It’s Friday morning in Huntington, West Virginia, the day after Thanksgiving. I flew into Columbus, Ohio last night, and made the two and a half hour jaunt down winding farm roads of southern Ohio; watching the flat expanse of the Midwest transform into the undulating foothills of the Appalachians. Crossing over the Ohio River into Huntington, billowing clouds of steam emerge from the river valley, towering, rust colored smokestacks of Steel of West Virginia rising into the orange dusk sky. The proud river once formed the backbone of the U.S. steel industry; railroad tracks, bridges, and barges stretching from Pittsburgh to Illinois all forged in those same roaring furnaces.
An exceedingly difficult place to get to, I’m in town to see the unbeaten Thundering Herd of Marshall University. Their record sitting at a sterling 11-0 as one of only two undefeated teams in the country (the other being Florida State), the “Herd” fields one of the most explosive offenses in the game under the tutelage of aptly named head coach Doc Holliday. While the formidable squad had climbed to #24 in the rankings, the equally high flying Western Kentucky Hilltoppers were in town for a Conference USA matchup that was sure to light up the scoreboard. With the pursuit of perfection comes the allure of an automatic bid to a major bowl game, and, should they win, the Thundering Herd could find themselves in the prestigious Peach, Cotton or Fiesta bowls – and the big prize money therein. As far as games in Huntington go, they don’t get much bigger than this…
I take a quick breakfast at Tudor’s Biscuit World, a chain to be sure, but a West Virginia staple with most of their fifty plus locations scattered about the Mountain State. They have about twenty different sandwich options on the menu, all served between one of their flaky, buttermilk biscuits. I order the signature “Thundering Herd” which comes stuffed with sausage, egg, cheese and a crispy hashbrown. The delightfully savory sandwich comes wrapped in yellow wax paper, turning translucent as it soaks up grease while I retreat to an open table to make short work of it.
From there, it’s a quick drive up the road to Kenova, WV to knock out another long standing local favorite – Griffith and Feil Drugstore. Occupying the same location on Chestnut Street since 1892, the little 122 year old pharmacy provides all the conveniences of modern medicine, coupled with the old fashioned nostalgia of a main street pharmacy doling out hand mixed soda’s and cherry topped sundaes. I opt for a chocolate shake myself, watching gleefully as the counterwoman pumps syrup into the stainless steel mixing cup before plonking the decadent affair in front of me in a “Coca Cola” branded Styrofoam cup.
Before heading over to campus, I pay my respects at the Marshall plane crash site. Unfortunately, no mention of the Marshall Football program comes without the memory of the tragic plane crash that took place on November 14th, 1970 claiming the lives of 75 players, coaches, fans and crew. Tucked off the side of an abandoned stretch of Old State Highway 75 due west of Huntington Tri State Airport, the site is marked with a small plaque, American flag and a few Marshall University mementos. Certainly one of the most somber moments in athletic history, the Marshall story projects an uplifting tone – a story about rebirth, and the power of sport to comfort a small community like Huntington in the face of such tragedy.
Driving into campus, the town gown juxtaposition is an interesting one. The sprawling greens of the college lawns are flanked to the North by an enormous Steel of West Virginia complex that stretches nearly the entire length of campus, the imposing weathered steel structures a constant reminder of the proud heavy industry that supported Huntington (and other towns along the Ohio River valley) for decades.
The streets already coming alive with kelly green garbed fans, I slide into a parking space on the corners of 17th Street and 6th Avenue while a few bloodshot eyes stagger out of the ramshackle student houses nearby. Dusted with an overnight blanket of snow, the tidy campus is anchored by “Old Main” an impressive gothic inspired brick building featuring four castellated towers, a structure which serves as the icon of Marshall University. Pressing further into the heart of campus stands the bronze mass of Memorial Fountain, dedicated to the memory of the 1970 crash victims. The fountain on this day runs dry, for each year on November 14th the water is turned off for the winter season, and a memorial service is held to remember those that were lost.
Finding my way over to Joan C. Edwards stadium, named after the philanthropist donor that gave over sixty five million dollars to the university, I raise a finger in the air and wander through the expanse of green tents parked in front of the stadium. Despite being the biggest contest of the year for the unblemished Thundering Herd, I track down a choice seat on the fifty yard line for twenty bucks. Shortly after finding my seat, white smoke billows from the green inflatable tunnel at the North end of the stadium, as the crowd rises to its feet. The Thundering Herd squad bounds onto the field, trotting behind the roar of a Harley Davidson motorcycle costumed with a buffalo head and hide – one of the stranger mascots (?) that I’ve encountered…
The contest on the field lives up to its explosive billing. In fact, the word “explosive” is a complete understatement as a handful of FBS records are eclipsed on the day. In the first quarter alone, 49 points are scored, each team sprinting down the field unabated by any semblance of defense. The Hilltoppers, domed with gleaming chrome helmets, run wild in “The Joan” as the Marshall crowd hushes in disbelief when the ‘Toppers run out to a 42-21 lead early in the second quarter.
The Thundering Herd’s breakneck offense sputters. Led by standout senior quarterback Rakeem Cato, one of the most accomplished passers in Marshall history, he uncharacteristically fires three interceptions in the first half alone (4 total), to hamstring The Herd. Despite the initial adversity, however, they persevere, bringing the score to within a touchdown before halftime. At the end of the first half, the scoreboard reads an astonishing 49-42, all of the points coming from 13 combined touchdowns and nearly ½ mile of total offense (832 yards).
In the second half, the game slows into a more traditional pace. Each team trades drives, but the defenses adjust, and the punters finally make a few rare appearances. As the contest presses on, the Marshall crowd roars back to life, exchanging alternating chants of “We are!”…..”Marshall!” Finally, deep into the 4th quarter the Thundering Herd stage their final drive trailing only by a touchdown. Cato redeems himself, leading a methodical 12 play, 82 yard touchdown drive that knots the score at 59 -59 with only a few ticks left on the clock. A WKU interception shortly after the ensuing kickoff cements the tie, and the rollercoaster contest heads into overtime.
Marshall wins the coin flip in the extra frame, and in two quick plays Cato fires a 25 yard touchdown pass to assert control – their first lead of the entire game. The Thundering Herd faithful, all of them on their feet, roar with delight, visions of the prominent Fiesta, Peach or Cotton Bowls (and their lucrative pay days) are in their grasp. A perfect 12-0 season and a sunny bowl destination only a few plays away. But the Hilltoppers have a spoiler in mind, and they promptly respond with a two play, 25 yard touchdown of their own as the green crowd shrieks.
But then, WKU head coach Jeff Brohm makes one of the gutsiest calls any coach can make – in lieu of safely booting the extra point for a second overtime, he signals his squad for a two point conversion. The contest, and Marshall’s perfect hopes and dreams, will be decided by the next play. Hilltopper quarterback Brandon Doughty rolls out after the snap, the entire play unfolding in slow motion as 23,576 fans collectively hold their breath. Doughty finds wide receiver Willie McNeil alone in the corner of the end zone, unfettered by the Marshall defense and before he even releases the ball the crowd sees it too. A few Herd fans next to me bow their heads while the ball is released, they already know the outcome. McNeil gathers in the soft pass easily, tapping two feet assuredly in the back corner of the endzone to complete the two point conversion before erupting in celebration as his teammates swarm him. The Hilltoppers just pulled off an incredible 67-66 overtime win in one of the most electric games I’ve ever witnessed.
After the game I file into Jim’s Steak & Spaghetti House for a warm post game meal. Located on 5th Avenue in downtown Huntington, the red neon marquis jutting out over the sidewalk beckons pedestrians inside. A city staple since 1938, Jim’s is a delightfully preserved holdover from the era of great American diners. Not much has changed here since JFK once sat down during a campaign trail in 1960, his charismatic, toothy grin enshrined on the wall above the booth in a black and white photo. Stainless steel sparkles behind the linoleum countertops, swiveling stools and plush booths upholstered in green leather line the floral wallpapered walls, while an old timer gently nurses a cup of unpretentious black coffee from a ceramic diner mug. The place is closed on Sundays, they don’t take plastic, and the waitresses still wear uniforms – crisply pressed white skirts accented with matching green aprons, their hair neatly pinned up in buns.
My paper placemat reads “smile” in big green letters, while I observe a steady stream of customers piling into Jim’s for to-go orders. Some of them are greeted by name, before greedily sniffing their take out bags and backing out the door as a bell chimes overhead. I browse over the laminated menu briefly, before settling on a namesake platter of spaghetti. While a plate of pasta isn’t my usual carnivorous fare, when everyone in Huntington urges you to get the spaghetti at Jim’s, I kindly oblige. It comes in three sizes; small, medium or large, and is topped with a heaping portion of chunky meat sauce and accompanied by a basket of soft Italian bread. I finish the meal off with one of their signature house made pies – chocolate, naturally, dressed with a healthy layer of genuine whipped cream.
It’s comfort food in a comfortable place, a perfect wind down from the afternoon frenzy of an adrenaline filled college football shootout. Now it’s time to jump on a plane to the next barnburner – Statesboro, Georgia – to see if the Georgia Southern Eagles can lay claim to the Sun Belt Championship crown in their inaugural FBS season…
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