Published Nov. 14, 2007
HUNTINGTON -- When The Rev. Robert Scott celebrates Mass today at St. Austin Catholic Parish in Austin, Texas, he'll offer up a special prayer to people touched in any way by the Marshall University plane crash on Nov. 14, 1970.
Why such an outreach for a school located two times zones away?
Scott served as a campus minister at Marshall in 1970 and was the chaplain for the football team. He received the devastating news that rainy Saturday evening about the plane bringing the team, coaches, athletic administrators and boosters back from the 17-14 loss to East Carolina in Greenville, N.C., crashing short of the runway at Tri-State Airport in Kenova. All 75 aboard died.
He pulled himself together and went into action assisting and comforting people.
Marshall resumed football in 1971 and Scott remained as the chaplain. The Young Thundering Herd won two games that memorable season -- 15-13 over Xavier in the home opener and 12-10 over Bowling Green on Homecoming. Through first a documentary, "Ashes To Glory," and then the movie, "We Are Marshall," people everywhere learned about the tragedy and the battle the university and city waged to recover.
Scott said he has the plane crash date written in his appointment book. Now the 86-year-old campus minister at the University of Texas, he celebrates Mass with the students and then talks with them and others who are present about what that day and the recovery were like.
Marshall conducts its annual Memorial Service at noon today at the Memorial Student Center.
"They're too young (students). Since the movie came out, everyone knows about it," Scott said. "I was in shock. I didn't believe it. I say a prayer now for all the people left behind. The resilience of that town and team has been amazing. Freshmen being able to play (by NCAA ruling) and beating Xavier. Wow. I have to be honest. It's not as touching (now) as it was, but it still gets to you."
Scott remembers working non-stop for days after the crash to tend to those in need. The following Saturday he took part in a memorial service at Fairfield Stadium. Marshall was scheduled to play at Ohio University that day, but the game was canceled.
On the night of the crash, Scott was in the school's Catholic house, his place of residence.
"We'd had some meetings and I'd just had supper," Scott said. "A few minutes after I got the news, I knew I had to go over to the Campus Christian Center. I knew the kids would be coming out of the dorms. They had no place to go. I went over to meet them. ... friends of people on the plane, girlfriends. It was quite an evening. This hit so close to home for us."
The accident meant an end to the friendships Scott had with Thundering Herd coaches and players. He devoted himself to memorial services and funerals. At many of them, Scott would officiate. One in particular was for head coach Rick Tolley.
"Every Saturday when the team would get back or if they were at home, I'd go over to one of the coaches houses for dinner," he said. "Just relax. Then the next few days (after the crash) I visited with families, the (Ted) Shoebridges, the Cinncinnati players, the Harris family. I would deal with wives of coaches and people in town."
To this day, Scott is thankful he still is here. Normally, he traveled with the team, but for the East Carolina game he decided to stay behind and do work on campus.
"I had taken a Saturday off earlier. I thought I'd better not do it again," Scott said. "Still there was room on the plane and why not go? If I did, I wouldn't be here today."
Scott recalled the memorial service at Fairfield Stadium began at 1:30 p.m. -- the same time the game against Ohio University was to kickoff. Scott read a prayer after a wreath was placed at midfield.
"That's when it really came home," he said. "No game today. God had called the game off."
When Warner Bros. Pictures decided to make the movie, the company had Scott to sign a release. He said he had no idea what he did until he saw the movie for the first time after Christmas.
"I hear a voice. I say that's me," Scott said of the voice heard when that memorial service scene unfolds.
Scott got additional air time at the end of the movie.
"They show pictures of me in the credit lines in the dressing room with the team, praying with the team, the new team that is," he said. That new team was the 1971 Young Thundering Herd.
One of the most emotional moments in the movie for Scott is the crash scene.
"I had some very big cries, especially the scenes right after the crash," he said. "That was so vivid to me."
Scott said he was happy Marshall continued football. He became and remains good friends with Young Thundering Herd head coach Jack Lengyel and his wife, Sandy. Scott did the wedding for their daughter, Julie.
"Jack had a tough time. I'd go search him out and we'd talk," Scott said. "I used to go to practices all the time. Before each game I'd be in the locker room wearing my green blazer and Roman collar."
In the Xavier game, the Young Herd scored on the final play to secure the win. Fans at the stadium stormed the field, including Scott.
"I was running across the field like a fool," Scott said. "People are interested in that story now."
Scott said "Ashes To Glory" and "We Are Marshall" let the whole world in on one of the great comeback stories in sports.
"I liked it," he said of the documentary. "I've seen it a few times, but I don't have a copy. The movie was very good. Matthew (McConaughey) overplayed Jack's part. My reaction to a movie being made? Surprise. It was so many years later. Now so many people have the DVD and hear your voice."
Before Scott came to Marshall, he served at West Virginia University. His stops after Marshall include Ohio State, UCLA, Tennessee, Baylor and Texas.
"I still seem to have a rapport with the students," he said.