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The Legacy
The Thundering Herd did not recover quickly. Despite two unexpected and thrilling victories that first comeback season, Marshall University football was, as Spears admits, "a losing team. Even leading up to the crash we had our troubles—NCAA violations, the longest losing streak in the nation— and rebuilding from all that seemed insurmountable. Lengyel and his staff were the first step in that process, but there were plenty of naysayers.”

What Lengyel, Dawson, the players, other coaches and administration understood, was that their purpose in 1971 was not necessarily to win football games but to lay a solid foundation for the future so that, one day, winning would be possible again. And they were right.

In 1984, Marshall finished 6-5, its first winning season in 20 years. In 1987, the Thundering Herd earned its first national exposure in Division 1-AA with a playoff appearance, a feat it repeated the following year. In the six seasons from 1990 through 1995, under coach Jim Donnan's tenure, the Herd was 64-21 and made the Division I-AA championship game four times. It won its first I-AA championship in 1992 and again in 1996, when former Marshall player Bobby Pruett coached the team to an undefeated 15-0 season, with the help of future NFL talent Randy Moss.

After being the losingest team in the country in the 1970s, with only 23 wins in 10 years, remarkably, Marshall became the winningest team in the 1990s, with a 114-25 record.

"After we won the Mid-America Conference championship in '97, the fans were exuberant. They stormed the field and tore down the goal posts,” recalls Spears, who was there at the time. "I remember thinking, ‘well, there go the goal posts. They'll probably carry ‘em down the street and we'll have to go pick them up later.' But we couldn't find them. We finally located them the next day. They were at the cemetery, laid at the obelisk with a sign saying, ‘Here's the championship that was denied you.'”

Though Jack Lengyel left Marshall in 1975 and went on to numerous career heights, most notably as athletics director for the U.S. Naval Academy, he still considers Marshall his second home and has returned to commemorate the tragedy's 20- and 30-year anniversaries.

Red Dawson fulfilled his promise to stay the year, then left upon completion of the 1971 season. He never returned to the game, though he continued to live in Huntington and remained a loyal Herd fan. Known to frequent tailgate parties and then leave the stadium, he did not attend another Marshall game until 2000. He and Lengyel stayed in touch, having shared the indescribable bond of that very difficult and rewarding time.

"When you live with a story like this, maybe you don't want to talk about it right away, maybe that's why it took 36 years before this story found its way onto the screen,” notes Basil Iwanyk. "Maybe it needed a full generation of time to pass.”

Ultimately, "Pain can last a moment. It can last a day, a week or years, but it cannot last forever. The only thing that can last forever is if you quit,” offers McG, recalling a sentiment expressed by Lance Armstrong. "If you want to honor those who have fallen, I believe the best thing you can do is move forward and live the best life you can, knowing that's what they would want for you.”


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