Derek Redd: Success draws Herd greats back into the fold

HUNTINGTON, W.Va — Tommy Shuler was a spectator at Marshall’s Green-White spring football game. The Thundering Herd’s record-setting slot receiver’s white uniform stayed pristine as he watched the rest of the team battle through its final scrimmage of the season.

Yet even for a fierce competitor like Shuler, the grin remained on his face. That probably had a lot to do with those who stood beside him that day.

On one side was former Herd receiver Troy Brown, a member of the New England Patriots Hall of Fame. On the other was another former Herd receiver, Randy Moss, among the handful of men who can be considered the very best at his position in NFL history.

“I was there, taking it in,” Shuler said. “Moss was saying Troy Brown was the man, and Troy Brown was saying Moss was the man. And I was like, ‘Man, y’all can just come back and give us a camp in the summer.’”

Moss and Brown were just two of the former Marshall greats at last Saturday’s game. Look around, and you could see defensive lineman Vinny Curry, long snapper Chris Massey and safety Chris Crocker, among others, all watching intrasquad teams coached by former Herd quarterbacks Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich. All of those men either are or were in the NFL.

All those men returned to Huntington to celebrate the growth of the football program, the foundation of which they helped lay. And as they watched the latest incarnation of the Thundering Herd, they could sense the atmosphere they enjoyed, one that comes from great success, returning.

“You can feel it,” Brown said. “Like (Friday) night at the (Big Green banquet), you can just feel the energy.”

It’s not just coming from a football team that won 10 games for the first time since 2002, when Leftwich was a senior. Or from a team that beat its first power conference opponent in a bowl game when it won the Military Bowl over Maryland, which was moving from the ACC to the Big Ten. It also comes from the massive structure growing beside Joan C. Edwards Stadium, an indoor athletic complex that will house not just an indoor practice field and track, but a new Hall of Fame and new academic support facilities to boot.

Pennington, a co-chair on the capital campaign to build that facility, said even those who are the toughest to impress are smiling.

“To get Randy Moss excited about something, that’s pretty hard,” he said of Moss’ tour of the new indoor facility. “And he was like, ‘Wow.’”

The vibe around Marshall’s football program is one the former players remember when they donned a Herd uniform. Those were they days when Marshall was contending for and winning I-AA national titles, then storming the Mid-American Conference like Alexander the Great. That energy started to wane in the mid-2000s, when the climb past .500 was like scaling Mount Everest.

Now that winning has returned to Marshall’s program — and the potential for even more success is there — those former Herd greats are intrigued with what the football team can become. And they want an up-close look. Massey credits that to what Herd coach Doc Holliday has been able to establish since arriving in 2010.

“It’s a sense of belief,” Massey said. “Doc’s done a great job of instilling in the players, the coaches and the administrators what he’s trying to do here and everybody’s buying in. In order to have a successful program, you have to buy in.”

The former greats — the Penningtons, Mosses, Browns and others — have bought in. Pennington said they’d like to buy in further, to re-establish the connections between Marshall and its NFL alumni for the benefit of the team this year and eyond.

“I think the common feel we were all talking about this weekend was that we’ve got to do this more,” Pennington said. “We’ve got to get all of our guys back into the fold and celebrate their accomplishments and celebrate our team and our program and our tradition and our future.”

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