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.

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