Every game day carries with it a hype not even a Drake beat can touch. The warmups become more ritualistic, the preparation becomes more precise and each player and coach takes their job a little more seriously, knowing both strangers and loved ones will be watching, all eyes on them.
But this Saturday in Huntington, West Virginia, hype takes a backseat to history as Marshall hosts Middle Tennessee on the 50th anniversary of the devastating plane crash that rocked the small town back in 1970. 75 members of the Marshall community lost their lives – 36 players, 25 fans, nine coaches and administrators and five flight crew members.
This year’s Thundering Herd team has the rare opportunity to honor those lost lives at home on the actual date on the crash, something that has only happened six times since 1970. The emotion and energy surrounding the game and the week leading up to it is something players and coaches look forward to all year.
“It’s not a normal feeling like any other game,” said Marshall defensive lineman Owen Porter. “I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s just what’s in the air the week of the 75 game. There’s just something working with us – everybody’s got that little extra bit of motivation or grit to get through the week, we’re ready to roll by the time Saturday comes and we are not going to lose.”
Porter, a Huntington native, knows exactly what this week means to everyone who lives there – his mom resided a quarter of a mile from where the plane crashed and his grandmother still talks about that night.
“It literally shook their entire house, knocked a bunch of stuff down,” recalled Porter. “My grandma always talks about how it knocked over a big book shelf in their house. And I mean I lived about 10 minutes from the plane crash, just on the other end of 75. It was something we just…it’s always been there; you pass it almost every day.”
The memory of the 75 is ingrained in every Marshall football player the moment they step on campus, starting with a run to the Springhill Cemetery in the summer and culminating by donning that black jersey in the fall. But it’s not really about football, despite football being a big part of the story.
“My favorite thing about that week is when Coach Gayle brings down one of the helmets that we will be wearing and sets it right in front of the fieldhouse doors and you just touch the helmet on the way in and touch it on the way out,” remembered former Marshall offensive lineman Levi Brown. “Anytime you enter or exit that building during that one week, you gotta give that helmet a touch. It doesn’t matter if you came off the practice field and you had the worst practice you’ve had in years. When you touch that helmet it reminds you that no matter how poorly you practiced, you have to do better the next day because this is the week where everything is bigger than you.”
Brown was a member of the Thundering Herd squad that struggled to find their footing.
“If you go back to 2016, it was Marshall’s worst year in a long time even though we were supposed to be good,” said Brown. “But even though we were 3-9 that year, one of the games we found a way to win was the 75 game - sometimes its fate, sometimes its destiny, other times its luck. But I’d rather be lucky than good some days.”
Anyone around the program will tell you that certain things that transpire during the 75 game are just unexplainable.
“Weird things happen during this week – there’s someone new every year that seems to get their opportunity,” admitted Marshall quarterback Grant Wells.
Marshall offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey had a different word for it.
“It’s heavenly as Rev, the team chaplain likes to say, we have a heavenly audience,” explained Cramsey. “Things work out for Marshall in the 75 game. Things happen. There are people up there rooting for us.”
Surprise suspensions, missed field goals, career firsts– the list of unusual correlations goes on.
“I think one of the craziest things we always talk about is…certain score lines, some things that happen at certain times in the game, it almost feels like the 75 is there at the game, whether it’s when a touchdown happens at a certain time in the game and lines up with the date or just something like that,” said Marshall kicker Shane Ciucci. “It’s really odd how something for the past 2-3 years happens and it just feels like that entity is there.”
Gridiron ghosts shepherding the Herd perhaps?
“Everyone looks forward to what the 75 is going to do this game,” admitted Brown.
So how does an opposing team prepare for such an emotional event?
“I don’t think there’s anything you can do,” answered Middle Tennessee offensive coordinator Tony Franklin. “It’s like every gigantic emotional game that you play in your career, once it starts and the scheme takes place and all the big hits are out of the way and the emotions and all that stuff, after that it’s just football.”
But keeping emotions in check will be key for the Blue Raiders
“Any high emotional game that I’ve ever been involved in, there’s what I call a storm,” explained Franklin. “You go into the storm, and the storm is bad, it’s scary and it’s going to threaten to blow you away. The only way you ever survive a storm is to remain calm and to have a plan. You have to stick to your basics, to your fundamentals and if all those things are good, then the storm won’t matter.”
Middle Tennessee has been doing just that as of late, trusting their talent in a 40-34 double-overtime win over Rice two weeks ago, fending off the Owl storm just fine. But the 75 isn’t any old storm.
“I think with a team like Marshall, whenever they feel threatened and they feel like they are losing it, they have that emotion to fall back on,” said Franklin. “It’s something that’s part of their history that’s been built into them since they were recruited there. I don’t think it’s as important of a thing for the opponent because we just have to withstand the storm.”
Franklin will look to his junior signal-caller Asher O’Hara to keep the team on track, leading them the way he leads Conference USA in passing yards (1,509).
“I’ve never really played in a game like this before, it’s definitely a huge deal,” said O’Hara. “I’m sure it’s going to be a ton of energy and a different type of vibe at the game but we just have to do a good job of focusing on us and not really thinking of everything else going on. We’ve got to just honor and give recognition to what happened but find a way to focus on us and get it done and play good football.”
Settling in might be more challenging than O’Hara realizes.
“Man, you get cold chills just thinking about it - when you walk out arm-in-arm with those guys, you see that different intro video and you hear the story,” recalled Brown. “There wasn’t a time when I didn’t get teared up, realizing that everyone in the stadium is feeling the same thing that you are - everyone has that cold chill. It’s the quick sadness but you’ve got to snap out of it quickly because you have a game to play.”
Middle Tennessee defeated Marshall last year 24-13 when O’Hara & Co. caught Tavante Beckett and the rest of the Herd’s defense by surprise. Marshall leads MTSU 5-4 all-time, but the Blue Raiders have won the last two. Not that any of that matters on Saturday.
“Throw the records out the window, throw everything out the window,” instructed Cramsey. “This game is everything to the players on this team, everything to the fan base and everything to the community.”