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COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME | LOOSE DEADLINE
FIRST PLACE: ENTERPRISE
The green folder has aged, with worn corners and beat-up edges, but the papers and newspaper articles inside have been protected from the assault of time. The headlines boldly proclaim victory, domination and greatness, but stand out even more in hindsight due to the scarring tragedy that followed.
It's been more than 35 years, and Florzell Horton Jr. can still hardly look at the pockets and their contents: The red 36 peeled off his football helmet from Druid High School;
The recruiting letters from out-of-state colleges including Notre Dame, Illinois and Kentucky, in an era before blacks played for the University of Alabama or Auburn University;
The yearbooks and the pictures, especially of four former teammates.
Horton didn't just grow up with Joe Hood, Larry Sanders, Robert VanHorn and Freddy Wilson. They were more than friends and such a part of each other, on and off the football field, that they agreed to go to college together at Marshall University, followed by Reggie Oliver a year later in 1970.
They thought they were inseparable, though quickly learned otherwise. It began when Horton suffered a shoulder injury during practice and wound up leaving school. He returned home still dreaming of playing football, perhaps at Tuskegee.
Soon after, the other four returned to Tuscaloosa too, only in caskets. They had been killed in a horrific plane crash on Nov. 14 that is considered the worst air disaster in American sports history.
"It was real tough," said Horton, sitting in his home near Birmingham.
Otherwise, he hasn't spoken much about the incident. He hasn't even told his wife and children the full story, about how a group of six black athletes from Tuscaloosa left to take on the world only to confront the cruelest of life's lessons.
"After the plane crash, I never played any more sports," Horton said. "I didn't even watch football for a couple of years after that."
But he will never forget.
The Druid Dragons
There was only one high school blacks could attend in Tuscaloosa during the 1960s, Druid High, for grades eight through 12.
As a consequence, the school was like its own community, where everyone knew everyone else, and everything was under the watchful eye of coaches like Lou Mims.
"I didn't go out for football. I was drafted out for football," Oliver said. "I went to my mom, told her I had some talent that might take me someplace. Coach Mims, he was a great coach, not a good coach."
"He was a taskmaster," Horton said. "It was a different era. You didn't want to disappointment him, I'll say that. He reminds me of my father, no-nonsense."
Like so many other schools throughout the state, Druid took football very seriously. Mims preached discipline, respect and hard work, and no one was allowed to be flashy or to try to stand out from teammates by doing things such as wearing white shoes.
"We always knew that if the game came down to the last two or three minutes, it came down to who was in the best condition," Horton said. "Then we always felt like we would win because we always felt like we were better conditioned than anyone else. I was in the military, and basic training wasn't as hard as football. High school practice was actually harder than the practices at Marshall. "Plus you had that threat always hanging over your head. You messed up."
The 1968 football team, which wasn't supposed to be one of Mims' best, outscored opponents 265-52 including five shutouts, for its first undefeated season since 1937. With many of the same athletes, Druid's basketball and baseball teams were just as good, if not better.
"The basketball team won the state championship the fall before, and in three years I think we lost two games," Horton said. "The baseball team went undefeated the same year."
Although Druid High no longer exists -- there's no more rivalry games against Riverside on Thanksgiving weekend and most of the trophies have long since disappeared -- there are places in Tuscaloosa where people still talk about those teams and those players.
They still remember watching the likes of Casey Lavender, Clarence and Henry Taylor, Adolphus Crockett, Walter Carpenter and Sylvester Young, not to mention the six who signed with Marshall.
They tell the story of when Selma scored in the final minute to take a lead, but made the mistake of kicking off to Sanders, who was even better defensively than as a ball-carrier. From his own end zone, he returned it for a touchdown and the victory.
Or during the 1968 season when Oliver, called by teammates "The Wolf," completed 13 of 20 passes for 340 yards and seven touchdowns, and ran in another, to lead a 59-0 victory against R.B. Hudson. He had five touchdowns the following week against Carver out of Gadsden, a 45-6 victory.
They had nicknames like "Ram" and "Big Lilly." The 6-foot-5 Wilson was also an all-state center in basketball, while VanHorn played on both lines and hardly left the field.
"He was bull-legged," Oliver said. "He was 6-5 if his legs were ever straightened out, but strong as an ox." They especially remember Hood, considered the legend of the group. Fans and former teammates say the running back made moves they've never seen, before or since.
"I had three sisters and no brothers," Oliver said. "Joe was like the brother I never had."
The sentiment went around.
"Very nice guy," classmate Bobby Williams said of Sanders. "He was the leader in his class. Good student. He was one of those persons everyone liked."
Although the 1968 Dragons went 10-0, they weren't included in the state playoffs. It was their first year in the Alabama High School Athletic Association, and by the time Druid officials lined up the required 10th game on the schedule it was too late to get association approval.
But the fans knew.
"We never played a home game that wasn't sold out," Horton said.
The path to West Virginia
Even though the Dragons were in the backyard of national powerhouse Alabama, Horton and Hood couldn't get a meeting with Paul W. "Bear" Bryant. It was two years before Sam Cunningham's blazing performance for Southern California, which helped open the door for blacks to finally suit up for the Crimson Tide.
They also tried Auburn. Ralph "Shug" Jordan did speak with them, but didn't believe the state was ready for black players. It only made the decision to leave, and follow Sanders, that much easier.
"He basically was the one who talked us into going up there," Horton said.
When Oliver left for college in 1970, it was in a '62 white Ford Falcon that Wilson's father had purchased. He and three of his teammates climbed in, and despite it breaking down near Lexington, Ky., they somehow fixed it and made it to campus, where Sanders was waiting.
Thanks to NCAA rules at the time, Oliver knew he would spend 1970 on the freshman team and have time to get acclimated to college while attempting to play quarterback at a predominantly white school. He also had his friends to help him with the transition.
"They were, very, very special," he said. "Being a freshman, those guys looked out for me."
Oliver remembers a reporter asking him how long he had been a black quarterback. "All my life," he answered, but at the time there were just five starting black quarterbacks in the nation. People showed up at practice to see what a black quarterback looked like.
"It was an opportunity," he said, "to blaze a trail."
Joining the Herd
Things were hardly looking up for Marshall. The previous four seasons had produced records of 3-7, 0-9-1, 0-10 and 2-8. Additionally, the Thundering Herd was under NCAA probation following a 1968 scandal when coach Perry Moss brought in nearly athletes to try out for 35 scholarships. The result was 144 alleged violations, expulsion from the Mid-American Conference and gutting most of the athletic department.
Rick Tolley, who was hired to be interim coach just two days before the preseason started in 1969, was retained. Quarterback Ted Shoebridge would lead the depleted offense, along with a talented backfield including Hood.
On Nov. 14, 1970, Marshall lost a close 17-14 game at East Carolina, in which 10 players didn't make the trip. Eight were out with injuries, including co-captain defensive back Nate Ruffin. Defensive tackle Ed Carter had flown home to Texas for his father's funeral and defensive back Rich Taglang over-slept, missing the team bus to the airport.
Tolley was quoted after the loss as saying, "We had a real nice flight down, and some of them are still flying." The Southern Airways chartered return flight encountered rain, fog and instrument failure. Three miles south of the Tri-State Airport in Huntington, which wasn't equipped with radar, the twin-engine DC-9 clipped a tree and crashed into the hillside.
All 75 people on the plane, including the entire coaching staff, players, administrators, students, boosters and crew, were dead.
According to news reports, some bodies were scattered outside the wreckage, the rest buried in the burning metal.
Oliver, who was waiting for his friends with a six-pack of beer Sanders had given him money for, was one of many on campus to head toward the flames piercing the night sky. He didn't get there as quickly as Jack Hardin, a reporter for the Huntington Post-Herald.
He didn't know what plane it was until a Baptist minister handed him a wallet he found. It belonged to Shoebridge. "Everything was burned beyond recognition," Hardin later told reporters. "It was a real rugged, woody area. At one point, in order to see better, I boosted myself on what I thought was a log, but when I looked down it was a body."
A temporary morgue was set up in a hangar, and while attempting to identify everyone on board, officials asked Oliver and two of his teammates for assistance. "They asked, 'Do you think you're ready for it,'" Oliver said. "You think 'Yeah.' Then they open the door and you walk inside, and the reality staring you in the face is a little different.
"I had to grow up quick."
But that wasn't the hardest thing for Oliver, or calling his parents after initial reports indicated that he too had been on the plane.
It was coming back to Alabama, where another community was grieving.
"Tuscaloosa has suffered a great loss," Druid principal McDonald Hughes told The Tuscaloosa News for the Nov. 15, 1970 edition. "They were all fine boys. It was a shock to me when I heard it. They were very fine boys." "It will be a tremendous loss," Mims said. "Hood was the greatest player I've ever coached, and they all had good character. They were dedicated."
On Nov. 21, the Rev. Charles Smith delivered the eulogy and the Druid choir sang both "The Lord is my Shepherd" and "Unto Thee O Lord." A number of former teammates, from both high school and college, served as pallbearers.
"The funeral was at my high school, with the four caskets all lined up," Oliver said. "To return for a funeral -- only four months earlier we had left Tuscaloosa seeking fame and fortune, and I was the only one returning -- it was a gut-wrenching thing.
"The gymnasium was packed and there were even more people outside."
From the ashes
Marshall made the decision to continue football. Jack Langley was given the task of rebuilding the program when Dick Best wick backed out after a week on the job and returned to Georgia Tech.
Langley had 21 players on the roster, not-including walk-ons or a kicker from the soccer team, and no one to lead the offense. He turned to Oliver, who instead of following his parents to Germany, returned, only to miss spring practice due to an arm injury.
"They were his brothers," Langley said. "He could have left, he could have quit and gone to another school, but he decided to stay in honor of those four players. I thought that was a great tribute to his honor and character."
Langley was used to a power-style offense, but didn't have the necessary line depth. So he turned to the rival West Virginia Mountaineers and learned the veer offense from Bobby Bowden. His staff watched practice for three days, was instructed at night and then studied film until the early-morning hours.
At bare minimum, by lining up two receivers wide on each play, they took at least two defenders Oliver wouldn't have to worry about with them.
"The QB really needs to run the option two years to get the experience and timing down," Langley said. "We had to throw him into the fire. He took a heck of a beating."
Oliver was also hard-hit emotionally, with teammates looking to him for leadership. Drawing on his Druid days and former friends, he used a lot of humor, but would also do things like take half the team to a church near campus, not only for the sermon but the free lunch afterward.
"I went from being one of the youngest to the oldest in a blink of an eye," Oliver said. "I wouldn't wish it on anyone."
The "Young Thundering Herd" opened the 1971 season with a 29-6 loss to Morehead State, though some considered the touchdown a moral victory.
The following week, Sept. 25, Marshall had its home opener against Xavier before 13,000 emotional fans. Despite being grossly out-manned, the Herd stayed in the game and, down 13-9 with 1:18 remaining, had the ball at its own 48-yard line.
Three incompletions later, Oliver kept the drive alive with an 11-yard pass, and with no time outs and the clock running, drove Marshall to within the 20. Assistant coach Red Dawson, who was not on the fateful flight, signaled in "213 bootleg screen," and with Langley screaming "snap the ball," Oliver barely got the final play off in time.
"Great call, but it took a lot of nerve," Oliver said. "There was a lot of deception to it.
"[That situation] had been practiced in every playground situation. I had been preparing for the play on the playgrounds in Tuscaloosa. I'm styling it up, walking up and making sure I looked good. As soon as the ball was snapped, the gun sounded -- back then they still used the gun when time expired. It was make it work or lose."
From his 13, Oliver dropped back and rolled to his right, with the defense keying his first two options, the dive and the decoy wideout.
"The whole freaking defense rotated to Reggie," Langley said. "The only guy on the backside was a defensive end who stayed at home and guard Jack Crabtree leveled him. I mean he just pancaked him."
When Oliver turned back and threw across field to freshman fullback Terry Gardner, who wasn't known for his hands, there was no one there to stop him. With the catch, fans stormed the field to celebrate, and some took pieces of the goalposts to where the six unidentified people from the crash were buried, and laid them on their graves.
"That's when it hit us, after the locker room," Oliver said. "Two-thirds of the stands were still full. That's when we started to go, 'Wow.' People didn't want to let go of the moment."
Although Marshall finished the season 2-8, it's still considered one of the greatest games in college football history.
The healing continues
This week, the movie "We Are Marshall," which tells the story of the team's rebirth, will finally be released nationwide. Parts were filmed in Huntington, and many of the people involved have spent the past few months catching up with one another.
According to those who have seen it, filmmakers did get the Xavier celebration right, but changed the final touchdown play. Oliver liked actor Arlen Escarpeta, but shakes his head at being played by someone only 5- foot-8.
"That's Hollywood," he said.
Oliver was Marshall's starting quarterback the rest of his college career and went on to play in the World Football League. From there, he turned to coaching, including five years as an assistant at Marshall and a brief stint as head coach at Alabama A&M.
One of his favorite sayings is "I have angels with me."
Langley retired as director of athletics at the United States Naval Academy in 2001, but serves on the board of directors for the National Football Foundation, the College Football Hall of Fame and the All American Football League. He's also a trustee emeritus for the United States Sports Academy in Daphne.
In 1977, Marshall dropped down to Division I-AA, and between 1966 and 1983 was a dreadful 38-150-2. Things began to turn around under Stan Parrish (13-8-1, 1984-85) and George Chaump (33-16-1, 1986-89), before Jim Donnan led the Herd to the 1992 Division I-AA championship.
Marshall won another title in 1996. The following year it rejoined the MAC and made the first of six consecutive appearances in the conference championship game, winning five. The program now boasts of some of the biggest names in the NFL, including Randy Moss, Troy Brown, Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich.
The chant "We Are Marshall" has remained the calling card for Herd fans, and coach Bob Pruett added another shortly after he was hired in 1999: "At Marshall, we play for championships." He was also once quoted as saying: "All the great things that have happened to us, the inspiration and the momentum, all started after the plane crash."
On Marshall's campus, a memorial fountain shaped like a large flower, with 75 strands, one for each passenger, honors those who died that night, and there have been many other tributes over the years.
Horton, who lives in Hueytown, hasn't seen any of them, and has no plans to watch the movie. However, he would like to see his former friends honored in Alabama, and for someone to gather old game film from other high schools so they won't be forgotten.
"I think they should be in the Alabama sports Hall of Fame," the 55-year-old said. "There should be something there, some plaque, some kind of mention.
"What else can you give to the sport than your life?"
Comment of the judge, Gene Duffey: Great new angle on the Marshall football story, one of the most important in college football history. Well researched. Gives you a feel for the racist South of the 1970s and makes you realize how much fate plays a part in all our lives.
Second place: Ron Higgins, Memphis Commercial Appeal
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