Despite the fact I currently reside in the state of Ohio, I was born in West Virginia. And as a native of the Mountain State, I am extremely proud of the state and its rich heritage. Along with that, I have always supported the college athletic teams in West Virginia.
Along with my West Virginia heritage, I am also old enough to remember the 1970 airliner crash in Huntington that killed 75 players and supporters of the Marshall University Thundering Herd. It was a tragedy that affected the whole state. Although I was only 11-years-old at the time, I certainly remember how it upset my father, another West Virginia native.
As a proud Mountaineer who remembers that tragedy, I have always rooted for Marshall. And since my earliest days of attending football games in Morgantown, West Virginia, I have always been one of the many in the crowd who cheered when the Herd score was announced over the loudspeakers when they were leading in a football game.
That was the Morgantown I remember and the one that I still see today—admittedly in smaller numbers than before.
An entire state, Mountaineers and Herd fans alike, shed a tear for the Marshall program during those dark days following the crash. Moreover, an entire state rejoiced with them when the members of the Young Thundering Herd won their first game following the disaster.
In 1992, I was nervously sitting in front of my television set, cheering on the Thundering Herd as they won their first National Championship in 1-AA. No doubt it was a thrilling and bittersweet moment for Marshall broadcaster Keith Morehouse, whose father was killed in the crash. It was certainly a proud moment for the entire state and a joyous moment personally for this hardcore Mountaineer fan!
I was delighted for the people of Huntington who still remembered that dark November night in 1970. I was thrilled that I finally had a chance to witness a champion rising up from the ashes of the past. It was clearly a great and memorable day for everybody who called West Virginia their home.
Apparently, all of this goodwill was forgotten in the latter years of the Don Nehlen era when coach Bob Pruett and Marshall officials began posting billboards around the state saying that, at Marshall, “We play for championships.”
The whole Pruett campaign was designed to poke a finger in the eye of the Mountaineer athletic department, embarrass coach Nehlen, and force a football contract with WVU officials.
The tactic did not go over well with many Mountaineer fans, particularly the ones who were not old enough to remember the Marshall tragedy. In addition, the state-wide scars over that single incident have only recently begun to heal.
Speaking only for myself, I can tell you that I was bitter for quite some time at West Virginia’s second largest public university. But that, too, is in the past. I recently visited Huntington and made my way over to the sacred gravesite of the sons of Marshall.
Marshall University’s story is a uniquely American story. It is a story of triumph over tragedy. It is a tale of conquest over catastrophe. It is a transformation from agony to achievement.
I will be in Morgantown this weekend as Marshall’s Thundering Herd comes to town to play football. And for this one game of the year, I will be cheering for my Mountaineers and rooting against the Thundering Herd.
But, first and foremost, I am a proud and loyal West Virginian. I will smile and greet many of these Mountain State fans. I will shake their hands. I will respect our opponent. And I will remember those precious souls who perished and everything that Marshall University and its fans have been forced to endure.