An Emotional Visit to Marshall University
Updated: Jul 8
Randy Moss, Chad Pennington, and a pretty good college football team...
Prior to the release of the 2006 movie We Are Marshall, that was about the extent of my knowledge of the Marshall University football program. Sure, I had heard about the plane crash, but until the film, I knew little about the incident. I will admit the first time I saw the movie it did bring a tear to my eye, but looking back at it, the movie is not what brought tears to my eyes. What brought tears to my eyes was the fact that this tragedy really did happen and the tragedy was about real people with real emotions.
If you are not familiar with the story, on November 14, 1970, a chartered jet carrying most of the Marshall University football team clips a stand of trees and crashes into a hillside just two miles from the Tri-State Airport in Kenova, West Virginia, killing everyone on board. The team was returning from that day’s game, a 17-14 loss to East Carolina University. Thirty-seven Marshall football players were aboard the plane, along with the team’s coach, its doctors, the university athletic director and 25 team boosters–some of Huntington, West Virginia’s most prominent citizens–who had traveled to North Carolina to cheer on the Thundering Herd. “The whole fabric,” a citizen of Huntington wrote, “the whole heart of the town was aboard.”
The story of the Marshall Young Thundering Herd continuing the football program following the tragedy and earning their first victory in the 1971 season is the focus of the 2006 film. During the 1970's and 80's, the team was very bad. After many years of enduring losing seasons, the football team did return to prominence in the 1990's, winning national championships, undefeated seasons, and producing NFL-quality talent on a consistent basis. Today, they are viewed as a perennial college football power and a respected, well-run program.
I found myself driving through West Virginia on a recent filming assignment for a video production and noticed that a short detour would land me in Huntington, West Virginia, home of Marshall University. I am fortunate to travel often for work and I always have the desire to see everything, so a detour is part of the package to me. My fringe benefit. So, I swapped in the coordinates on google maps.
During the drive, I imagined how it would feel to be around during those times. As a sports fan, it would be quite shocking to see nowadays and we have the all too recent tragic death of Kobe Bryant to look at to remind us of the fragility of life, along with its pain. But this was almost a whole team, coaching staff, and fans & boosters of a small college community. Inconceivable the tragedy of it. The worst in sports history. I imagined how I would feel visiting the campus and memorial. I didn't have long to ponder as I drove into Huntington and eventually the campus of Marshall University. A VERY green campus (the University's color), from the signage to the blooming summer foliage, this is a gorgeous place. Normal college happenings were going on during our Friday afternoon visit. A few students taking summer classes wandering around and a near empty parking lot in close proximity to the memorial fountain.
Seeing the memorial from a distance as I walked towards it was a somber experience. I had the surreal feeling like I was attending a funeral or a wake. I thought to myself, this was going to be sad. Hearing the splashing water of the memorial as I made my way toward it had a calming feeling. The memorial is situated just outside the Memorial Student Center at the heart of Marshall’s Huntington campus which was very quiet the weekend of my early summer visit. With hardly anybody around, I spent some time quietly wandering around the fountain taking it in. The fountain is a a visible reminder of the 75 lives lost in the Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash. More than 13 feet high and weighing 6,500 pounds, the memorial was created by sculptor Harry Bertoia. It was his hope the fountain would “commemorate the living—rather than death—on the waters of life, rising, receding, surging so as to express upward growth, immortality and eternality.”
The Memorial Fountain was dedicated by President John G. Barker on Nov. 12, 1972, to the memory of the plane crash victims. Each year a memorial service is held on the anniversary of the tragedy. The ceremony includes the traditional laying of a wreath and the fountain’s water is turned off until the following spring. Visitors seek out the fountain and for students and alumni it is a landmark—a statement of resiliency, constancy of spirit and a flowing future.
Every Nov. 14, Marshall University’s Memorial Fountain becomes sacred ground, as the community comes together to pay their respects. It is where every member of the Marshall family wants to be at noon on that date each year, gathered around that graceful monument with friends and university community. They may have accepted the tragedy of the event and have, in many ways, come to peace with the pain. But it is never forgotten. The Marshall family continues to be strengthened by the lasting memory. They recognize that the resilience of this community and this university has triumphed over enormous loss. They have persevered together and have grown stronger because of it.
Jerome Gilbert, President of Marshall University stated "This yearly ritual, in part, defines our university. The ceremony reminds us, strengthens us and binds us together in love—the love of our lost family members, friends and colleagues; the love of each other; and the love of Marshall University. And, at the end of the ceremony, we share a great sense of pride as we sing our Alma Mater together, and reflect on the metaphor of her light shining over dark waters. We are united as a Marshall family each Nov. 14 and always".
The memorial itself, exudes a somber, peaceful feeling. Knowing why the memorial is here, also felt tragic. Unimaginable. To also be aware that it has helped offer healing to a community that was so hurt was, in a sense, felt uplifting. For awhile, I sat on many of benches throughout the area, reflecting and feeling the emotion of the memorial from all sides. I wondered how powerful a scene it must be each year during the yearly ceremony when the memorial grounds are packed with the Marshall University community. Then I took photos, because that's what I do. The camera always helps me feel more connected and observant of what I am filming. I met a father and son that were one of the few people I saw at the memorial. The father, a professional photographer, had overheard my conversation about lining up the shot and we struck up a conversation. Visiting from Michigan, they too felt the urge to visit the memorial that day and drove out of their way to see it. They too felt the similar emotions being there. This is a powerful place that is both in remembrance of the past and a symbol of resilience for the future.
Such an absolute tragedy. But, I'm glad that I had the chance to visit in person. Being a football fan and someone that often finds themselves traveling on planes, the story touched me personally and has stayed with me. It's a reminder that we are all living on borrowed time. In an instant everything can change and it can be over. Not just for us but everyone around us. Seize your moments. Visit everything. Feel it all. Chase all the dreams. Live with urgency.