*NOTE: Originally published in Marshall Magazine*
A Young Thundering Herd Tale
The year was 1970. November 14, 1970, to be exact.
A scrawny young man by the name of Allen Meadows – scrawny in football terms mind you, especially among hulking defensive linemen of whom he counted himself a member – was visiting Morgantown, West Virginia, on a recruiting trip, hoping to land a spot on the team of his beloved Mountaineers playing football for West Virginia University.
Meadows was a high school senior that year, wrapping up a bountiful athletic career playing football and basketball for the black and gold Skyhawks of Scott High School, the pride of Boone County.
A few months prior to that recruiting visit, amongst the chaos of recruitment season with schools bombarding the energetic young man from southern West Virginia with information about their programs, the dean of boys at his high school approached Meadows and asked him about Marshall University. He didn’t think too much about the conversation.
“He approached me and asked if I had given any thought to playing at Marshall. I was from southern West Virginia and a huge WVU fan at the time,” Meadows said. “But he asked if he could send my films to Rick Tolley, the coach at Marshall. A week before the crash, Rick Tolley contacted me about playing for the Herd.”
On the night of Saturday, November 14, 1970, Meadows was out with friends, having just spent the day exploring his opportunities with the Mountaineer program. As he and his friends celebrated, news began to spread in Morgantown of a tragic accident involving the Marshall University football team. The dorm he was in fell silent.
Moments later, Meadows would join the rest of the world in learning that the plane carrying the entire Thundering Herd football team, coaches, staff, fans, and community members, crashed returning from a football contest against East Carolina University, killing all 75 people aboard.
Meadows remembers vividly the moment he heard news of the accident. And he still recalls to this day his conversation with Coach Tolley just days prior.
“On the night of the plane crash, I was in Morgantown on a recruiting trip. My heart was set on playing for the Mountaineers,” Meadows said. “Not long after, I chose Marshall over WVU and never looked back. I was recruited to play defensive tackle – all 185 pounds of me – and began my journey soon after with the Young Thundering Herd, the greatest rebuilding of a football program in history.”
Amid the backdrop of the Southern Airways Flight 932 tragedy, Meadows stepped foot on the Marshall University campus for the first time as a freshman in the fall of 1971. While his focus in those early days in Huntington was on playing football, it didn’t take long for the then 18-year-old to learn that this would not be any ordinary season on the gridiron.
“It was the kind of hurt that the new freshmen could not wrap their minds and hearts around,” Meadows recalled. “I remember the trip to Spring Hill Cemetery and the words from Coach (Jack) Lengyel. The whole campus and town was raw from such a tremendous loss. My sophomore teammates became the true upperclassmen and led us that year.
“It was so difficult for us freshmen who had to grow up real fast. Coaches were assigned to the dorms to keep young players from going home. But we endured and I am so thankful for those players and coaches that kept us going.”
Under the guidance of Lengyel, Assistant Coach William “Red” Dawson, Mickey Jackson, and others, the Marshall University football program went to work piecing together a program made up of a handful of players that were not aboard the flight, walk-ons, athletes from other sports and, eventually, first-year players.
That year, the NCAA granted a waiver to Marshall to allow freshmen to compete so they could field a complete team. The Young Thundering Herd was born and Meadows got a chance to play right away.
“Not only did we have the tragedy overshadowing the program, but we were small and inexperienced, playing against teams that overpowered us,” Meadows said. “The team consisted of a few recruits, walk-ons, some basketball players, and soccer players, and wrestlers. Some had never played a down of football. We went up against teams that were bigger, faster, and stronger than us.
“I believe the memory of those players, coaches, community leaders that were lost in the crash, and the Huntington community, kept us motivated to keep the program alive no matter what.”
But good intentions and motivation will only get you so far.
The Young Thundering Herd were largely pushed around and outmatched that first season, being outscored 295-57 in 10 games that year.
“I played defensive tackle all four years in an Oklahoma 50 defense,” Meadows recalled. “When I began my freshman year, I weighed 185 pounds and was up against guys across the line that were 270 to 290 pounds. By my senior year I weighed 276 pounds.”
While the tragedy largely overshadowed that 1971 season, there were some bright moments that year that showed the heart and determination of the squad. In September, Marshall famously defeated Xavier 15-13 at Fairfield Stadium in Huntington for the program’s first win following the accident. One month later, the Herd collected another win, a 12-10 Homecoming victory over Bowling Green.
“Of course, the Xavier game stood out to me because it was our first significant win,” Meadows said. “But the number one game that sticks out in my mind was Bowling Green in late October. They came down for Homecoming that year. We were 1-5 and they were 5-1. In 1971, there weren’t that many bowl games and they were being considered for one of them.
“It was a hot day for that late in the season. They were dressed for a cold game and could not handle the heat or the turf. They had Paul Miles, who was one of the leading rushers in the country with over 100 yards per game, but we held him to 92 yards that day. We won that game 12-10.”
Over four seasons, the Young Thundering Herd would collect nine wins against 33 losses, but the impact the team had, not only on Huntington and the university, but the entirety of college football, would last a lifetime.
Meadows was one of seven four-year lettermen in 1974, playing all four years at defensive tackle. He was named the most outstanding lineman on the team in 1973 and was named team captain of the 1974 team, alongside Jesse Smith. That ’74 team would also be the last for Lengyel as head coach of the Herd.
“The upperclassmen that did not make the trip and members of the freshmen team were great mentors. Nate Ruffin, Danny Canada, Jack Crabtree, Rick Meckstroth, Mark Miller, and others, they were great leaders,” Meadows said. “None of us knew at that time the anguish they were all going through trying to play football and remembering all of the teammates they had lost. Reggie Oliver had lost several close friends from his high school in the crash and then went on to quarterback our team.
“The community love for the Marshall program is like no other. I have such a special bond with the coaches. Jack Lengyel, Andy Namath, Red Dawson, and Mickey Jackson remain close to my heart. My freshman teammates Roger Hillis, Eric Gessler, Jesse Smith, John Shrimp, Bob Bronger, and others were great encouragers. We were all in the same boat and spurred each other on so we could compete on the playing field with other teams.”
The Thundering Herd would continue to pile up losing seasons until 1984, when a 6-5 squad became the first Marshall team with a winning record since 1964. Four years later, the team earned its first conference title as co-champions of the Southern Conference in 1988. Another four years later, Marshall University won the Division I-AA National Championship en route to becoming one of the winningest college football programs in the country.
And it was all made possible by a mishmash of young players thrown into an impossible situation.
“The bond between my fellow players and the leadership of the few upperclassmen that were left was special. And the community, especially the boosters, took us under their wings,” Meadows said. “I remember the professors and administrators who struggled with the memory of so much loss. Not only were they reeling from the tragedy on campus, but they were dealing with the riots of the early 1970s. Sometimes the football players would have to run from study hall in the library with coats over our heads to avoid the tear gas. It was a sign of the times. All of it helped to make our bond even closer.”
Meadows graduated from Marshall University in the spring of 1974 with a BBA in Business Management. He married his high school sweetheart, now Jeanie Garrett Meadows, while attending the school and went on to a successful sales career. But the story of the Young Thundering Herd largely remained a conversation of local lore.
Local, that is, until the story reached out beyond the borders of Huntington and the Tri-State area when Warner Brothers released, We Are Marshall, starring Matthew McConaughey as Lengyel and Matthew Fox as Dawson in 2006. While McConaughey and Fox took on the brunt of the storytelling, many of the other stars of the film stepped in as representative members of the Marshall family in the movie.
“Keith Morehouse’s role was representative of families who lost parents. The steel mill plant manager represented the townspeople who did not want the program to go on and the parents who lost a child on the plane. The cheerleader represented girls who had lost boyfriends and husbands on the team,” Meadows said. “But all in all, the story that was told followed closely to real-time events.”
The movie was filmed largely in Huntington and its director, McG, contacted many of the members of the team, including Meadows, to gather their perspective and stay as close to the true story as possible.
“I met several of the actors and I worked closely with McG, co-producer Mary Viola and producer Basil Iwanyk. The most interaction I had was with writer Jamie Linden. He asked me so many questions and sometimes they would rewrite some of the script as they were filming,” Meadows said. “Coach Lengyel stayed in touch with me throughout the filming as well. He lived in Arizona at the time and wanted to make sure they got everything right. He would sometimes call two or three times a day.”
While much of the city of Huntington was abuzz with excitement surrounding the movie, it was the quiet moments during filming that stood out most to Meadows.
“Coach Lengyel indeed took us up to Spring Hill Cemetery prior to that game and said those words to us. Nate Ruffin took the main lead for our team. The community stayed hours after the Xavier game. I mailed my varsity jacket and helmet to them so they could pattern them correctly for the movie. All of those moments were true,” Meadows said. “When they were filming the scene at Spring Hill Cemetery, they asked about using our church building for the caterers, wardrobe, and staging since it was so close. While they were there, McG grabbed me and let me sit in the directors’ chair as they filmed.
“When it came time for the premiere, the players and families of those that died in the crash met at Pullman Square and we were able to view the movie prior to the premiere. The families were in one theatre and the 1971 team was in the other. There was an eerie silence when the movie finished and the writers and directors came in to see what we thought. I think we were all stunned by the reality of the movie. It made us realize what an impact we had on the Marshall University football program.”
Today, Meadows is still happily married to his wife, Jeanie, having just celebrated 48 years together. They have two sons, Eric and Todd, and two grandsons, Cooper and Zach. Meadows is since retired as a sales manager with Altria. He remains active in the Huntington community, serving as ministry leader for the University Christian Fellowship, as well as in the Marshall community as a charter board member of the M Club and an active member of the Marshall University Alumni Association Board of Directors.
This fall, the Young Thundering Herd will celebrate the 50th anniversary of that 1971 season. Meadows and members of the team will gather for a special weekend with several activities planned for members of the team.
“While we have lost many of our teammates in the 15 years since the movie, we expect around 40 players with their families,” Meadows said. “It is one of the proudest achievements to be linked to this program. As I look back through my life, it has given me so much satisfaction to know we played for the 75 to keep the program alive.
“Being involved in the rebuilding of the football program taught me that anything is possible. Marshall helped me develop into who I am today, and I have taken that with me everywhere I have gone. I am proud to be a son of Marshall University.”