HUNTINGTON — Turning on the fountain Saturday in the Memorial Student Plaza at Marshall University has a special memory for Margaret Topping of Parkersburg, W.Va.
She worked in Marshall’s athletic department more than 40 years ago when a plane carrying the football team and boosters from the Huntington area died in a fiery crash. “They told us if there was a place on the plane, we could go,” Topping said. “Someone took our place. This ceremony brings back a lot of memories.”
Her brother, John Vanootegheim of Huntington, has been trying to get Topping, a 1970 graduate, to come back to the ceremony for years and finally got her there this spring.
“I was a junior at the time,” Vanootegheim said. “We’re fans of Marshall. This (ceremony) has a special meaning for us.”
Barry Hamm of Port Pleasant, W.Va., also was making it back to the fountain ceremony for the first time in 40-plus years. He was attending the university when the plane crashed.
“I knew a lot of the guys,” Hamm said. “One of them was wearing my belt. This gives me a chance to pay my respects. It touches me deeply. I’m retired now. This is something I always wanted to do. I have some time now.”
Sheila Roy of Barboursville also knew some of the football players who died that day.
“I was a music education major,” she said. “I tutored some of them. We plan to go to the Green and White game. My mom and dad had season tickets. We try to go to every game. We’ve gone to this before. This time it fell on my birthday. It feels like spring when the fountain is on. It won’t be too much longer until the first football game is here.”
The fountain behind the student center is turned off every fall and back on again in the spring.
Mike Hamrick, Marshall’s athletic director, said the spring celebration when the fountain is turned on represents the rebirth of Marshall University football. “Last year we turned it on, and it didn’t work,” Hamrick said. He and several hundred other people on hand for the event, including the football team, had better luck this time. “Today is a day of happiness and joy.”
He said that even when introducing former Thundering Herd standout Byron Leftwich, the quarterback who had a big hand in Hamrick’s failure to cash in on a $10,000 bonus for winning a bowl game against East Carolina, where he was the athletic director.
East Carolina had Marshall down 38-8 at half-time of the 2001 GMAC Bowl, and Hamrick’s wife was planning on ordering some new furniture before Leftwich threw for some 400 yards in the second half to lead Marshall to a bowl win. “My wife didn’t speak to me for a week after that,” Hamrick said.
“We’re here for a good reason,” said Leftwich, who did not learn about the plane crash until he came to Marshall. When he learned of some of the thrashings the rebuilding Marshall team endured in the years after the crash, Leftwich did his best to pay teams back when he played.
“It’s just special to be here,” he said. “I made friends for life here. This is a special place.”
Sam Botek, a 1975 Marshall graduate, was among the Young Thundering Herd put together after the plane crash to bring college football back to Huntington.
“It was a team devastated by tragedy,” Botek, a Toledo, Ohio, resident, said. “There was a sadness and a loss in Huntington. We began to feel the pain, the hope and the expectations. We did what we could.” His outstanding memory of his time at Marshall “are the wonderful people I’ve met. They’re truly the kindest I’ve ever met.”
Steve Kopp, Marshall University president, said he got a good feeling watching the football team members walk over for the fountain ceremony. “Our strength and conditioning coaches are doing a good job,” Kopp said.
“To rebuild takes great courage ...great determination,” Kopp said. “We believe in who we are. We never quit. When we get knocked down, we pick ourselves up and try harder.”
Gary and Denise Carmichael made the trip down U.S. 23 from Columbus to attend the ceremony for the first time Saturday.
Gary, a 1986 grad, was in the band when he attended Marshall. His wife attended a high school that didn’t have a football team. They have been trying to make up for that for years.
“We went to a lot of games in the 1980s and 1990s. Now that our kids are grown, we plan to attend more. We’ve gone to a lot of home and away games. We’ve met some great people over the years.”