HUNTINGTON — Nearly 50 years later, it still goes down as a WOW moment. A football team playing just its second game following the loss of virtually its entire squad in a plane crash less than a year earlier scores a touchdown on the final play of the game to win. On a screen pass no less.
WOW. What a way to start the rebuilding process after one of the greatest tragedies in sports and worst airline sports disasters ever.
That sums up what transpired on Sept. 25, 1971 when Marshall University’s Young Thundering Herd stunned Xavier University 15-13. Quarterback Reggie Oliver hooked up with running back Terry Gardner on a “213 bootleg screen” that went for the game-winning score and set off a wild celebration for the 13,000 fans watching that sunny day in Fairfield Stadium. I still remember it well.
How? I had a front-row view. Literally. I was a sophomore quarterback who did see action earlier in the game and one who proudly took part in the never-ending postgame hoopla.
But first, flash back to Nov. 13-14, 1970. On that Friday, I bid farewell to my varsity teammates before they boarded a plane to fly — yes fly — to the game against East Carolina in Greenville, North Carolina. My teammates gave another valiant effort the next afternoon but lost 17-14, a loss I would bet some were reflecting on when they got on the jet in Kinston to make the return flight home.
A freshman then, I would never see them again. No one would. That Southern Airways jet crashed short of the runway at Tri-State Airport on the rainy Saturday night. All 75 passengers died. Players, several coaches, administration officials and Big Green supporters gone in an instant. WOW again. You can’t help but have that feeling even today.
Time quickly passed and football continued. That hour came to pick up the pieces. The Young Herd, with Jack Lengyel aboard as the new head coach, got through spring ball. The NCAA provided an assist when it allowed Marshall to use freshmen in 1971. A collegiate first. A boost for recruiting, and then add all the walk-ons, some from basketball and soccer, to the returnees from the freshman team and Marshall was back in the gridiron business.
The 1971 opener was Sept. 18 against rival Morehead State, about an hour away west down Interstate 64. Marshall fans still make that familiar drive today. The Eagles won 29-6, but the Young Herd officially was back on the football radar, though just a tiny, tiny blip. Now time for the home opener against Xavier.
Thundering Herd fans know all about that one thanks to either being there, reading about it, watching highlights, watching the documentary “Ashes to Glory” or movie “We Are Marshall.” Warner Bros. did that one and Matthew McConaughey topped the actors class as Coach Lengyel. What’s sad is three of the prominent role players in the movie are no longer with us. Nate Ruffin, a defensive back and inspirational post-tragedy leader of the team, along with the pass-catch combo of Oliver and Gardner, have all passed away.
I got a part as an assistant coach for Xavier. For years I wondered how the Musketeers reacted after the loss. The movie gave me a first-hand experience. Losing to Marshall? That rag-tag bunch, one you were expected to easily handle. One long trek ... up the ramp in 1971 and to the locker room at the end of the movie.
Later, while I was working in sports for The Herald-Dispatch, I got to interview Paul Smith in December, 2007. He then was guidance counselor and testing coordinator at Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati. In 1971, he started at quarterback for Xavier. Three players who died in the plane crash, Bobby Harris, Jack Repasy and Mark Andrew, are Moeller alums. Smith also had been an assistant football coach at Moeller.
Lengyel met Smith when he went to Moeller to talk to the team and help them deal with a tragedy. Prior to the season, two Crusaders were killed (Jordan Bessey in a car accident and Andy Carter in a shooting).
In December 2006, some former Xavier players, including Smith, gathered with a newspaper reporter and then-Herd defensive back Felix Jordan from that Marshall team at a Cincinnati theater for a private screening of “We Are Marshall.” Smith put all these events in perspective, starting with when he discovered Hollywood would make a long-anticipated movie.
“What took them so long?” he would ask. “That’s something you never forget. I didn’t need a movie. I have memories of all kinds of games. That’s the one I talk about most.”
While I passed the time away that Nov. 14, Xavier won a home game over the Quantico Marines, 35-27. That evening the Musketeers got the news about the crash. The Herd had beaten Xavier 31-14 on Oct. 3 in Cincinnati.
“It was pretty devastating,” Smith said. “You can’t imagine anything like that happening. Some guys at Xavier were from Huntington. We saw the photos. We all were in shock.
“Some of the kids were seeing [the movie] for the first time. They had tears in their eyes. I said you’d better love the one you’re with.”
The movie has served as a history lesson for oh so many ever since it lit up the big screen. Some Xavier players were not aware of the ties between their school and Marshall.
“The opening was great,” Smith said. “The fountain and the water goes off. They did a great job with the plane crash. In and out. As intense as it was, it wasn’t as painful as the loss itself. We didn’t know what it meant. We just wanted to win a game. Having seen the kids from Moeller and what the city went through. It probably was God’s will Marshall win that game more than Xavier.
“Anything that could possibly go wrong for us did. I was dating a girl from Huntington at the time. Before [the] game we saw wreaths outside the end zone. I still remember the play, the screen. You watch everything develop and it’s like it’s in slow motion. You know it’s going to work. We had only one defender who could stop him. Get it over with.”
I still remember watching the Musketeers, wearing white uniforms with blue trim, and coaches drop to the ground in disbelief after the winning TD.
“We were so stunned and disappointed,” Smith said. “We’d never seen anything like that. We were still in shock we got beat. We hurt so bad. We just wanted to get off the field. It was such a long walk.”
Today, Morehead State plays football at a level below Marshall. Xavier voted to drop football after the 1973 season, a season when the Musketeers staged their own late rally to edge the Young Herd 30-28. Marshall, meanwhile, endured some more hiccups in its return, but starting with that first winning season in 1984, the program would eventually blossom into one of the nation’s best. Championships in the Southern Conference, Mid-American Conference and Conference USA. Numerous bowl wins. National rankings. All-Americans. Heisman Trophy candidates. First-round NFL picks who not only played in, but shared in, Super Bowl victories.
Smith, like so many others, said you can only admire what Marshall football has done since 1971.
“The Marshall experience. I’m very impressed,” Smith said. “I’ve started rooting for them. Some tough decisions had to be made. They did. People who look at Marshall now see they did the right thing.”
We finished 2-8 in 1971. We got blanked in five of our final six games and reached double figures just three times all season. But to put all that transpired in perspective, I once said, “Hollywood couldn’t ask for a better script. You would think they’d have to make this up. But this is the real deal.”
In 2018, the Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII. Marshall alum Vinny Curry played extensively for the Eagles. Randy Moss got elected to the NFL Hall of Fame. Chad Pennington served as a consultant with the NFL Legends Program. Three guys from the same college program. Marshall University.
As I watched the Eagles win, I thought to myself this more than verifies Marshall’s decision to continue football. Big time. That win over Xavier gave Marshall’s victory-starved followers hope. Proud to have been on the ground floor in the riveting return to prominence.