By Jeremy T.K. Farley
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — November 14, 2015, marked the 45th anniversary to one of the greatest tragedies in West Virginia’s storied history — the date 75 individuals, including 37 members of the Marshall University Thundering Herd football team and 25 boosters died in a fiery plane crash roughly one mile from their ultimate destination, the Tri-State Airport in Huntington.
To commemorate this dreadful day, Marshall’s team began the day with a memorial service and continued the observance on the field, wearing black uniforms and helmets bearing the number 75 — commemorating the 75 victims of the disaster.
The 1970 crash occurred just hours after the Herd lost in the final play of an away game to the East Carolina Pirates by a score of 14-17.
As is the case with any tragedy, the crash of the chartered Southern Airways flight sent the Mountain State into a condition of disbelief, with the state’s frazzled governor being overheard near the crash site exclaiming, “No…Oh, God. No. This can’t be happening…”
In the years to follow, various memorials and symbols would be erected across the nation to commemorate the memory of the 75 lives that ended all too soon.
These memorials included a granite cenotaph at the Spring Hill Cemetery in Huntington, a memorial fountain on the campus of Marshall University, as well as a memorial plaque placed inside the guest team’s entrance at East Carolina University.
Three hours to the north of Huntington, a young coach at West Virginia University named Bobby Bowden also did his part to honor the memory of the lost Thundering Herd.
Bowden asked the NCAA for permission to wear Marshall jerseys and play Marshall’s final game of the 1970 season against Ohio, however, his request was denied.
In memory of the victims of the crash, Mountaineer players put green crosses and the initials “MU” on their white helmets, a move that was depicted in the 2006 film, We Are Marshall.
In the years ahead, great changes would be witnessed at both of the Mountain State’s football programs. Marshall would lose more games throughout the 1970s than any other team in the nation, only to bounce back in the decades ahead, securing AA national championships and additional conference titles in the NCAA’s top division.
Mountaineer fans would also witness great changes as well, Bobby Bowden would move on to Florida State, where he became a coaching legend. Pressing forward, the ‘Eers would endure a carousel of coaches, as men like Cignetti, Nehlen, Rodriguez, Stewart and now Holgorsen steered the program to moderate successes.
In addition to coaching changes, fans of the state’s flagship school would also see their helmets changed, as the retro white helmets featuring “WVU” were replaced with sleek dark blue headgear displaying the iconic “Flying WV.”
On this day, however, November 14, 2015, the Mountaineers took to the field of Milan Puskar Stadium with a throwback look, wearing helmets very similar to those they wore during that dreadful season 45-years ago.
As the 2015 Mountaineers ran onto the field sporting the throwback look this afternoon, my heart swelled with Mountaineer pride as I thought back to the scene in We Are Marshall, when Matthew McConaughey, portraying Marshall coach Jack Lengyel, saw the white WVU helmets with the green “MU” on the back and stated, “First class, coach. First class.”
“That is nice,” I whispered to my wife, delighted that the state I love so dearly was standing as one on this tragic anniversary.
In the minutes ahead, I realized I had been mistaken. The helmets were nearly identical to the ones Bobby Bowden’s Mountaineers wore back in 1971, only they were missing a green cross and “MU.”
I know it’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback (or in this case a Saturday night writer), but as a West Virginia fan who bleeds blue and gold, it just saddens me to know that we missed such a great opportunity to honor our fellow West Virginians. On this date, we should all be Marshall.
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