Marshall Thundering Herd football lost an all-time great person, player, and ambassador this week with the passing of one of the most important men in program history.
Former quarterback Reggie Oliver passed away Tuesday at age 66 from head injuries sustained from a serious fall in Huntsville, Alabama last week. Oliver was one of the most important figures in Marshall football history dating back to the darkest days in the program’s history.
Oliver was recruited to Marshall in 1970 as a highly-touted quarterback from Druid High School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He was one of five players in that class that wound up taking their talents to Marshall University from Druid High School in a group that seemed destined to get Marshall football back on track.
But as a freshman in 1970, Oliver didn’t make the trip to East Carolina in mid-November in a turn of events that saved his life. However, several of his other Druid High School teammates were tragically killed in the November 14, 1970 plane crash that took the lives of 75 people aboard Southern Airways Flight 932.
The football program had to rebuild from nearly scratch and Oliver could have transferred somewhere else, but he stuck it out and stayed with the Herd throughout his entire college career. He started every game at quarterback for Marshall from 1971-1973, but no game was bigger than what took place on Sept. 25, 1971.
In the first home game since the plane crash nearly a year earlier, Oliver led the Herd to a miraculous 15-13 win over Xavier that was capped off with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Terry Gardner as time expired in a play that will be forever known as “213 Bootleg Screen.” Many consider this to be the biggest win in Marshall football history given the circumstances.
Ernie Salvatore, former sports writer and editor for The Herald-Dispatch who passed away in 2009, called the final drive against Xavier in 1971 “the greatest quarterback performance I’ve seen in my 50 years of covering Marshall” in 2006.
Oliver led the Young Thundering Herd with pride, a team filled with freshmen that had little to no college football experience and a team that took underdogs to a whole new level.
He graduated in 1973 as the Herd’s all-time passing leader in nearly every statistical category by that point and briefly played professionally with the Jacksonville Sharks of the World Football League in 1974. Oliver’s path brought him back to Huntington, West Virginia in the coming years when he became a coach and teacher at Huntington High School.
Marshall football came calling in the late-1970’s when Oliver joined then-head coach Sonny Randle’s staff in 1979. And although the results still weren’t showing in the win/loss column at that time, many consider Randle and Oliver’s tenure as the start of the stability in Marshall’s football program and the catalyst for what would follow in the coming years.
Oliver would teach and coach at Eastmoor Academy in Columbus, Ohio and Bowling Green State University in Ohio as well. His efforts in helping bring Marshall football back from the aftermath of the plane crash were brought to the big screen in 2006 with the release of the Warner Bros. film “We Are Marshall.”
Arlen Escarpeta played Oliver in the film and depicted what he went through in 1970 and 1971 as a member of the Herd. Oliver consistently came back to Marshall time and time again and proved his love for the school and football program he helped get back on its feet nearly 50 years ago.
His infectious smile and passion made him one of the most beloved figures in Marshall history and his role in helping bring the Herd back from the ashes cannot be overstated. No matter where life took him, Oliver never forgot his time at Marshall and how much it helped shape not only his life, but the university and football program’s history.
And it’s only fitting that Oliver’s speech at the spring fountain ceremony back in April was closed out with words that sum up his feelings towards the school he helped bring back from ashes to glory.
“I love Marshall, I keep coming back, and I always will because We Are…”