HUNTINGTON - Reggie Oliver joked, sang and preached, but mostly, the starting quarterback of the Young Thundering Herd remembered.
Oliver, 66, relayed memories, some fond, some painful, to the crowd of about 300 who gathered Saturday morning for the Marshall Athletics Spring Fountain Celebration outside the Memorial Student Center. The ceremony celebrates the rebirth of Marshall's football program after the Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash that claimed the lives of 75 players, fans, administrators, support staff and the airline crew of a Southern Airways DC-9 near Tri-State Airport when Oliver was a freshman. A part of the ceremony is the turning on of the Memorial Fountain on the plaza, which is turned off on Nov. 14.
In 1970, NCAA rules prohibited freshmen from playing varsity sports, so Oliver, fellow freshmen and a few upperclassmen who were injured did not fly with Marshall's doomed team to Greenville, North Carolina, for a game with East Carolina.
Oliver, dressed in a white suit with a green tie and sunglasses, sang the Clarence Carter 1970 hit "Patches," about a boy raised in poverty in Alabama. A native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Oliver said he related to the song. He said he and high school teammates Joe Hood, Robert Vanhorn and Freddie Wilson piled into a 1962 Ford Falcon and drove from Tuscaloosa to Huntington, despite friends who advised against it.
"People said not to go to Marshall," Oliver said. "They said, 'They'll make a wide receiver out of you.' I said if it's good enough for Joe, Robert, Freddie and (high school teammate) Larry Sanders, it's good enough for me."
Oliver said people thought Marshall would move him to wide receiver because he was black. Few black quarterbacks existed outside of historically black colleges at that time, and Oliver had the speed and athleticism to play wide receiver. Oliver, though, also featured a strong arm and intelligence that led Herd coaches to keep him at quarterback.
Oliver laughed when he related stories such as the one when he met 26-year-old freshman Ace Logan.
"Here we were right out of high school and Ace is a 26-year-old from Virginia with a welding card from where he worked in the shipyards," Oliver said, drawing more laughter when he said his first impression of Marshall's Fairfield Stadium was, "I played on better fields than this in high school."
The former Marshall star preached a bit, thanking God, "the Great I Am," as Oliver repeatedly referred to him, for giving him talent to play football and for seeing him through the crash and the memories that followed. Oliver continued the theme of Marshall football chaplain Steve Harvey, who began the ceremony by quoting Psalm 118:24, "This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it."
One of those who rejoiced was Don Hampton, the grandfather of Spring Valley High School senior and Marshall football recruit Owen Porter. The crash happened less than one mile from Hampton's home.
"This is the first time I've been to this ceremony since the crash," Hampton said. "It was just too painful. Now that I have a grandson on the team, I figured it's time."
Herd senior running back Keion Davis said he was honored to attend the ceremony.
"We had the opportunity to meet some of the guys who played for the Young Thundering Herd," Davis said. "I thank them for what they've done. No other school has a story like ours. They laid the foundation for us, and I'm proud to be a part of that."