Two games in the 2011 Marshall University football season spelled out what Nov. 14 symbolizes for me.
Monday marks the 41st anniversary of the Marshall plane crash on Nov. 14, 1970. On that rainy, foggy Saturday night, I lost teammates, coaches and friends I'd barely gotten to know as a member of the freshman team when the chartered jet bringing the Thundering Herd back from a 17-14 loss at East Carolina crashed short of the runway at Tri-State Airport in Kenova. All 75 aboard died.
The tragedy created a void of epic proportions. The first 2011 game made it crystal clear one void will be with us forever. Call it a flashback. The second game showed filling the void could lead to rewards unimaginable at the time. I call it fast forward.
This season, Virginia Tech played Marshall at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Before the game, Hokies coach Frank Beamer made a trip to Spring Hill Cemetery to pay his respects to those who perished in the worst air disaster in U.S. sports history. He placed a memorial HokieStone at the site where six individuals who could not be identified are buried. Beamer and Rick Tolley, the Marshall coach who died in the crash, were Virginia Tech teammates. Another man who died, Marshall assistant coach Frank Loria, also played for the Hokies.
Virginia Tech players wore stickers on their helmets for the game with the initials of Tolley and Loria along with the No. 75.
Frank Loria Jr. attended that game and handled the ceremonial pregame coin toss to honor his father and the grandfather his two children never met. His father died a month before he was born. Loria Jr. was joined by his sister Julie, his son Frank III (7), his daughter Sophie (9) and other family members. What a touching scene.
Monday makes the stories with the Loria theme front and center again. Loved ones and friends who crossed paths daily or on occasion would do so no more. Parker Ward, Keith Morehouse and Cindy and Debbie Chambers lost their parents and first role models. Phyllis Loria became a widow. For some people such as Patty Smith, paths would never cross. She never met Jimo Adams, a Herd offensive guard and her biological father. Pictures and stories would have to suffice.
Tolley believed he had and would continue to attract players capable of restoring integrity to a program that was rocked by a 1969 recruiting scandal, had been booted out of the Mid-American Conference and endured a lengthy streak of losing seasons. He was denied, but when university officials decided to continue playing football, others got the chance to complete that mission. And Herd fans would continue to satisfy their true football fix. And they can offer their own game analysis, speculate how good the Herd will be, evaluate recruiting classes and tailgate. No void here.
Also this season, Marshall traveled to a game at Louisville. The drive down I-64 goes past the exit for Morehead, Ky. As I passed that exit, I thought to myself 'This is where the restoration started.'
On Sept. 18, 1971, the Young Thundering Herd played its first game at Morehead State, and the Eagles won, 29-6. It was a tough night, but the fact we took the field would be seen as the first of many positives to come.
Current Marshall coach Doc Holliday knows what that night and season meant. Holliday, his assistants and players are wearing green wristbands to honor that special team. He sent those green wristbands to '71 Young Herd team members, too. And then there's this -- Marshall 17, Louisville 13. Ironic?
In time, conference championships, national championships, Top 10 rankings, bowl bids, Heisman Trophy candidates, first-round NFL Draft picks and significantly upgraded facilities (more are in the works) became topics of conversation.
The world learned the compelling story through the documentary "Ashes to Glory" and the movie "We Are Marshall." Tributes continue. Daniel and Madge Slay drove from St. Louis to attend a memorial service.
Two middle school students in Iowa did their National History Day report on the Marshall plane crash and recovery. Actors who had roles as Xavier football players in the movie saluted Marshall for a truly remarkable comeback from a football-related ground zero.
Tears will be shed at Monday's memorial service. That's to be expected. Witnessing what's transpired in four decades since Marshall and Huntington chose to press on rather than clock out makes a truly dark day a bit brighter.
David Walsh is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. Walsh was a freshman member of the 1970 Marshall football team and lost teammates, coaches and friends in the Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash. Contact him at 304-526-2759 or email@example.com.