Thursday, August 16, 2018

My tribute to a Thundering Herd legend

Before leaving Marshall after the 1973 season,
Reggie Oliver owned all of Marshall's
passing records.
(Photo/Chief Justice yearbook)
 The passing away of Marshall University legend Reggie Oliver two days ago provides a sobering reminder. In this earthly life, death is inevitable.
     Reggie, who was 66, put his personal and permanent stamp on Thundering Herd football decades ago. He was an instrumental figure who helped resurrect the program in the years following the 1970 plane crash that killed most of the school's varsity team.
Trailblazer in pads
     In paying homage to Reggie, my schoolmate at MU, it's important to note that he was a true pioneer. During his era -- the early '70s -- black quarterbacks playing at predominantly white colleges was not a common occurrence like it is now. In my memoir November Ever After, I wrote that back in the day, black QBs at white schools were "as rare as polar bears in Panama."
     There's no question in my mind that Reggie Oliver was the right guy to handle the pressures and expectations that came with being Marshall's first black quarterback.
Nothing shy about Oliver
     Anyone who knew Reggie learned quickly that shyness was not one of his personality traits. Not only did he have the skill, swagger and work ethic to succeed, but he was among the best at talking smack. I believe that's why folks called him "Wolf." 
     It was always clear to me that Reggie had a thick skin, which served him well. That was critical because I'm sure there were people who wanted him to fail as a quarterback.
     Persevering on daily basis, Reggie helped to destroy the then-commonly-held notion that blacks didn't have the moxie, gamesmanship and passing arm to be a standout at a mainstream school. As things turned out, it didn't take long for Reggie to do his part in shattering the myth about black QBs.
Clutch performance
     In MU's first home game of the '71 season against Xavier of Ohio, Reggie, a sophomore, engineered what is arguably the most memorable game-winning play in college football history. On the final play of the game, "Wolf" capped the drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Terry Gardner on a screen play.
     It was a fitting ending for a team and a town that suffered tremendous losses 10 months earlier when Marshall's plane crashed. There were no survivors among the 75 passengers on board.
Oliver was a guest speaker at Marshall
earlier this year.
Fans pour out of the stands
     The highly-charged crowd at Fairfield Stadium flooded the field right after the game. The cheers were thunderous. With Reggie calling the shots under intense pressure, Marshall pulled off a shocking 15-13 upset victory.
     There's no denying that Reggie carried a truck-load of personal pain because of the tragedy. He lost four dear friends (Larry Sanders, Joe Hood, Robert VanHorn and Freddie Wilson) on the night that Marshall's plane went down. 
They were more than teammates
     Their connection went beyond being teammates. They were Reggie's home boys who played  football for the same high school (Druid) in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Reggie came to Marshall with his childhood friends with one goal in mind: turn Marshall into a football powerhouse.
     When I interviewed Reggie for my book, I asked him how he managed to deal with his grief. Here's his response as it appears in the memoir.
Upbeat outlook
     "Having gone through that whole experience, you learn that it's not something you can practice," he said. "There's nothing anyone can do to prepare for that kind of situation. You just respond as best you can. It was a sad time, a bad time. But I don't dwell on that. The memories I have of the '70 team are good ones."
      Although Reggie is no longer with us, I believe those words apply to us today. We are sad about his passing away. Yet, there are tons of great memories of "Wolf" that will never fade away.
     Reggie Oliver was one of a kind. 
     He will be missed, but never forgotten.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

From time to time, after nearly half a century, I still think about all of the 'what ifs'

Thundering Herd running back Art Harris weaves his way downfield
during a 1970 home game against the University of Louisville.
(Photo courtesy of the Herald-Dispatch archives)
Forty-seven years after the fact, the images from an unforgettable college semester remain crystal clear in my mind.

It was a foggy, rainy and frigid night— a night when a college lost most of its football team in a horrible plane crash. Even with the passage of so many years, the memories of the deep hurt felt by students at Marshall University and the citizens of Huntington, West Virginia can never be erased. 

Personal history, mixed emotions

For me, November 14, 1970 is a part of my personal history that will always produce mixed emotions whenever I think about it.

Yes, there’s sadness and despair in remembering the sorrow caused by the tragedy. But there’s also joy in being an eye-witness. I watched and rejoiced as a decimated football program regrouped and moved forward in spite of suffering devastating losses.

From time to time, I’ve wondered about what Marshall football would be like if the rainy night in November turned out differently than it did.

  • What if there had not been a plane crash?
  • What if there had been no football recruiting scandal in 1969 that drastically reduced the Thundering Herd’s talent level?
  • Why didn’t my former teammates get the same opportunity as I did to pursue my goals and dreams after graduating from college?
  • On a very personal note ... Why am I still here?

These are questions that I’ve pondered from time to time. But as far as I can determine, no answers are forthcoming. And besides, it’s all speculation as to what could have been, what might have been, what should have been.

This is what I do know.

'1970 team left its mark

There is heart-warming consolation in knowing that the ’70 version of Marshall’s Thundering Herd left an indelible mark on the school and the community. Against overwhelming odds, the program continued to persevere. There’s no doubt that dedication and passion for the game laid the foundation for the football victories that were to come in later years.

That's the great news about this greatest story that's never been told.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Remembering Scottie ... my best friend ... my best man

Author's Note: Today marks the 47th anniversary of the Marshall football plane crash. On this occasion, I decided to write about a very good friend of mine who died on the night of November 14, 1970. While it's true that the people on that flight are long gone, rest assured that they will never be forgotten.

A week after the plane crash, I traveled to Waco, Texas to say my final goodbyes to one of the football  players who were among the 75 passengers who died. It was the Saturday before Thanksgiving . At that point in time, though, going home after a long semester to celebrate a holiday was the farthest thing from my bewildered mind.

Scottie Reese, a former teammate, was my best friend. Not only that, but he was going to be the best man at my wedding in December. At best, my recollections of any details about the funeral itself are fuzzy. Don't know why, but it's been that way for quite some time.

Scottie Reese 
(Player profile from the Thundering Herd's 1970 media guide)

"Reese has served as both linebacker and defensive end for Marshall, positions that usually call for more than 185 pounds of football player. He makes up for his lack of size and strength with quickness and intelligence and turned in a very good sophomore season last year. He'll be a contender for a spot somewhere on the defensive unit this time around."

What I remember most is arriving at Toliver Chapel Baptist Church about 45 minutes or so before the start of the service. I took a seat in one of the pews near the front of the sanctuary. All I could do was stare aimlessly at Scottie's casket. It's as if I was in a trance of some kind. Time stood still. Seven days had passed by since the crash when reality finally set in for me.  And when it did, I was crushed to my very core.

Coming to full acceptance was extremely difficult

On top of the casket was Scottie's No. 83 jersey and his portrait. Even then, I was still trying to mentally process all that happened during the week leading up to the funeral. In my mind, like so many others, I was fully aware of what had transpired. But it's quite another matter to come to full acceptance. 

Feeling overwhelmed by a heaviness of sorrow, I realized that No. 83 was gone and he was never going to come back. Ever.

As I looked around the church and then back to Scottie's casket, I had a flashback to eight days earlier. It was the last time that I would ever see Scottie alive. As he was leaving the lobby area of the Twin Towers dorm to get on the team bus headed to the airport, I told him that I would see him when he got back (from the road trip to East Carolina). But right after he walked past the dorm's front entrance, he turned around and looked at me for a second or two.

Everlasting memories

For the most part, this memory has stayed fixed in my mind. But for the life of me, I can't remember what color tie Scottie had on. But I do recall that he wore a black coat with a dress shirt that was Dallas Cowboys-blue. And he wore some pearly-white trousers that he had purchased from a well-known mail-order company from back in the day that offered the latest in fashion for black men.

Every time I think about that last interaction with Scottie, the song "Fire and Rain" by James Taylor always comes to mind. And it's so hard -- if not impossible -- to not get emotional because the lyrics truly do hit home -- especially  the last words from the chorus part of the song.

'But I always thought that I'd see you again.'

We both arrived as freshmen in '68

Scottie and I both played defense. He split time between defensive end and outside linebacker and I played safety. Both of us came to Marshall in 1968 and played key roles on what was arguably the best freshman football team in the school's history. In my one year on the varsity, we were roommates on road trips. 

As a person, Scottie's strongest attributes were his honesty and trustworthiness. That's what I appreciated the most about him.

It's been 47 years since Scottie died and a lot has happened over that span of time. Even so, I have some great memories of him. 

Scottie Reese will always be my best man.

Rest assured, the 1970 Thundering Herd will never be forgotten.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Reader doesn't understand author's point of view about movie 'We Are Marshall'

When my memoir "November Ever After" had its initial launch, the daily newspaper where I live (Winston-Salem Journal in North Carolina), published a column about it. The commentary, entitled "Setting the Marshall Story Straight" got its share of reader comments, which I always welcome and appreciate. 

There was one comment in particular that I felt I needed to address. This one reader could not understand why I feel the movie "We Are Marshall" doesn't do justice to the real story. No doubt, the movie gave the MU story a national stage. But just because a story attracts coast-to-coast interest doesn't set a precedent for distorting what really happened.

Kerrie Barnhart, who just happens to be a Marshall University graduate, was the reader who had a difficult time following my rationale about the movie. Since I'm the book's author,  I certainly had a ready response (see "Author's Counterpoint'). We both attended the same college, but don't know one another and have never met.

 Barnhart's point of view

 “We Are Marshall has a run time of two hours, 11 minutes. The horror of the night of November 14, 1970 took longer than that. There were so many sad, interesting and (eventually) wonderful stories that began that evening, but there's simply no way they could have all been included in a two-hour movie. 

With all due respect to Mr. Greenlee, nearly five years after the release of "WAM," I just don't understand the animosity about decisions that had to be made for a movie's running time.”

 Author's counterpoint

I agree that there’s only such much content that can be squeezed into a movie that lasts a little over two hours. The real issue is not the movie's run time. It’s about making sure that – within the time frame of the film – that the truth be fully acknowledged.

That’s really not too much to ask, especially when you recall this one sentence … “This is a true story.” Those words appear prominently on the screen at the very beginning of the movie.

A college and community dealt with heavy grief

The whole focus of "We Are Marshall" is to show how a college and a city managed to recover from such a horrific experience. Yet, it’s so strange that the movie never gave much information about the seventy-five passengers who died in that plane crash.

If there’s no tragedy, there is no comeback, and hence, no story line.

No film or documentary can truly be all-inclusive. Not many people will sit through a movie that’s longer than two-and-half hours. Books are no different. How many people will read 500, 800 or even 1,000 pages of somebody’s prose? Few, if any.

Here’s the bottom line. The movie pays homage to those who lost their lives on a November night a long time ago. If we’re really serious about that, what better way to honor them than to tell it like it really was?

Tell story thoroughly and tell it well

And even if you can’t include every aspect of the story, no biggie. Just take the content you have and tell it thoroughly, tell it well, and don’t abandon accuracy for the sake of artistic license.

Are the people from back in the day  way off base because they prefer the truth over a conjured up version of what really transpired? I don't think so. Let’s just say that it’s so sad that filmmakers are convinced they can improve the truth by improvising.

The real story is truly marvelous. There's no need for alterations of any kind.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Plane crash story loaded with ironies

The three players from Cincinnati, Ohio who perished in the Marshall
plane crash on November 14 1970. From left to right: Jack Repasy,
Bob Harris and Mark Andrews.
(Graphic -- Always Remembered by Susan A.)
There are a countless number of ironic circumstances associated with the Marshall football plane crash. In this week's blog entry, I'm focusing solely on one of those situations.

The 1970 Thundering Herd had three players – Bob Harris, Jack Repasy and Mark Andrews – who were teammates at Moeller High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. When Marshall went on a road trip to play East Carolina, the parents of these three players drove south from Ohio to Greenville, North Carolina to watch their sons play.

After the game, Bob Harris Sr. and his wife wanted the three players to ride back with them to the school in Huntington, West Virginia. According to the senior Harris, the three players were reluctant to approach Marshall head coach Ricky Tolley about it.

The Cincinnati threesome played reasonably well in an agonizing 17-14 loss. Andrews was a key factor on the Thundering Herd's defensive line. Harris split time between playing quarterback and wide receiver. Repasy, a proven commodity at receiver, rarely dropped any ball thrown in his direction.

As things turned out, it would be the last time these parents would see their sons. Harris, Repasy and Andrews were among the 75 passengers on the DC-9 jet that crashed into the side of a mountain and burst into flames. There were no survivors.

“They were afraid because the coach was enraged because they had lost the game,” said Harris Sr. during an interview on the ESPN Classic documentary Remembering Marshall (2000). “They just didn’t want to ask him. And that haunts me to this day that I didn’t persist in getting them to ride back with us instead of going on the plane.”

After finishing his comments, tears start to well up in the eyes of the elder Harris. It was a clear sign that his recollections from that horrific November night continued to weigh heavily on his mind.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

'At one point, you felt terribly sad, but then you felt a closeness ... a love for each other ...'

Author's Note: Five days after the plane crash, a group of about 50-55 people representing Black United Students of Marshall University rode a chartered bus on a five-day trip that covered more than 1,500 miles. They attended a wake and three funerals at Bluefield, West Virginia; Atlanta, Georgia; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; and Greenwood, South Carolina. This trip enabled these college students to say their good-byes to seven of the ten black football players who died. In my memoir, there's an entire chapter that goes into detail about that memorable journey.

Getting fifty seats on the chartered bus filled was not a problem. There was a strong sense of obligation to go on this trip. Folks had a burning desire to pay their final respects. Nobody ever said it, but all of us knew it was the appropriate thing to do. Whites were not barred from the caravan. It just turned out that no white folks signed up to go. The school made sure that Marshall would be represented at every player’s funeral by assigning various faculty and staff members to attend designated services.

Book excerpt: 
'Homegoing Caravan'

Several campus organizations held memorial services for all the crash victims. But among the blacks at Marshall, there was a unique affinity because of skin color and culture. Call it a sign of the times. It was a time in which blacks were the small minority on white college campuses, but were very vocal in helping to pave the way for blacks’ inclusion into every facet of student life.

Marshall was no different. Back then, the black pride movement was at its peak. The soul hit “Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown became an anthem for blackness back in the day.

Widespread devastation

“Marshall was a very small community,” said Angela Dodson. “There were only a few us (black students). To lose ten at one time was a big dent. In the midst of all the confusion and shock, we needed to do something active or proactive to try to process all that had happened and be part of it.”

The most unique aspect of this trip was the kaleidoscope of emotions experienced by the passengers as they traveled from one funeral site to another. There were upbeat moments accompanied by laughter and horseplay—and always lots of spontaneous singing. By the end of the journey, it’s safe to say that there were few on board who didn’t know at least one stanza of the black church hymn “We’ve Come This Far by Faith.”

Emotional roller coaster

All during the trip, caravan passengers sang spirit-lifting songs that reinforced a message of hope that some way, somehow, everything was going to be all
right. Audience participation on the bus trip didn’t end with song. As a means of coping, the passengers—one by one—got out of their seats and shared their fondest memories of the players who died. These testimonial-style presentations helped everyone on the bus to learn more about the human side of these deceased athletes.

Melancholy moments were to be expected. Every time the bus would get within forty to forty-five minutes of arriving at the next funeral stop, the mood would change dramatically. Bus riders went from being jovial to being in mourning. At those times, silence gripped the atmosphere. With the exception of some quiet chatter here and there, the only sound was the barely audible hum of the engine as the bus motored down the highway.

Long stretches of silence during the bus ride

This aura of quietness remained when passengers boarded the bus after attending a homegoing. The silence would last for as long as an hour or two. At times, the stillness was so obvious that you could hear a mosquito breathe.

These extremes in shifting emotions played out time after time over the course of this trip. “At one point, you felt terribly sad,” said Bundy. “But then you felt a closeness, a togetherness, a love for each other; and you felt how everybody was holding up everybody else.”

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Reader reaction to Marshall football memoir: 'incredibly enlightening and thought provoking'

Hey Craig,

“… Finished reading your book … I have to say that it’s incredibly enlightening and thought provoking! Needless to say that I'm still in the overall “processing” stage. However, I no longer feel like I walked into a movie that was halfway over. I now have insight as to what happened before I arrived on campus (1971), and I can put together the pieces a whole lot better.

I can better appreciate what you, Janice (Cooley), Ed (Carter), et al were dealing with amid all of the hope and hype concerning The Young Thundering Herd! I regret that you and I never sat and talked when we attended school together. I’m sure that I would have been a more “aware” young man – both socially and spiritually – than I was.”
Chuck Jackson

Chuck Jackson’s comment to one of my blog entries confirmed what I already knew about the value of the memoir November Ever After. It's a story that needed to be written. It's a story that’s worthy to be shared with the masses.

For people such as Chuck, who came to Marshall after the tragedy, the book provides a proper frame of reference for what campus life was like before the crash. For those, like me, who were there at the time of the disaster, the book opens the door for some level of closure on an event that none of us will ever forget.

1971 was a mixed bag for those who were left behind

Keep in mind that for those of us who were around on the night that Marshall’s plane went down, the football season of 1971 represented a truly a mixed bag. I can’t speak for everyone who suffered from the pain of losing their schoolmates. But I do feel safe in saying that most of us engaged in an emotional tug-of-war when it was time for the start of a new season with essentially a brand-new team – the “Young Thundering Herd”
We will always remember the ’70 Marshall team that would never return. On the other hand, however, there was cause to rejoice and cause to cling to renewed hope. In spite of the heavy losses, Marshall opted to continue playing football.

A lasting tribute to those who perished

In my mind, the fact that the school refused to dump its football program says a whole lot about the university's decision makers at that point in time. Keeping Thundering Herd football going served as a most fitting tribute to the seventy-five people who died in a fiery plane crash on November 14, 1970.