Oliver left lasting impression on younger generation

Updated 13 weeks ago Special to HNN Provided by Herd Zone
Oliver left lasting impression on younger generation
Photo HERD ZONE

By Chuck McGill

HerdZone.com

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Fisher Cross was seated in the stands at Joan C. Edwards Stadium on Tuesday afternoon when he heard the news that Reggie Oliver, the quarterback of the Young Thundering Herd, had passed away at the age of 66. Cross' mind was flooded with memories.

Cross is 22 years old, born nearly 25 years after Southern Airways 932 crashed and took the lives of 75 people aboard the Marshall football team flight. But his heart has a mighty link to what happened on Nov. 14, 1970. His mother, Courtney Proctor Cross, was six years old when she lost both parents in the tragedy.

Fisher Cross, a Huntington native and Marshall graduate, is now the assistant director of player personnel for Marshall's football program. His heart beats for the Herd, his mother, the grandparents he never met and people like Reggie Oliver. That is why Cross and Oliver shared a unique bond, friends who were born more than four decades apart. It was Oliver, a quarterback for Marshall from 1971-73 and a freshman when the plane crashed, who spent the rest of his years cultivating relationships with people connected to that ill-fated flight.

"I always assumed my mom and Reggie knew each other when they were younger, but he actually sought out people he knew were descendants of people on the plane," Cross said.

Courtney did not befriend Oliver until she became a Marshall student. Their relationship grew from there.

"They would talk about everything from what happened in 1970 to the rebuilding and recovery of the city, and they forged a really good relationship over the years," Cross said. "I think that's really special. They were two people who were connected in completely different ways. When the crash happened, my mom lost her mom and dad and Reggie lost his brothers and all the other people he loved on that plane."

Years later, the release of movie "We Are Marshall" paved the way for the younger Cross and Oliver to meet. Cross was in fifth grade when he attended the movie premiere, and then an after party. Cross had a spelling bee the next morning, but here he was surrounded by familiar faces from the big screen.

"My mom was trying to get me to go home and go to bed, but I got to the after party of the premiere, and I get there and here's Matthew McConaughey and Matthew Fox and everyone involved with the movie," Cross said.

Those were movie stars, though. Cross was starstruck by someone else.

"That was the first time I met Reggie," he said.

From that point on, every time their paths crossed, Oliver would see Cross and engage him in conversation. Those chats were never short, but always meaningful.

"Every fountain ceremony he would come over and talk to me and my mom," Cross said. "I knew what he meant to the university and to the school, and specifically the football program. It was neat to build a relationship with someone who was so integral to the restoration and comeback of this football team.

"To me, he was a larger-than-life legend. Before the movie, you had to be from here or have some more in-depth background to know what role Reggie played and what he meant."

Oliver was born on Oct. 20, 1951, in the football hotbed of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He arrived on campus in the summer of 1970 and was forced to redshirt, as was the NCAA rule at the time. He became the starting quarterback the season after the crash, and etched his name into college football lore with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Terry Gardner on the final play of the game to lead Marshall to a 15-13 win against Xavier on Sept. 25, 1971. It was Marshall's first home game after the crash, and the program's first win after the tragedy.

"Every kid in American has envisioned that," Oliver said on April 28 when he returned to speak at the Marshall Memorial Fountain at the annual spring ceremony. "They practiced that in the backyard. They practice it on every practice field in America. Three … two … one and they snap the ball. What you saw in the movie is not how it happened. It's not how it happened.

"Red (Dawson) called the play: 213 bootleg screen. I get the ball from center, fake the dive, start the option, bootleg back to the right, everybody is chasing me, which they had been doing all day, but of all people Terry Gardner leaks out in the flat on the left side and I turn and look and he's wide open. I dump the ball to him and I'm praying, 'Lord, let him catch it' because he wasn't a very good receiver. Terry Gardner did not have the best hands on our football team. Dump the ball off to Terry and there's one man left to beat.

"Reggie didn't throw up a prayer that God answered. Right there is what I refer to as 'The Play.'"

Cross thought about that speech in the hours after Oliver's death, and how he had returned to Huntington one more time.

"There are some things out there that you really can't deny," Cross said. "The specialness of this place and the 75 and that story is one of them. Last year, I gave the speech at the memorial, and then that Saturday you see Nazeeh (Johnson) wearing my grandmother's sticker on his helmet and he takes off for a pick six (touchdown). Then, in the spring, Reggie gives the speech at the memorial and … God has a plan. Some things you can't make up. He gives the speech and now he's with the 75 people he lost and cherished."

Before Cross gave his speech the previous fall, he ran into Oliver in the student center. Cross was scrambling to find a place to print his speech, but Oliver stopped him to wish him good luck.

"His exact words were: 'Boy, I drove my big butt up here from Alabama to watch you speak because I love your momma,'" Cross recalled.

Cross didn't find out until Tuesday, but sometime after the speech Oliver sent a card and photos from that day to Cross' mother. She saved them for a scrapbook to give to her son.

"It shows you he had so much heart and so much love for this place and town," Fisher Cross said. "You can't fake that. It was real and from the heart."

As Oliver wrapped up his speech in April, he implored the audience to not let memories fade as the years slip away.

"Don't forget them," Oliver said. "Don't let them think that we went from Nov. 14 to winning bowl games and getting rings and living large. Remember those people who put the first bricks in the foundation."

People like Fisher Cross are here to deliver on that wish.

"This place has a story and we're all going to be here to tell it forever," Cross said. "I hope he and the other 75 people know that up there. You can't make this story up. The comeback and everything we've done to get back to what we are and everything he was a part of and started – that will never be forgotten."  

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