‘Greatest Victory’: Remembering Marshall
“There will be a time when you believe everything is finished,” wrote the late, great voice of the Old West, novelist Louis L’Amour. “That will be the beginning.”
Oddly enough, this line — one of my favorites — suddenly came to me a few minutes after sunset on a recent Saturday evening while I sat with my brother, Dick, high above the 50-yard line of a crowded football stadium down in Greenville.
We were watching my alma mater, East Carolina, play Marshall University in the big homecoming game, waiting for the second-half kickoff of a late-afternoon game that had been surprisingly close thus far.
ECU, which is having a surprisingly good 5-2 season for a team having both a new head coach and the youngest players in the NCAA major football ranks, was predicted to romp over 1-5 Marshall. But true to form, the Thundering Herd from West Virginia was hanging tough with my beloved Pirates, as they always seem to do.
The dozen or so high school bands who’d performed had marched off, and the teams had wandered back out to prepare for the second-half kickoff. The officials were just standing around idly chatting before the game resumed, when something kind of remarkable happened. You had to look quick to see it.
For a precious few moments, a hush fell over the capacity crowd of nearly 51,000 spectators. The giant jumbotron was momentarily silent. People seemed to be sitting quietly admiring the spectacular mantle of red that had settled over the western horizon. A lone star was visible.
The older gentleman whose season tickets are next to ours, who’d been chatting with me about his grandchildren who are in grade school and my children who are in college and how quickly this life has gone by, cleared his throat and murmured, “You know, I always secretly root for Marshall — even when we’re playing them. I was at that game.”
I knew the game he meant. So did 51,000 other fans that evening. Another moment of silence was held before the kickoff to remember the stunning events of an autumn football Saturday night 40 years ago.
The Marshall football team had come to play the Pirates bearing the high hopes of an entire community, aiming to break out of a slump that had seem them lose 27 games over a five-year span. The townsfolk of tiny Huntington, W. Va., were so excited about the team’s 1970 prospects that a number of boosters had arranged to accompany the team on their chartered flight to Greenville aboard a Southern Airways DC-8. Half the town’s doctors were among the boosters.
Somehow, East Carolina pulled out a last-minute 17-13 victory.
Later that night, while on approach to the Tri-State Airport in Huntington, the plane crashed into a foggy hillside, bursting into flame and killing all 75 aboard. The exact cause of the crash was never determined.
The day after the crash, more than 7,000 mourners — more than normally attended a Marshall game at their rickety and antiquated school stadium — gathered for a prayer service that was covered live by “The Today Show.”
I remember watching the coverage on TV, wondering how the parents of those kids who died would ever get over the loss. I was a senior in high school in Greensboro, supposedly preparing my college applications to Carolina, Wake Forest and William and Mary.
That same autumn, I won a city short story writing contest, however, and decided I would delay going to college for at least a year while I traipsed off to Paris to write for The International Herald-Tribune and become the next Ernest Hemingway. Oh, headstrong and foolish youth. I pictured myself meeting a beautiful dark-eyed torch singer.
I didn’t bother telling my parents this plan, however, until late May of 1971. One day at lunch, when my dad wondered why I hadn't yet heard from any of the colleges I’d applied to, I took the opportunity to spring my big Paris plan upon him.
“Look at it this way,” I coolly theorized. “I’ll have some great writing experience behind me and will save you a bundle of money.”
He smiled. Remarkably composed, under the circumstances. The Vietnam War had just escalated dramatically.
“Well,” he said, “it’s your life. But here’s the problem. Richard Nixon just instituted a new lottery for the draft. You’ll be eligible for it, and your mom is going to lose her mind when she learns you aren’t planning to go to college right away. I want you to apply to five colleges in the next few days. Just see who takes you and — in case Paris doesn’t work out — you’ll at least have a chance to get a student deferment if your number is low.”
I agreed to do so. I applied to five schools. All but one of them were already filled up and placed me on a delayed admission list until the next spring. In 1971, I showed up at East Carolina with a Sears window fan and a suitcase. I planned to stay maybe one full year and then head abroad.
On the first day in the dorm, several of my new dormmates were talking about going out for the football team. Mike McGee, ECU’s coach, had left at the conclusion of the 1970 season to take the head job at his alma mater, Duke, taking several top players with him.
The new coach, Sonny Randle, needing bodies, had put out a cattle call for potential walk-ons from the student body. Partly inspired by the story I read about the freshmen and walk-ons who came forth from Marshall to field a varsity football team that same autumn, I joined several of my new dormmates and went out for the football team — with just two weeks to go before the season opener.
I made it through the first round of cuts and decided Paris could wait. I was going to be a college football player. On the third or fourth day of practice with the “scrubs,” however, I stepped on a kicking tee and tore a ligament in my right knee and had to go home to Greensboro for surgery.
I returned to class a week later on crutches, cursing my luck. A few days after that, on something of a whim, I ducked my head into the student newspaper called The Fountainhead and soon became a columnist and the paper’s features editor.
Ironically, several of the guys I attempted to walk on with actually became all-Conference players — and one a second-team All-America.
Without a question, my life was completely changed by the unexpected turning of those two autumns 40 years ago.
‘Friends Across the Land’
As I explained to my companion high up in the stands last Saturday evening, in the wake of that stunning sunset that seemed like a heavenly benediction, if I hadn’t heard of Marshall’s tragedy, I probably wouldn’t have considered East Carolina. And if I hadn’t gone there merely to kill some time before I went on to literary glory in Paris, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with the place, foolishly attempted to go out for the football team, and wound up being a newspaperman like my dad.
Funny how things work out — and sometimes have a happy ending.
The same president Richard Nixon who instituted the draft lottery also wrote to the head coach of Marshall’s “young Thundering Herd”: “Friends across the land will be rooting for you, but whatever the season brings, you have already won your greatest victory by putting the 1971 varsity on the field.”
Marshall went on to glory as a result of this terrible trial. They rebuilt their team and became a national inspiration. In the 1990s, a new coach named Bob Pruett — a former player — showed up to coach and led the team to a stunning 114-25 record, making Marshall the winningest football program in the nation.
Their story is told in the hit 2006 feature film “We Are Marshall,” starring Matthew McConaughey.
Today, the Thundering Herd plays in a beautiful new stadium that seats 40,000 and boasts a fearsome home record of 105-10, also one of the nation’s best.
Not for the first time, I was reminded last Saturday night that college football is basically the last American sport I can bear to watch, the only contest where a kid who has no possible chance of making a professional career out of the game can grab a moment of pure all-American glory he’ll hang onto forever.
For the vast majority of kids who play college football in America, every Saturday brings them one step closer to the end of their pigskin dreams. Every game is their version of the Super Bowl. You don’t have to be an ESPN analyst to know why there are so many stunning upsets happening week to week in college football. Statistics tell only half the story. Heart is a tough thing to evaluate from the numbers alone.
Louis L’Amour had it right. Just when you think things are finished — there will be a beginning.
That’s why I, too, always root for Marshall’s Thundering Herd.
‘They’ll Win in Life’
Last week was no exception. I dearly wanted my upstart Pirates to win — they have a fantastic new coach named Ruffin McNeill, an alum who arrived at the school not long after I did — and are playing perhaps the most exciting brand of football in the state at the moment. The first time I met Coach “Ruff,” he gave me a big bear hug and told me his not-so-secret formula for success is “to love the players like they are my own kids.”
The more they know somebody loves and cares about ’em, he said, “the more they’ll win in life.”
How can you possibly argue with a philosophy like that? Owing to the graduation of so many players from last year’s Conference USA championship team, and the sudden departure of coach Skip Holtz to South Florida, the experts predicted a grim finish to the Pirate season — yet here they are, a bunch of no-name freshmen and sophomores, apparently just “beginning.” Ruff’s purple Pirates are playing their young hearts out, catching unexpected national attention, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.
Last week, not for the first time this season, they came roaring back and won the big homecoming game over Marshall, whose players fell to 1-6 but left the field in the autumn darkness with their heads held high. They are Marshall.
This week is the Thundering Herd’s big homecoming game up in Huntington. As the second half of the 2010 college football season gets under way, you have to like their chances — and wish them well.
As one of the most contentious political seasons ever mercifully winds up its nonsense this week, ending a wave of toxic TV ads, it’s nice to think we still have six weeks of college football left — and be reminded that we are all, at the end of the day, Marshall.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
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