Marshall remembers worst US sports disaster 50 years later

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Marshall University athletic director Mike Hamrick speaks next to the Memorial Fountain on the schools campus in Huntington, W.Va., Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. The fountain is dedicated to the memory of 75 people killed in a Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash. Among the victims were 36 Marshall football players. (AP Photo/John Raby)

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – After a plane crash killed most of Marshall University's football team in 1970, school administrators could have resorted to the simplest choice — dropping the losing sport altogether.

They didn't. They couldn't bring themselves to do it.

From the 75 lives lost in the worst sports disaster in U.S. history, the program slowly rebuilt and eventually triumphed. A half-century later, those who lived through the tragedy — some by happenstance, others by fateful decisions that seemed mundane at the time — marvel as they recall the feeling that they had to keep playing.

“We felt the guys would want us to go on,” said Ed Carter, a sophomore offensive lineman who was supposed to be on the team plane but wasn't. “We just felt we needed to continue the program."

The team's long, determined crawl back to success was chronicled in the 2006 movie “We Are Marshall ” — a title borrowed from the chants that resonate at Thundering Herd games. Today the team is undefeated and ranked No. 16 heading into Saturday’s home game with Middle Tennessee.

"It has been real special to see how that program has been turned around.” Carter said.

In the first season after the crash, Marshall won just two games. The first winning season didn’t come for another 13 years. Then success occurred in streaks.

Marshall captured Division I-AA national championships in 1992 and 1996 and amassed the most wins of any team in the nation in the 1990s, many of them during a step up into Division I-A under coach Bob Pruett. An athlete named Randy Moss started a journey there that would redefine what was possible in terms of speed, power and size at the wide receiver position.