It was a miracle.
An honest-to-goodness, fairy-tale-come-true, too-good-to-believe miracle.
It unfolded before my very eyes.
I sat motionless in stunned disbelief in the old Fairfield Stadium press box as 13,000 joyous Marshall University football fans poured onto the field to celebrate the Thundering Herd’s truly miraculous 15-13 victory over Xavier on Sept. 25, 1971.
It was a game that never, ever will be forgotten.
That’s because this momentous victory occurred only 10 months and 11 days after the horrific plane crash that killed most of Marshall’s players and coaching staff as they were returning from their game at East Carolina on No. 14, 1970.
Yet the Thundering Herd still managed to win its first home game after the devastating crash.
That is indeed a miracle.
Why, there wasn’t even any time on the clock — the scoreboard read 00:00 — when MU quarterback Reggie Oliver took the snap at the 13-yard line and rolled right with the Herd trailing 13-9.
The last-ditch play was “Two-13 bootleg screen” called down from the press box by offensive coordinator Red Dawson.
“It was Red’s idea,” said head coach Jack Lengyel during postgame interviews. “We felt they would flow to the right and they did. They reacted to Lanny Steed [freshman wideout from East Bank].”
That’s because Steed already had caught eight passes for 113 yards. So, when the ball was snapped, Steed, who was lined up wide right, drew double coverage. Meanwhile, the entire offensive line moved right, Oliver rolled right, flanker Jerry Arrasmith and tight end Tom Smyth drew a pair of defensive backs out of the play with their pass routes, fullback Terry Gardner faked a block and, then, slipped out of the backfield into the left flat.
Oliver stopped, turned and tossed the screen pass. Then, it was merely a matter of sophomore left tackle Jack Crabtree flattening Xavier defensive tackle Leo Burby with a devastating block, allowing Gardner to trot untouched into the end zone for the stunning victory.
Want more evidence that it was a miracle?
I had written a column in The Parthenon — MU’s school newspaper — that read like a classified ad, asking for any place-kicker candidates to please contact Lengyel.
Blake Smith read the article and tried out as a place-kicker on the Monday before the game. Lengyel told Smith if he would cut his hair and shave his beard, the job was his.
Who would have guessed that five days later Smith would boot a 31-yard field goal in his first career attempt, staking Marshall to a 3-0 lead?
Here’s another miraculous anecdote.
Oliver had off-season surgery to remove bone chips in his right (throwing) elbow. In the fourth quarter of the Xavier game, the elbow started bothering him so much that Oliver had to come out of the game.
Backup Dave Walsh — yes, the former H-D sportswriter — came in and quarterbacked two of the next three possessions. But, then, Oliver started unwinding the protective Ace bandage from his sore right elbow and came in to lead the fateful, final series.
“I knew they needed me,” Oliver said during postgame interviews.
The winning drive consisted of 10 plays and 48 yards — all passes.
After the miraculous victory, Marshall’s locker room was pandemonium.
Tom Smyth, who had scored MU’s only touchdown the week before in a 29-6 loss at Morehead State, yelled to me, “All right, this is what you wanted. Now, you’ve got it.”
Meanwhile, Nate Ruffin — the defensive back who, due to an injury, did not make the fateful trip to Greenville, North Carolina — stood on a chair and shouted at the sportswriters, “They aren’t gonna believe the stories they’re going to read.”
“It was a team effort,” he said, repeating the sentence over and over. “We couldn’t have won without a total team effort.”
A few moments later, Oliver added to the interview.
“I always knew I’d have a day like this,” he said. “You always know you’re going to have that one great day … and this has been the greatest.”
It was the single greatest day in the storied history of Marshall University football.
Sometimes, miracles really do happen.