After the plane crash of 1970, Marshall University was without a football team for two years. When the program was reestablished in 1972, Rex Repass was a freshman recruit on the team known as The Young Thundering Herd.
Repass, first cousin of former Murray State Housing Director Paula Hulick, played high school football in Charleston, W. Va., but had not planned on going to Marshall.
“I was being recruited by other schools but after the plane crash if you were a 17- or 18-year-old you were thinking about a couple of things, one, ‘can I go somewhere and play?’ and you were thinking if the football team was to continue you would like to be a part of the rebuilding,” he said.
After being recruited by Red Dawson – the coach who did not fly back with the team the night of the crash – Repass, now 57, developed a powerful relationship with the coach and said he remembers going to the cemetery before the season started to honor those who died.
“My roommates my freshman year were guys that had been freshmen the year the plane crashed and they knew all the guys who died -that’s a very powerful memory, too,” he said. “We would talk about it, what it was like that night for them and the families and how tragic it was for them and what an awful situation it was. They were young guys, 18 and 19 years old, and of course did not make the trip because freshmen didn’t play then. Literally some of them had to identify bodies, it was just a terrible situation.”
Despite the remaining pain, the team began its rebuilding process with support from the Huntington, W. Va., and Marshall communities.
“The university was coming very close to terminating the football program, so the motivation for playing was to keep the program moving forward and continue it in honor of those who died,” Repass said. “That was very real and very much a part of our experience, particularly the guys who missed the plane.”
Those players, primarily the freshmen from the 1970-71 team, had a huge influence on the new athletes who were driven to succeed by the opportunity to represent the legacy of the fallen players, Repass said.
“In those days we all lived in the same dorm, it was much like a big fraternity, even in those difficult years we had a lot of fun with our roommates and teammates,” he said. “We had the youngest team in America for four years -that’s why we were The Young Thundering Herd – so to win the very first few games we won was amazing and tremendous, especially the first game against Xavier.”
The former Marshall tight end said his most vivid memories are of the friendships and fun the team had, however, more sobering recollections remain.
“The first plane trip we went on after the plane crash was a significant memory,” he said. “In 1973 we played the University of Nevada- Las Vegas. It was the first time Marshall had flown since the crash in November of 1970 and that was quite an experience for everyone who was on that trip.”
Repass wore No. 86 on his uniform and said he is just now beginning to appreciate that time of his life, however, the real story, he said, is about overcoming tremendous adversity.
“The tragedy was unbelievable and overwhelming that as a community, as a university, as a football team, as young men is an unbelievable lesson,” he said. “Regardless of how tragic a situation is pulling together, working together, seeing light at the end of the tunnel.”
The 2006 movie, “We are Marshall,” starring Matthew McConaughey, portrays the story of the plane crash and the following rebuilding seasons in a reasonably accurate way, Repass said.
“It’s like any story, it’s hard to tell within a two-hour time period, a story that is that complex,” he said. “Of course they had to change some characters and some situations because, frankly it was so sad they had to lighten it up a little bit.”
For example, in the movie there was a cheerleader character engaged to a football player who dies on the plane, but Repass said her story was even more devastating than portrayed on screen.
“It really did happen although not quite like that; not only did she lose her fiancé but she lost both of her parents,” he said. “There were 26 orphans in the community as a result of the plane crash. There were so many sad things that happened that they had to change the story line a little bit, they couldn’t tell everything. Overall I think it portrayed what happened and it portrayed a university and team coming together.”
Repass said through all the sadness, he and his teammates had positive experiences.
“Other memories were about great victories,” he said. “We didn’t have many, but we had some great ones.”
Repass now lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is president and owner of his own marketing and public opinion research firm.