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HUNTINGTON — After a 2020 season chilled by the coronavirus pandemic, tailgaters returned to Joan C. Edwards Stadium on Saturday with excitement and optimism ahead of Marshall University’s home opener against North Carolina Central.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for anything in my life,” said Jamison Lewis, a sophomore at Marshall who was tailgating on Thunder Street, the name given to a part of 20th Street blocked off to traffic in front of the stadium. “We didn’t have any tailgates last year, so this is my first year doing it and it’s awesome.”

The campus had a pre-COVID-19 vibe and was buzzing by 3 p.m. Saturday, with spaces filling up early ahead of the 6:30 p.m. kickoff. Fans could be seen setting up tents, getting out coolers and partaking in a new pregame fan festival. Pregame festivities also included the new DJ Herd That, live music and new food vendors.

“I am glad to see they blocked off 20th Street and created Thunder Street because it’s just so much safer to walk around with my young child while enjoying all the new experiences,” said Julia Sparks, of Ashland, a longtime Thundering Herd fan. “I am glad to see lots of fans coming back out to support the team.”

“I think this is going to continue to grow,” said Jeremy Adams with The Butcher Shop, one of the vendors set up in the parking lot in front of the stadium along Thunder Street. “There is just a different feel this year with a new coach and a dominating first game win.”

Marshall and new head football coach Charles Huff went to Annapolis, Maryland, last week and beat Navy 49-7.

Sean Smith, of Spartanburg, South Carolina, came to support his son, Seth Smith, a freshman quarterback with the Herd, and cheer on the team.

“This is our first experience at the Joan, and I must say this is all very impressive,” Smith said. “This is a great community and family atmosphere … better than I have seen in a lot of other college football towns.”

Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert was walking around before the game talking to tailgaters while also enjoying all the pregame festivities.

“I am so excited about what Charles Huff has put in place here to excite our fan base and give us a new fan experience on game day,” Gilbert said “Our fans have turned out, and we are going to be here to cheer for our Herd. This is a great day for Marshall.”

Fred Pace is the business reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. Follow him at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.

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