Library role in ECU-Marshall series

The rivalry between East Carolina University and Marshall University is unlike any other in college football.

There is a solid foundation of respect and an unfortunate link to tragedy through the Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash that killed all 75 people on board the Marshall team flight. Marshall played a football game at ECU that day and departed from Kinston at 6:38 p.m. Amid fog and rain about a mile from Tri-State Airport in West Virginia, the plane struck a hillside and crashed. On the flight were not only Marshall players and coaches, but also medical personnel and university administrators and boosters.

Members of the 1970 East Carolina football team take a photo together at the “No Quarter: The History of East Carolina Football and Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium” exhibit.

When the Thundering Herd plays at ECU on Saturday for a 4 p.m. kickoff in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, it will be Marshall’s fifth time since 1970 traveling to play football at ECU. A dinner the evening before the game will feature guests from Marshall and about 40 players from the 1970 Pirate team.

“It’s emotional for all of the players,” said Richard Peeler, who played for the Pirates from 1969-71. “It’s hard to describe. It’s real emotional because we played against those guys and a few hours later, they were all gone. It was a tragic accident and it’s played on us for a long time over the years. It’s just so emotional. When we start talking about it, everybody gets teary eyed.”

The Marshall tragedy led to the National Collegiate Athletic Association changing its rule to allow freshmen to play varsity college football. As emphasized in the 2006 film “We are Marshall,” starring Matthew McConaughey and Matthew Fox, Marshall’s freshmen, who did not travel to Greenville on Nov. 14, 1970, were later allowed to play and were instrumental in the university fielding a team and continuing football.

A digital copy of the 1970 East Carolina-Marshall game program. (ECU Digital Collections)

When current Marshall players and coaches occupy the visiting locker room at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium this weekend, they likely will see the Marshall memorial plaque located near the visiting locker room. It was installed in 2006 to honor the 1970 Thundering Herd.

This football season also coincides with ECU’s main campus library exhibition, “The History of East Carolina Football and Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium,” which features digitized video from the 1970 Marshall-ECU game projected on one of the Janice Hardison Faulkner Gallery walls. There are other commemorative items to view, including an ECU jersey and helmet from the 1970 Marshall game.

“It’s a tragic event, but an important part of the history of the rivalry,” Pirate head coach Mike Houston said during an August visit to the exhibit. “When we played at Marshall in 2021, I got to meet a couple players and an equipment manager who happened to not be on the plane that night. They were getting together with some former ECU players who played in that game. This is an important matchup and part of history, and I think it’s something that will always be an important part of history for East Carolina University and Marshall University.”

The exhibit on the second and third floors of the library will be displayed into November. On display beside the game film is a quote from then-ECU Chancellor Leo Jenkins from a memorial service on Nov. 15, 1970: “The tragedy that silenced the Thundering Herd left us mute, sick at heart, depressed, and is beyond our comprehension.”

“Anytime we can honor those who passed away in that horrible tragedy, it can educate a newer generation of Pirate fans, and students, faculty and staff that there is a deep connection between Marshall and ECU,” said Patrick Cash, ECU Academic Library Services’ manuscripts curator, who led the football exhibit project. “We know Marshall fans travel. Hopefully they can see that we still are honoring their memory here at ECU.”

Peeler was joined by teammates Grover Truslow, Chuck Zadnik and Rusty Scales when they represented the 1970 Pirates at Marshall’s home game Nov. 14, 2020, versus Middle Tennessee. ECU’s quartet was involved in emotional tributes and moments on the 50-year anniversary of the crash. ECU and Marshall were scheduled to play in Greenville at the start of the 2020 season, but the game was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Saturday will mark the 17th game of the Marshall-ECU series. The Pirates have won all seven matchups in Greenville, including in 1970 with a 17-14 victory, but the result of that game is often a sidenote to the larger tragedy and emotions of Nov. 14, 1970.

“Every year we play Marshall, especially at home, I think as long as our team can drive and get to the game, I think we’ll get together,” Peeler said. “I think it is important that we do it.”

Ted Salmon, one of the 1970 East Carolina football players, looks at a panel in the “No Quarter: The History of East Carolina Football and Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium” exhibit.