Published June 10, 2006.
ATLANTA -- Neither scorching heat nor a rash of recent surgeries would keep Reggie Oliver away from a reunion with Marshall University football teammates and alumni.
Oliver, the Marshall quarterback who threw the game-winning pass in the Thundering Herd's emotional 1971 home victory over Xavier University, joined more than 350 people for a Saturday tailgate party and final filming stages of "We Are Marshall" in Atlanta.
"I'm so grateful to be here," Oliver said. "I think it's super to show the honor to the school and the town (of Huntington). It's not just a football story. I've said it's the greatest sports story that was never told."
Friday, Atlanta resident Tom Bossie said he considers the tailgate party a family reunion, including being reunited with "surrogate father" Red Dawson. Bossie played on the Young Thundering Herd football team in the early 1970s, the same era that Dawson served as an assistant coach.
"He was like a surrogate father to me," Bossie said of Dawson, who is portrayed by actor Matthew Fox in the movie. "I'm anxious to see Coach (Dawson) and all of the other guys. It's tough to keep up with them."
Lance West, vice president for alumni development at Marshall, expects a brisk turnout today, although he said it's difficult to estimate just how many will attend.
"We've had a tremendous outpouring of phone calls and electronic responses," West said. "Obviously, something like this has never been done, but we're expecting a very large crowd."
Rick Meckstroth, who played as a linebacker on the Young Thundering Herd, was among many alumni traveling to Atlanta on Friday. A Huntington resident, Meckstroth said he feels fortunate to have watched "We Are Marshall" progress from start to finish.
"I'm glad to see this thing through," he said. "I hope a lot of people from the '71 team come down. ... I am excited for everybody."
Jack Lengyel, who coached the Young Thundering Herd the season after the crash, arrived in Atlanta late Thursday and saw Herndon Stadium for the first time Friday. He watched as extras portraying Marshall football players repeatedly ran onto the field to challenge players from Xavier University, an emotional 1971 win for Marshall that signaled its team was back.
"It's probably as emblematic of the (Fairfield) Stadium as you would find," Lengyel said of Huntington's former stadium. "When you look at this, you feel it's the Marshall stadium."
Herdon Stadium, located just west of downtown on the campus of Morris Brown College, was filled with vintage Herd touches, including a green and white awning and a scoreboard identical to one used at Fairfield.
Andy Nameth, who was a defensive line coach during Lengyel's tenure at Marshall, said seeing the fictional Thundering Herd team running out onto the field was beyond words.
"It's like being there," he said of the Xavier game. "It's hard to explain the feelings."
Hundreds of eerily silent mannequins filled the stands, interspersed with real people who stood up and cheered. Extras portraying the Thundering Herd band pivoted and "played," their silence to be added as music during scoring.
Lengyel said he was sorry he missed filming earlier this week of actor Matthew McConaughey (who portrays Lengyel) "wrestling" Marco the bison - a real buffalo that was allowed onto the field during home games in the early '70s.
"I had quick feet, and you don't think of a buffalo as being agile," Lengyel said of his struggles to get Marco back into his pen.
No doubt many such stories will be shared during today's tailgate party, which begins at 9 a.m. in parking lot Blue at the Georgia Dome, located a few blocks from Herndon Stadium.
Those attending the tailgate also may participate in the filming as fans. They may walk to Herndon Stadium or take advantage of shuttle service provided by Warner Bros. Pictures. Cast and crew call for the shoot is 2 p.m. An official program, welcoming everyone and introducing guests, starts at 1 p.m.