HUNTINGTON — In American life, there are a handful of emotional cocktails bottled up and dormant inside an individual throughout the year, uncorked only at an appointed time.

The feelings elicited by Christmas, New Year's Eve, the Fourth of July or a birthday (to name a few) would fall into this category of sensations felt only one time a year, but virtually unchanged from year to year.

For those who hold it dear, there's nothing like the feeling of the first day of football season.

It could be hot air paired with a cool breeze and a cold beer, the smell and sound of meat hitting a smoking-hot grill, or simply finding that extra comfy spot on the couch for a marathon day in front of the television.

It's different for everyone, yet it's a communal experience that transcends so much in an age of divisiveness. For a few hours at least, everyone wearing your colors is on your team.

And just like it always is, it was all kelly green in Huntington on Saturday as the Thundering Herd opened its 2019 campaign against the Virginia Military Institute Keydets at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Whether coming from across the street or across the country, Herd fans made that beloved pilgrimage back, just like they always have.

It's what David Hetzer called returning to "my happy place," a Huntington native and 1986 graduate now living in Lake Wylie, South Carolina. Despite now living 5 1/2 hours away, Hetzer makes the drive back for every home game, tailgating hours before along 3rd Avenue across from the stadium.

"I bleed green; I don't know any other way to explain why we do it," Hetzer laughed. "I have so many great friends and great memories of Huntington, and I get drawn back to my happy place, which I always say is Huntington.

"Anytime I can get back to my happy place, I will."

It's a similar situation for Nehemiah North, a Charleston native and 2001 graduate now living with his wife and children in Raleigh, North Carolina. The Norths make the trip north for a couple of home games a year, and it's refreshing to be surrounded by like-minded Marshall fans again.

"You come up and show them where you lived and where you went to school. Marshall was some of the best times of my life, so I want them to experience the same things we did. Back when we used to win every game," he laughed as he tossed football with his son in the main lot - Marshall finished 11-2 and was ranked No. 21 in the nation in 2001.

Football games are both a nostalgic trip to college days passed mixed with the new, as Chris Conley put it. The sense of connection is there as an alum, but those people are now bringing their spouses and children, as well.

Conley's first game came as a student in 1991, at the first game ever at the then-newly built Joan C. Edwards Stadium, when the Herd defeated New Hampshire 24-23.

"It's the same feeling as it was then, but it only improves," Conley said outside his group's tent in the main lot.

"They've really done a good job making it better for the fans. It's just great for family and friends, reconnecting and all that. It's just a great experience."

A former regular foe in Marshall's Southern Conference days, the Herd last played VMI in football in 1996, defeating the Keydets 45-20 in Lexington, Virginia. VMI last played in Huntington in 1995, losing to the Herd 56-21.

Going into 2019, Marshall leads the series with VMI 14-5. The Keydets last defeated the Herd in 1981, 20-16, in Huntington.

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