HUNTINGTON — Cheers erupted as water sprung from the Marshall Memorial Fountain toward the blue sky on a warm, sunny day.
The attitude and the weather strongly contrasted the cold, rainy night of Nov. 14, 1970, when the plane carrying 75, including the Marshall University varsity football team, crashed near Tri-State Airport.
The difference did not go unnoticed by Huntington Mayor Steve Williams, the featured speaker at the Marshall Athletics Spring Fountain Celebration on Saturday. Williams said his time playing for the Young Thundering Herd, the teams that took the field after the crash, instilled in him an attitude of “never give up.” Williams said Marshall’s and Huntington’s perseverance in moving from the gloom and darkness of that night led to the joy of a program that has experienced astonishing success in the nearly 49 years since.
The turning on of the fountain outside the Marshall Memorial Student Center is a tradition in celebration of the university’s decision to continue its football program after the worst air disaster in American sports history.
“We turn off the fountain in the fall to remember those who died in the plane crash,” MU athletic director Mike Hamrick, a teammate of Williams, said. “This ceremony is not to take place of that. We’re here to celebrate the rebirth of Marshall football.”
As members of the Herd’s current football team looked on with about 300 others, Williams, who played multiple positions on offense at Marshall from 1974 through 1977, looked toward coach Doc Holliday and said, “Coach speaks to his players about competitive excellence, about when someone goes out, it’s ‘next man up.’ But what happens when there is no one to call on to step up? The cruelty of that night left (us) without coaches, without seasoned players to step up. It left a community without leaders to call on.”
After considering dropping football, Marshall’s administration opted to continue the program. In 1971, new coach Jack Lengyel led a group of freshmen from the 1970 team and several walk-ons, transfers and newcomers onto the field. That team finished 2-9, but it finished.
“The question that hung in the air was ‘how do we continue on,’” Williams said. “The question was much larger than whether a football program would continue, but whether a whole community would stagnate. That’s the reason we step up.”
Hamrick praised those who opted to field a team in 1971 and each year after.
“It was the greatest decision Marshall University ever made,” Hamrick said of continuing the football program. “We’re here to celebrate. The good Lord knows all the great players who have come through this program because of that decision, all the players who received an education and gave back to the university and the community.”
Hamrick then pointed out in the crowd Albert McClellan, who played at Marshall from 2005 through 2009 and has won Super Bowl titles with the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots. McClellan smiled as the crowd cheered his presence.
Marshall President Jerome Gilbert came to the university in 2016. He said he quickly has grasped the importance of the fountain ceremonies and the decision to continue football.
“The sadness of that memory hangs with us,” Gilbert said. “This plaza is transformed into a sacred place when we turn on and turn off the fountain.”
At Williams’ command, the 13-foot-high fountain was turned on.
“This provides a lesson that lives through the ages,” Williams said. “We will never forget because we will never give up.”