher for the Milwukee Braves and assigned to the Cedar Rapids team in the Class D Midwest League.
“(Marciano) has a very good bat,” Kenny Blackman, the manager of the Cedar Rapids farm team, said. “He receives well and has a fair arm. He is a fine fellow with a good personality and likes to work.”
Peter was supposed to arrive in Cedar Rapids on April 24 and stay at the Roosevelt Hotel. But an hour before the team left its camp in Waycross, Ga., he was transferred to the Eau Claire, Wis., club. He never made it to the major leagues.
Fast forward 24 years to 1985, when Peter Marciano owned a sporting goods store in Mansfield, Mass, and his son, Peter Jr., came to the University of Iowa to play football as a wide receiver and punt return specialist.
The younger Marciano had been 2 years old when his uncle Rocky had died.
Peter Jr. was the smallest non-kicker on the team. Even though the program listed him at 5 feet 9 inches tall, he was actually 2 inches shorter than that. Same with his weight — listed at 170, he weighed 160.
But he was tough, and he was fast.
He spent five years at Iowa, sitting out his freshman year with injuries. He went on to set school records for punt returns in a season — 39 in 1987, eclipsing Nile Kinnick’s 36 — a record that Ramon Ochoa now holds with 40.
His record for career punt returns — 124 — still stands. One of those punt returns was for 89 yards against Minnesota in 1986.
He broke another Kinnick record in 1989 for career yardage in returns during a game against Oregon, even though the Hawks lost that game, 44-6. It’s a record Tim Dwight now holds.
In February 1990, Peter Jr. was among several Iowa players signing autographs at a Newton supermarket when a retired Maytag executive took him and the other players to the site of the 1969 plane crash that killed Peter Jr.’s uncle.
In April 1999, he returned to Newton to represent his family at the city’s Rocky Marciano Day.
After battling drug addiction for years, which may have started with pain killers during his college years, Peter Jr. died Dec. 21, 2015, at the age of 48 of a drug overdose.