For this family, Marshall-WVU special

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Rick Meckstroth, right, who played football for Marshall University, stands with son Aaron, who plays for West Virginia University.
Click photo for larger image.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- History confronts the present Saturday. It is a history not merely connecting Marshall and West Virginia in football, but the Family Meckstroth, father and son.

It is a history intertwining the father's Young Thundering Herd past and the son's future path.

"I look forward to the game," Rick Meckstroth said by telephone from Huntington, W.Va., his home for the past 36 years. "Probably more than Aaron. Matter of fact, I can't wait."

The entire state seems to be humming over this revival of an in-state series that went dark for 83 years, outside of a makeshift 1997 meeting between Don Nehlen's Mountaineers and a rising Marshall, then starring Randy Moss and Chad Pennington. Now comes a certain father, a rebuilding block from the 1970 Marshall football team that perished in the worst sports-related airplane crash in American history, eager to dress in Mountaineers blue and cheer for his son, a West Virginia safety and special-teamer.

"I'm a staunch West Virginia person -- until Aaron gets out of there," the father said. "I'm blue this year, then I'm back to [Marshall] green. My blood's thicker than water"

Water, as in the rainy, foggy night into which that DC-9 -- carrying 37 Thundering Herd players, five coaches, boosters and crew -- suddenly disappeared in the Appalachian hillsides three miles south of Tri-State Airport.

Water, as in the fountain on Marshall's campus commemorating the 75 lives lost Nov. 14, 1970.

Water, as in tears.

"That's going to be hard for him," the son said of this game.

This is Aaron's senior year, the culmination of a four-year struggle to contribute at a major-college football program, with first-team safety Ridwan Malik out for Marshall and Aaron potentially playing more often in the secondary. This is the start to the most ballyhooed season in Mountaineers history, with the 11-1 Sugar Bowl champion returning 14 starters and earning a No. 5 preseason ranking, the program's loftiest yet. This is a season opener with state-wide meaning, the first time the two teams have met since the 1997 Herd team frittered away a 31-28 lead in the fourth quarter en route to losing, 42-31, in the schools' only football meeting since 1923.

This is Rick's year of nostalgia. He is barely four months removed from dining with some of the cast of the Warner Bros. movie, "We Are Marshall," watching scenes shot in Huntington that rekindled memories ("sometimes it was like it was right there, going on again") and watching a re-enactment of how Marshall football attempted to rise from the ashes. Thirty-five years ago this week, Rick Meckstroth, a sophomore linebacker from Cincinnati, was preparing to help lead into a new frontier a group of former servicemen, Marshall basketball players, new recruits and the 13 football players who remained from the 1970 freshman class ... all renamed by their new coach: the Young Thundering Herd.

Even though Aaron accompanied Rick to every Marshall home football game for more than a decade -- "very good seats," Aaron recalled, "50-yard line, six rows up" -- the father never told his son everything.

The "eerie-type" night, as Rick recalled. The freshmen sitting around a radio -- ineligible to play under NCAA rules and left behind -- listening to Gene Morehouse's broadcast of the Marshall loss at East Carolina, and preparing to go out that Friday night. The trickle of tragic news. The removal of dormitory mattresses and then toting them to the athletic center, in case a triage were needed for any survivors. The six unmarked tombstones in the Spring Hill Cemetery for players whose bodies were never identified. So many caskets, all of them closed.

"I didn't get into all the details with him," the father said, haltingly. "He doesn't know that I had to go to 30 funerals. That parents came to pick up belongings, and we had to talk to them. ... It's tough to talk about."

Seventy children around that corner of West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky lost one parent or both that night. Steeltown Huntington lost its source of communal athletic pride. A university lost a piece of itself.

He remembered the four fellow Cincinnatians who died. When he arrived that fall, they "took me in ... took care of me." He remembered one distinctly, Mark Andrews: "I walked him to the bus, and never saw him again."

Marshall played on, losing the 1971 season opener at Morehead State -- despite 14 tackles by Meckstroth -- and then returning to an open-sore Huntington. They played Rick's hometown school, Xavier, on that Sept. 15 and somehow won, 15-13, cramming 10 plays into the final minute and scoring on the final snap. The crowd of 15,000 not only rushed the field, but refused to leave -- the players and coaches found them still there when they emerged from the locker room an hour and a half later. College Football News once picked the 100 Greatest Games of All Time, and the Young Thundering Herd, on their way to a 2-8 record, gathered spot No. 93 by overcoming Xavier, the odds, the tragedy.

Rick Meckstroth earned a master's degree at Marshall, started a specialty-construction business -- an insulation firm that employs nearly 200 -- and a family, with Nicole, 25, and Aaron, 22.

"It's helped me in life," he said of his Marshall years.

Old threads remain in place. Keith Morehouse is the team's radio announcer, just like his father, Gene, who died on that plane when Keith was only 9. Former player Eddie Carter, whose mother told him a few days before, at his father's funeral, to skip that rare jet trip because she had a premonition about a crash, now works as a Baptist evangelist in Tennessee for something called the Death Unto Life Ministries. And the program that sank so low has since ascended to stunning heights, playing in and winning Division I-AA championships throughout the 1990s before launching upward, in 1997 to Division I, where it became a regular Mid-American Conference champion and bowl winner. "Here we are Marshall, from 1971 after the plane crash until then, we'd come a long way," Rick Meckstroth said proudly of the 20-year turnaround.

Strangely enough, when the time came for Aaron to select a college, father pushed the son out the door away from Marshall, five minutes from home. "I went away to school. I could have gone to Xavier or Cincinnati easily. I just told him, 'You know, I love Marshall. I went to school here, I played here, they know me, I'm big in this town.' I told him, 'If you go to West Virginia, it'll be good to have a chance to see a different part of the world.' And when you get guys like Dan Mozes, Mike Lorello and Jay Henry who take you in? I think they changed his life. There couldn't have been better support for him."

Stranger still, in a twist of irony, the father admires what the son has endured.

"It would have been tough for me to be in the program that long and put in that much dedication playing ball," Rick Meckstroth said. "I have to give him credit for staying."

Just this past week, after three years of walk-on toil, Aaron was rewarded by West Virginia coaches: They placed him on scholarship.

Rick Meckstroth: In his playing days at Marshall.
Click photo for larger image.

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.


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