HUNTINGTON — Marshall University’s team chaplain Steve Harvey said it best with opening remarks for the school’s annual fountain ceremony held at the institution Sunday in remembrance of 75 lives lost in 1970.
“Fifty-one years, and we’re still here,” he said. “Some say it’s the fountain, others who truly are here today understand our mission and what we are doing here. It’s a holy site.”
On Nov. 14, 1970, Southern Airways Flight 932 crashed into a hillside as it approached Tri-State Airport near Kenova while returning from a football game. Lost were the lives of 75 football players, coaches, staff, supporters and flight crew members.
Every year since, the Marshall and Huntington communities have joined at the memorial fountain behind the school’s student center, where for a day they mourn the incomparable loss and reflect on the program’s re-emergence.
Mark Miller, then a freshman football player who did not travel with the team the day of the crash, helped rebuild the team in the years after. Miller, the keynote speaker at the ceremony, said the fountain has become the heart of the university.
After high school, politics and a low English score kept Miller from attending the Air Force Academy. Scrambling for his future after turning down opportunities for the academy, a call from a friend to then-Marshall assistant football coach Red Dawson led him to his scholarship-backed journey at Marshall.
“I’ll forever be grateful to both Danny Canada, one of my teammates here at Marshall for all four years, and coach Dawson,” he said. “Thanks be to God for answered prayers.”
Miller’s job was to help prepare the varsity members for their next game, and he did not travel with the team to East Carolina. Instead, he went home to Prestonsburg, Kentucky, and was at church when the crash occurred. He had plans to attend a dance that night, but his life was forever changed when he saw an alert on the TV.
“My father asked, ‘Could that have been the plane carrying our ball team?’ ” he said.
It was. Soon, community members came to his home to console his parents, believing he had been in the crash.
“I was in shock. It was several days before I could speak to anyone, because I had so much grief. The sadness was overwhelming,” he said.
He returned to campus and watched as his fallen teammates’ parents collected their items and asked about their sons’ lives up until their death. It was the first time Miller experienced loss. He fell into a depression and did not know what his future held.
The Rev. Robert Scott, university staff and coaches Red Dawson and Mickey Jackson worked diligently to counsel each of the living members and help them decide to rebuild in the name of their fallen teammates, building their faith and comfort, he said.
What started as a slow, uphill battle resulted in one of the best football programs of the 1990s and a successful program to date, he said.
He for years questioned why God allowed the crash to happen, why Marshall was picked, but in reciting Chris Stapleton’s “Broken Halos” lyrics Sunday, Miller said he finally has peace.
“We’re not meant to know the answers. They belong to the by and by,” he said. “Psalm 23 says ‘You will fear no evil. For thou are with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.’ ”
At one point Miller held up a staff given to him by Russell Rice for a birthday present in the early 2000s. It dons the names of the members of the 1970 football team. It is his prized possession, he said. While he doesn’t need it to walk, he keeps it to remind him why he is going.
“My bond with Marshall is forever an intricate part of who I am,” he said. “I stand proudly as a son of Marshall. It defines my love and my commitment to family. We are Marshall.”
Saturday’s 21-14 loss to the University of Alabama at Birmingham was the first “75” memorial game loss, as well as the first game the Herd has lost during the memorial week since 2009.
Head football coach Charles Huff, who spoke for the first time at the fountain ceremony, said he asked his team to honor the 75 with their performance, and he believes they did just that.
“No, the outcome was not what I would have given my left finger for, but our performance is exactly what that fountain represents,” he said “It was strong. It was tough. We fought to the finish, and we’ll stay in and we’ll fight again.
“Because of the 75, we are Marshall forever.”
In his final fountain ceremony as Marshall’s president, Jerome Gilbert said he’s forever grateful to have been part of the university, which came back stronger than ever after the tragedy.
“The lamp of Marshall University may have been dimmed by the remorse and the grief of Nov. 14, 1970, but that beacon over dark waters never went out,” he said. “Out of the ashes, the phoenix emerged.”
At 3:09 p.m., the fountain was turned off, the silence of the rushing water was deafening as quickly as Marshall was forever changed 51 years ago.
But in April the water will be restored, representing new hope the school found in 1971 as it started its journey to rise from the ashes.