HUNTINGTON -- Be it real life or a movie, what Paul Smith experienced hurt.
Smith was the Xavier University starting quarterback in 1971. On Sept. 25, 1971, Smith stood helplessly on the sideline as Marshall's Young Thundering Herd scored a touchdown on the final play of the game to stun the Musketeers, 15-13, and set off a wild celebration for the 13,000 fans in attendance that sunny day at Fairfield Stadium in Huntington.
In December 2006 some former Xavier players, including Smith, gathered with a newspaper reporter and defensive back Felix Jordan from that Marshall team at a Cincinnati theater for a private screening of "We Are Marshall." The Warner Bros. Pictures movie tells the story of the university's and Huntington's efforts to rebuild after one of the greatest tragedies in sports history. The chartered jet bringing the Marshall team, coaches, athletic department members and boosters back from a loss to East Carolina crashed short of the runway at Tri-State Airport in Kenova. All 75 aboard died. The movie ends with the Marshall-Xavier game and the TD on the final play for the victory.
"That's something you never forget. I didn't need a movie," said Smith, a guidance counselor and testing coordinator at Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati. "I have memories of all kinds of games. That's the one I talk about most."
Smith, 56, has been at the Catholic school 35 years. He spent the first 30 as an assistant football coach with the Crusaders.
When Smith learned Warner Bros. would make the movie, he had but one question.
"What took them so long?" he said.
In the 1970 season, Marshall traveled to Xavier on Oct. 3 and won, 31-14. Three weeks later, the Musketeers played at Tampa and used the same airline (Southern) for the flight down and back that Marshall would later use on the fateful weekend. Then came Nov. 14. That afternoon the Musketeers beat the Quantico Marines, 35-27. That evening, Smith and his teammates got news about the crash.
"It was pretty devastating," Smith said. "You can't imagine anything like that happening. Some guys at Xavier were from Huntington. We saw the photos. We all were in shock."
At the end of each season, Xavier had a football banquet. The 1970 season was an exception.
"The players didn't want to have the banquet," Smith said. "We wanted to send the money to Marshall."
An Xavier fan did step forward and finance the banquet anyway.
Smith got another chance to see the film on Oct. 4 when Jack Lengyel, head coach of the Young Thundering Herd in 1971, came to Moeller to talk to the team and help them deal with a tragedy. Prior to the season, two Crusaders were killed (Jordan Bessey in a car accident and Andy Carter in a shooting).
"Some of the kids were seeing it for the first time," Smith said. "They had tears in their eyes. I said you'd better love the one you're with."
Three players who died in the Marshall crash -- Bobby Harris, Jack Repasy and Mark Andrews -- are Moeller alums. In his first class at Moeller, when Smith took attendance he learned he had Cliff Harris in the room. He was the younger brother of Bobby Harris.
"That sent chills down my spine," Smith said.
When Smith met up with Lengyel, they exchanged greetings. "I told him there were no hard feelings," Smith said, referring to the 1971 loss.
To the players, the movie was like a history lesson. Some didn't know about the ties between Marshall and Xavier.
"Xavier had football. You played for Xavier," were some of the comments Smith heard.
To Smith, the movie hit home from start to finish.
"The opening was great. The fountain and the water goes off. They did a great job with the plane crash. In and out. As intense as it was, it wasn't as painful as the loss itself. We didn't know what it meant. We just wanted to win a game. Having seen the kids from Moeller and what the city went through. It probably was God's will Marshall win that game more than Xavier."
In the 1971 game, Xavier's two scores came on a run and punt return. In the movie, the Musketeers get their points on a TD pass and fumble return.
In the game, the Herd called a screen pass on the final play and Reggie Oliver hit Terry Gardner, who sprinted into the end zone. In the movie, a different play is run, but the result is the same much to Smith's dismay.
"Anything that could possibly go wrong for us did," Smith said when recalling the game. "I was dating a girl from Huntington at the time. Before (the) game we saw wreaths outside the end zone.
"I still remember the play, the screen. You watch everything develop and it's like it's in slow motion. You know it's going to work. We had only one defender who could stop him. Get it over with."
Xavier players and coaches in 1971 and those in the blue and white colors of the Musketeers in the movie dropped their heads and fell to the ground in disbelief after that famous TD.
"We were so stunned and disappointed," Smith said. "We'd never seen anything like that. We were still in shock we got beat. We hurt so bad. We just wanted to get off the field. It was such a long walk."
Xavier defeated the Young Herd, 14-0, in 1972 at home. In 1973, the Musketeers rallied from 28-17 deficit in the fourth period to pull out a 30-28 victory. They scored the winning TD with 41 seconds left. On Dec. 19, the school's board of trustees voted to drop football. Football, with Smith's input, returned at the club level in 2006.
Smith misses those football homecoming weekends. Seeing Marshall keep the sport and eventually become a power in the I-AA Southern Conference and I-A Mid-American Conference gives him a sense of satisfaction his school can't.
"The Marshall experience. I'm very impressed," Smith said. "I've started rooting for them. Some tough decisions had to be made. They did. People who look at Marshall now see they did the right thing."