During the 1970 college football season, Marshall suffered a devastating loss to East Carolina in week 9 to drop the Thundering Herd to 3-6 on the year. Marshall fans and residents of Huntington, W.V. briefly mourned after the 17-14 defeat, but what happened after the game shook the school and the town to its core. The Marshall football team tragedy remains one of the saddest sports stories of all time.
Marshall’s team plane crashed on the way back from the East Carolina game
After suffering the loss to East Carolina on Nov. 14, 1970, a majority of the Marshall team boarded Southern Airlines Flight 932. The flight should’ve been nothing more than a formality, but the team would never reach their destination back in Huntington.
While in the air, the plane struck a tree on a tall hill and crashed to the ground. Every one of the 75 people on board died in the crash. That included 37 Marshall football players, 25 team boosters, multiple coaches and team doctors, and Marshall’s athletic director. The five Southern Airlines employees also died in the crash.
The tragedy shocked the town of Huntington in the worst way imaginable. An unfathomable 37 families were forced to mourn the death of their sons that fateful day. It’s still considered the worst air disaster in American sports history.
Marshall’s inspiring road back to the football field
It was impossible for the remaining Marshall players to forget about their fallen teammates, but they had to when the 1971 season approached. With 37 players gone due to the horrific tragedy, the NCAA allowed Marshall’s freshmen players to suit up the next season.
At the time, freshmen couldn’t play varsity sports in college. The NCAA made an exception for the Thundering Herd.
In the team’s first home game since the plane crash, Marshall put together one of the most inspiring performances in sports history. The Thundering Herd upset Xavier, 15-13, in an emotional victory for the ages.
Later in the season, Marshall also upset Bowling Green State, 12-10. The team finished the 1971 season with a 2-8 record, but just winning a single game was a miracle after what Marshall went through a season prior. The inspiring story even made it to the big screen in 2006.
The story of tragedy and redemption was made into a movie called “We Are Marshall”
“We Are Marshall” was the rallying cry for the Thundering Herd’s football program in 1970. It signified the team’s unity as not just a football team, but one family.
In 2006, Hollywood turned that inspiring slogan into one of the greatest sports movies ever made. “We Are Marshall” starred Matthew McConaughey as Jack Lengyel, the head coach who took over the program in 1971.
The movie details the tragic deaths of nearly the entire football program in 1970 and the rebuilding of a school and town all at once. It’s an inspiring tribute to those fallen lives and the devoted men who led Marshall back to glory.