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David Walsh: Oliver provided Young Herd’s first glimmer of hope

September 2, 2018

Before becoming a sports reporter, I played football for four years at Marshall University. In August 1970, one young man from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, named Reggie Oliver, met me, a youngster from Suffolk, Virginia. We both played quarterback. We were roommates and classmates.

Because of a tragedy, the Marshall plane crash on Nov. 14, 1970, we became charter members of an ever-growing Thundering Herd Nation. The jet bringing our teammates, including the four players Oliver knew well from Druid High School, some of our coaches, some athletic department personnel and some fans home from a 17-14 loss at East Carolina University that Saturday crashed short of the runway at Tri-State Airport in Kenova on a rainy, foggy Saturday night. All 75 on board died.

It was up to members of Marshall’s 1970 freshman team to help pick up the pieces and move forward. Oliver helped provide the first glimmer of hope when he hooked up with Terry Gardner for a TD pass on the final play of the game to give the Young Thundering Herd a 15-13 victory over Xavier in the first game at Fairfield Stadium after the plane crash.

Oliver went on to have many great moments with the Young Herd, then in life as a coach and teacher.

He was good at breaking barriers, too. At Marshall, he became one of the first African-Americans to play quarterback in college.

The Jacksonville Sharks of the World Football League drafted Oliver in 1974 and he played for one season before the league went under. On Sept. 5, 1974, he affirmed a black man could run an offense as he completed 14 of 26 passes for 321 yards and two scores in a driving rain to lead the Sharks past the Philadelphia Bell, 34-30. All he wanted was a chance.

After football, Oliver continued to do so much for his alma mater. Oliver was regarded as a “great ambassador” and rightfully so. On April 28, 2018, Oliver was the keynote speaker for the spring fountain ceremony attended by other Marshall players, past and present, when water in the Memorial Student Center Fountain starts flowing again.

Clad in a white suit and green tie, he cut loose with a 49-minute speech. He got a standing ovation at the end, then took time to sign autographs and pose for pictures with Herd fans.

That would be the last time many Marshall fans saw Oliver. On Aug. 4, he fell back from a chair at his mother Mattie’s home in Huntsville, Alabama, and suffered a head injury. On Aug. 14, Herd Nation received the stunning news of Oliver’s death at age 66.

In our playing days, we had some tough drives. Circumstances made the drive from Huntington to Huntsville, Alabama, for Oliver’s funeral difficult.

I drove to Hazel Green, Alabama, to spend some time at the home of former teammate Roger Hillis. Teammate Allen Meadows, who resides in the Tri-State, joined us. Hillis talked about all the times he visited Oliver.

During the meal at church after the service, Hillis and Meadows presented a football to Oliver’s mother. It was signed by teammates and others who made the trip to pay final respects.

At the burial site, dirt taken from the former Huntington location of old Fairfield Stadium was distributed on Oliver’s grave.

The next chapter of Marshall football began Saturday when the Herd played an old rival and nemesis, Miami (Ohio). Marshall had a rough trip to Oxford, Ohio, in 1971 when the Redskins (now the RedHawks) put one on the Young Herd, 66-6. Oliver was injured and sat that one out, leaving it to me and Jim Pry to take the pounding.

Oliver’s inner drive contributed to the resurgence of Marshall football as a player and an alumnus. I witnessed it firsthand.

David Walsh is a retired reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. His email is bigdogdown@gmail.com.

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