Published Nov. 18, 1999
Something, as Reggie Oliver put it, told Jerome Hood now was his appointed time. Yes, tears would flow and pain would be felt. Those emotions always surface on a particular November day when Marshall University stops to remember the 75 people who lost their lives in what still ranks as the worst air tragedy in American sports history.
Sunday marked the first time Jerome Hood and the 29th time students, fans, friends and family members assembled on Nov. 14 to reflect on the anguish a university, city, state and nation felt when the jet bringing the Thundering Herd football team back from a game at East Carolina crashed into a hillside short of the runway at Tri-State Airport, and the strides the program has made since university officials, just days after the crash, declared football would continue.
Joe Hood, Jerome's older brother and a sophomore running back with tons of promise, was on that plane. Until Sunday, Jerome Hood opted to pay respects from a distance - first his hometown of Tuscaloosa, Ala., and now his home in Arlington, Texas. He and Oliver, quarterback for the Young Thundering Herd from 1971 to 1973, stood just a few paces from the Memorial Fountain on the Memorial Student Center plaza where a plaque with the names of all who died was unveiled.
"It felt especially good to be here," said Hood, 43 and retired from the Navy after serving 22 years. "I put it off for years. I didn't want to face it. It was easier to stay away. Today, I wanted to be here. Joe wanted me to be here."
This season, Marshall is 10-0, ranked No. 11 in both major polls and in position to win a third straight Mid-American Conference title. As for the 1990s, the Herd has 111 victories, making it the winningest team of the decade.
"He would be exceptionally proud of them and what they have achieved," Jerome Hood said when asked how his brother, who would be 49 if he were alive today, would evaluate the past and current blazers of one amazing trail. "They've come a long way. The position they're in now is tremendous."
Jerome Hood said future memorial services, including the 30th anniversary in 2000, are in his plans. He said he hopes he can convince all family members to join him. "I owe it to my brother to do that," he said.
Oliver, head football coach at Columbus Eastmoor Academy in Ohio, said his friend held up well.
"It really says a lot about the healing process," Oliver said. "It's something you take for granted, but shouldn't. Moving on is not easy, especially for those close to the epicenter (of the crash). People in his family can't give any thought to coming back. It would open up a big bag of emotions. It takes courage for Jerome to do this. It's not over, but he can deal with it. He's the ice-breaker for the family."
Later, Jerome Hood and Oliver went inside the student center. This would be a first for Hood, who walked over to the area where the large color photo of the 1970 football team hangs. He stared long and hard at the player wearing No. 33 - his brother. He has a similar picture and jersey No. 33 at home.
"They're tough to look at," he said.
Hood was not alone Sunday. Bobby Pruett, a 1965 Marshall graduate and now coach of the Herd, lost some good friends in that crash.
"I know those guys are looking down and saying, `Way to go,' to those who stuck it out and made Marshall what it is now," he said. "From the ashes of the plane crash to where we are today is a miracle. And I thank the Lord I'm part of it."
At the end of each service, the fountain is turned off for the winter. The same can't be said about the enthusiasm for one extraordinary sports story. It continues to flow and grow.
David Walsh is a sportswriter for The Herald-Dispatch. He was a member of the 1971 Young Thundering Herd.