We are the ‘Young Thundering Herd’
“Don’t ever waste an opportunity to tell someone you love them. Cause you’ll never know when you’ll get another opportunity.”
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - Hazel Green High School alumni Roger Hillis didn’t know anything about Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, when he was a senior in high school. He just knew that he wanted to play college football.
When Hillis was still in high school, Rick Tolley was in his second year as Marshall’s head coach. On November 14, 1970, the Thundering Herd was returning home from a 17-14 loss to East Carolina University when Southern Airways Flight 932 crashed into a hill just short of landing runway.
75 people lost their lives; 36 Marshall players, 39 coaches, school administrators, community leaders, boosters, and flight crew. This tragic plane crash known to this day as the worst sports tragedy in U.S. history.
It was after the plane crash that Hillis learned of Marshall and received a full ride offer to play all four years. Before the plane crash, the NCAA didn’t allow freshman to play on varsity. This rule overturned after the majority of the Marshall team perished in the crash.
As Marshall and the nation grieved, Hillis and his teammates tried to gain a sense of what to do moving forward when they got to campus.
“We’re having to go out and speak to the community, and you cannot go anywhere without meeting somebody who lost somebody,” Hillis said. “Even our cheerleaders had lost, one of the young lady that was the head cheerleader, she had lost both her parents in the crash, so you’re talking to kids that had lost either a parent or a boyfriend. Because there were no leaders on the team, we were forced into a leadership role.”
Teammates Bob Bronger and Allen Meadows said the freshmen players didn’t understand the magnitude of the grief until much later.
Meadows added that the coaches didn’t have any way to prepare for building a team from ground up.
“We had no idea how much that plane crash, how it impacted the community here and all over the United States. We had players from Alabama,” Meadows said. “We had players from up in the East. It impacted a big portion of this country. I had no idea, and the coaches, they came in, they didn’t have a game plan for how do you bring a team back together after such a tragedy.”
Former head coach at the college of Wooster in Ohio, Jack Lengyel, went to Marshall for an interview to become The Thundering Herd’s new head coach. Lengyel became the man in charge after no one wanted the job.
“We began our journey to rebuild Marshall’s football team, ‘The Young Thundering Herd,” said Lengyel.
Bronger said Coach Lengyel was the man who should’ve had the job.
“To have to deal with the situation, and to have to deal with us, and all the things that 18-year-old guys go through, I think I learned from watching him and how he handled situations,” Bronger said.
Even though the 1971 Marshall team was mostly freshmen, Hillis and his teammates had the mentality that they would win every game.
“They forgot to tell us we were 18-year-olds playing seniors and juniors in other winning programs, so we go, as far as preparation, they always prepared us for every ball game like we were going to win it. We were young and dumb, they didn’t tell us that we probably wouldn’t gonna win it,” Hillis said.
Marshall’s first home game against Xavier was truly emotional. On paper, Xavier was a bigger and better team, but the Young Thundering Herd had more to play for. Hillis said it was really a memorial game since it was the first home game since the plane crash.
“We’re playing in front of all the relatives of the guys that died in the crash, and all the parents in the community that died in the crash. Well, we go in and win the ball game. The town, it’s kind of a release valve let off. They dump on the field. I tell this story over and over, that they go into the locker room with us. They go into the shower with us,” Hillis said.
Even though Marshall only went on to win eight games during the college careers of Meadows, Hillis, and Bronger, their determination inspired generations to come. Bronger said their team at the time didn’t think they accomplished anything in their four years, but he realized years later the importance of the Young Thundering Herd.
The brotherhood established throughout their years at Marshall remains alive still today. They started out as a bunch of teenagers and now, many of them are nearing their 70′s.
“Our friendship that we had as 20-year-olds is closer now at 60 than it was at 20. We’ve watched each other grow our families, we’ve watched each other go through life problems, cancers, sickness. We’ve lost brothers. So, any time, and it’s no matter if I call my real life brother, I try to tell him I love him. And if I call my Marshall brothers, I try to tell them I love them. And that same way goes with them,” Hillis said.
Today, Hillis shares his knowledge and life experience with high schoolers in the Hazel Green community. To high schoolers at Pineview Christian Academy, he’s Coach Hillis.
“We’re doing six man football. Started out the league. I try to teach them the sound concepts of football, and then I try to develop young men. And that’s what Coach Lengyel, Coach McNally and Red Dawson, those guys tried to develop us as men, and then football kind of came with it,” Hillis said.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Young Thundering Herd team. And their message still rings true: “Life is going to throw you adversity. Sometimes you have to react to the adversity, Hillis said. “You have to, even though you’re down, you have to stand up, get up and dust yourself off and keep playing. It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.”
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