HUNTINGTON — Terry Gardner’s broad smile as he crossed the goal line. Jack Crabtree’s arms stretched above his head as he leaped. Opposing players dejectedly giving up on the play.
Chris Spencer captured all of them in the most iconic photograph in the history of Marshall University. The photograph of the final play — 213 bootleg screen — of the Young Thundering Herd’s 15-13 upset of Xavier on Sept. 25, 1971, at Fairfield Stadium showed the beginning of the greatest comeback story in the history of sports.
Fifty years later, members of the Young Herd, and even players from Xavier, celebrate the game that defined the never-give-in spirit that is Marshall University.
“We’d run that play earlier and it had gained some yardage,” recalled Red Dawson, the coach who called 213 bootleg screen that day. “We tried it again. (Quarterback Reggie Oliver) rolled right and the defense bit on it. Then he turned and threw to Terry Gardner for the touchdown.”
Xavier entered Marshall’s first home game since the crash a three-touchdown favorite. The Herd was a squad made up of freshmen, a few sophomores, walk-ons, transfers and a few holdovers who didn’t make the trip to Marshall’s game at East Carolina on Nov. 14, 1970. The plane that was to bring the team back to Huntington from Greenville, North Carolina, that night crashed short of Tri-State Airport, killing all 75 aboard.
Marshall lost a respectable, but unimpressive, 29-6 at Morehead State in its season opener. Xavier players and coaches had no reason to believe the Herd was a threat.
“We expected to win the game,” former Xavier linebacker Rich Kase said. “When Marshall scored to win it, we were stunned. Just stunned. We couldn’t believe we lost. After the game in our locker room there were some things said that shouldn’t have been said. The bus trip back to Cincinnati was just brutal.”
In the stands at Fairfield, however, elation overflowed. Herd basketball All-American Russell Lee celebrated with the team on the field. He remained there an hour later with thousands of other fans.
“We came out of the locker room and all these people were still in the stands,” said Jack Lengyel, coach of the Young Herd. “They were crying and hugging one another. It was a special sight. Nobody could believe what happened. It was a miracle.”
Marshall led 3-0 when Blake Smith, who before the 1971 season never even had attended a football game, kicked a 31-yard field goal on the last play of the first quarter.
Ivy Williams scored on a 6-yard run with 6:47 left in the third quarter to give the Musketeers a 6-3 lead. Oliver, though, gave Marshall the lead back when he sneaked in from the 2 to make it 9-6.
The Herd looked to put the game away, but with 5:18 left the Young Herd faced third-and-1 from its own 19. Xavier stopped fullback John Johnstonbaugh an inch short of a first down. Marshall was forced to punt and the Musketeers’ John Gompers returned Bob Eshbaugh’s kick 47 yards for a touchdown to put Xavier up 13-9.
The Young Herd’s next drive stalled and Eshbaugh again punted. Xavier, though, failed to pick up a first down and Marshall took over at the Musketeers’ 48 with 1:18 to play. Oliver threw three incomplete passes before hitting Jerry Arrasmith for 11 yards to extend the drive. Oliver followed with an 11-yard completion to Kelly Sherwood before on fourth-and-5 from the Xavier 18 the sophomore quarterback from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, completed a 5-yard pass to Arrasmith for a first down.
Dawson then called 213 bootleg screen as the clock ticked toward 0:00.
“We were yelling on the sidelines to snap the ball,” Lengyel said. “It was snapped with one second left.”
Oliver whirled and threw to Gardner, who had one defender to beat, but the young running back from West Portsmouth, Ohio, didn’t have to, as Crabtree leveled the defender and Gardner raced into the end zone.
“Jack made a terrific block,” Lengyel said of Crabtree. “A terrific block.”
Had the Young Herd not produced the victory over Xavier and later that season a 12-10 upset of Bowling Green, the program might have been folded. Instead, Marshall went on to win two national championships, nine conference titles, 12 bowl games and produce two Heisman Trophy finalists.