Herd Football And Tragedy Are Not Strangers

Marshall University football has certainly had its shares of ups-and-downs on the field in over 110 years of football. Unfortunately, as Marshall has had unparalleled success during the last two decades, it seems as if the Thundering Herd program has dealt with much sadness over its last 35 years. Late Saturday night, David Gibson, 19, a recruit for Marshall University football from Florida A&M Research High School in Tallahassee, Florida was killed in an automobile accident near Atlanta, Ga.

A second passenger, former FAMU High football player Chris Ayers, was not seriously injured and was able to return to Tallahassee, according to newspaper reports. Gibson becomes another death releated to the Marshall program that has seen perhaps more than its share of tragedy in its history.

Marshall is still home to the worst air-releated tragedy in American sports history when the 37 football players, five coaches and 75 persons total aboard a Southern Airlines charter died when the Herd was returning from a game at East Carolina on November 14, 1970. The Herd program took nearly 15 years to recover from that tragedy which also killed many fans, boosters and administrators who were heavily involved in the MU football program.

Marshall finally posted the first winning season in nearly two decades in 1984 and advanced to its first I-AA Championship game in 1987, then won the Southern Conference for the first time in 1988. In the past 15 years, the Herd has won I-AA National Championships, titles in both the Southern Conference and Mid-American Conference as well as five bowls in seven seasons from 1997-2004. However, Marshall has dealt with numerous tragedies during this time. Somewhat like the death of Gibson, another MU recruit was involved in a multiple death accident when he was driving back from a visit to the Marshall campus in the spring of 1991.

Chris Parker had signed a scholarship by Herd assistant coach Mickey Matthews late in the spring, but had never visited the MU campus, as his test scores had indicated he would not be eligible. Parker made the test score and was given a scholarship to Marshall. He decided, without contacting the MU staff of head coach Jim Donnan, to visit Huntington and check out the Marshall campus he would be at come the fall, with his Heritage High School girlfriend, her brother and two others by driving over on a Sunday from Lynchburg, Va. On the way back to Virginia, Parker lost control of the car on wet roads near the Nitro-St. Albans bridge on Interstate 64, which was under construction and down to one driving lane.

Parker and the brother of his girlfriend were both burned badly, but the other three youngsters died in the one-car accident. Parker came to MU in August of 1991 and was quickly arrested in his Twin Towers dormitory room during two-a-day practices by the District Attorney from Putnam County, where the accident occurred. Marshall officials were outraged that deputies would enter the campus without permission and Parker was released after one night in the Putnam County jail.

Parker would return to the team and eventually plead to involuntary manslaughter (defined as the unlawful killing of another person without premediation) in the tragedy. Parker was absolved by his girlfriend's family, realizing it was a horrible accident for Parker and all of the families involved on what should have been the one of the more happy days in all their young lives. His arms would require sleeves and pads throughout 1991 for practices, to protect the skin grafts he required after the accident. He would go on to become the greatest running back in Marshall history, with over 7,000 yards and become a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars from 1996-98.

Later that same year, tragedy struck Donnan's Herd again when center J.D. Coffman died of a respiratory illness in mid-season. Coffman, a teammate of MU lineman J. D. Cyrus at nearby Ironton (Oh.) High School in their prep days, contracted a unknown airborne pathogen and died in just over 24 hours during the Herd's open week before playing Southern Conference foe Furman, leading team doctors to require everyone on the team to take antibiotics and the scrubbing down of Coffman's locker and equipment to prevent the spread of the virus.

The Herd lineman used the phrase Cyrus and Coffman had used during a successful run at Ironton, "Feed the Fire," to spur the Herd onto its first-ever win at Furman on October 12, 1991. Marshall would advance to three consecutive I-AA National Championship games, winning the title in 1992. Marshall's Scout Team Player of the Year award is named in J. D. Coffman's honor to this day.

Tragedy would strike the Herd again in 1994, although this accident did not result in death. Tuan Reynolds was a starter as a freshman for the Herd in 1993 out of Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke, Va. He was considered to be a cornerback with enough talent to play at the next level, when done at Marshall. In January of 1994, during a day when classes were cancelled due to a large snowfall in the Tri-State area, Reynolds and other Herd football players decided to play touch football in the snow.

During the pickup game, Reynolds suffered a spinal cord injury when his head hit another players leg, which led to Reynolds becoming a wheelchair-bound quadraplegic. He would return to school at Marshall in 1995-96, inspiring his teammates with his determination to overcome the tragic end to his career.

In the spring of 1998, Marshall lost promising linebacker Kemba Bryant when he died in a April 20 car accident. Bryant had joined MU in the January of 1998 after two years at East Central Community College in Decatur, Miss. Bryant had shown promise with four tackles and forcing a fumble in the Green-White game, but died in an accident involving other Marshall players returning from Atlanta, Ga., near Bryant's hometown of Riverdale, Ga., during MU's spring break.

Just this past spring, Huntington native and junior Marshall receiver Hiram Moore suffered serious cuts on his feet following another car accident in which a close friend of Moore's was killed. Moore did not return to spring practice until the final week of practice as his feet healed, as Moore had walked upon broken glass at the accident site trying to help the other passengers in the vehicle.

It was the second tragedy in Moore's young life and his time with Marshall football. His father suffered a heart attack and died the day Moore was scheduled to make his official visit with then-Herd head coach Bob Pruett.

On Saturday night, Gibson was driving to Huntington from his home to begin classes on Monday at Marshall. Gibson originally was scheduled to join Marshall's football team in the fall of 2005, but he returned to FAMU HS last semester to earn required credits for graduation in a rare extra semester of high school eligibility. In addition to Marshall, the 6-foot, 185 pound cornerback was recruited by North Carolina of the ACC, Oklahoma State and Iowa State of the Big XII and an additional Conference USA school in East Carolina and was expected to be an impact player in the 2006 season.

Marshall University's first-year football coach Mark Snyder received word of Gibson's death early Sunday morning, according to Huntington's newspaper, The Herald-Dispatch. "It's very numbing," Snyder said. "I'm numb. David was starting the second phase of his life to become a young man and it just shows how fragile life is. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family. I'm a bit speechless."

Snyder said he and/or offensive line coach Mike Cummings, who recruited Gibson, would attend the funeral. "He made a commitment to be a part of our family," Snyder said. In a statement released late Sunday night on Marshall's athletic website, herdzone.com, Snyder said, "We will be there. Our thoughts and prayers go out to David's family. He was an exceptional young man who made a commitment to be a part of our family at Marshall, and he will be sorely missed."

According to a report online from The Tallahassee Democrat, in Gibson's hometown, his former teammates Travis Simmons and Antwan Young didn't want to believe the news about their good friend being killed late Saturday night. "Gib was really excited. He was ready to go to college," Simmons said Sunday afternoon. "He's one of the coolest players I ever met — he didn't have a bad attitude towards anyone. He was like a big brother to me, on and off the field. Everyone is shocked. It's a big loss."

An emotional Young considered Gibson his best friend. "He was a role model in so many people's eyes," Young said Sunday afternoon. "It's a great loss. You can never imagine something like this happening. I still can't believe it."

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