HUNTINGTON – The situation was exceptional. The reaction and response weren’t.
In my four-plus years writing in this forum about Marshall Athletics, I’ve witnessed it repeatedly. When there is need, the Thundering Herd becomes the Helping-Hand Herd.
This time, the effort was big – as large as one of those College Football Playoff access bowl berths would be for Coach Doc Holliday’s team … and much more real-life important. This was the two-day drive to help those who lost so much in last week’s floods that ravaged so many and so much in the Mountain State.
So, Marshall Athletics parked the football team’s equipment tractor trailer in the Edwards Stadium West Lot on Monday and asked for donated goods that would be taken to northern Kanawha County, where Clendenin and Elkview had been engulfed by the Elk River just a few days ago.
People streamed in. The lane next to the trailer was as stop-and-go as a NASCAR pit road. They just kept coming … like Coach Dan D’Antoni’s offense. By early Tuesday, a second tractor trailer was called in. By late afternoon, both were filled and headed for Elkview Baptist Church … and a 15-person van stuffed with Herd football players made the trip to assist with the unloading.
Then, with supplies left over, a third semi was put into use Wednesday afternoon, bound this time for Greenbrier County, where Rainelle and White Sulphur Springs were hit hard by flooding.
Winning games … making money … getting exposure … That’s what NCAA Division I athletics seems to be mostly about. There are times – and they happen more often in the MU programs than you might think – when it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.
“Everything we do, this tops it all,” said Marshall Athletic Director Mike Hamrick, who spearheaded the Herd’s Flood Relief Drive to aid an area in which he grew up. “You know, when you win or lose a game, you go home. A lot of the people we’re going to help can’t go home. Their homes are destroyed. When your house is destroyed by flood waters, it affects you the rest of your life.
“When you lose people who have died in tragedies like this, it affects you for the rest of your life. There are people whose lives will never be the same again because of what has happened in the last five days, and this Marshall family is just a small part of those trying to help these folks get back on their feet in a good manner.
“Our fans, our community, have stepped up really, really big. The response has been tremendous. Our student-athletes have done a great job helping load these trucks, meeting people who have been so willing to help.”
And while Herd football and volleyball players aided in filling those trucks, the Marshall men’s basketball team was over in Clendenin, assisting flood victims on the long road back by cleaning homes and churches ravaged in the storm.
Holliday, a native of nearby Hurricane, said he couldn’t recall seeing the kind of destruction he’s seen in photos and telecast video. One Red Cross worker underscored the Herd coach’s thoughts, telling the Associated Press that what she has witnessed rivals of that in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
“I don’t think West Virginians take this kind of thing for granted, helping like this, because West Virginians are used to overcoming adversity,” Holliday said. “When something like this happens, they dig in, roll up their sleeves and try to find a way through it. It’s just another example of that happening.
“Our guys have fun doing this. They appreciate all the fans who come from around the state – some of whom were hurt badly by the flooding – to support them. They’re excited about the opportunity to help. They’re anxious to meet those people, do what they can for them.
“The number of cars through here in two days has bene amazing. I’m thrilled that people grasp the magnitude of what’s happened. I’m a West Virginian and I’ve been in the state for many years. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the kind of pictures of the devastation I’ve seen in the last few days. It’s unbelievable.
“I know there have been bad situations before, but I’m not sure there have been other things as bad as this. But we’ll get to work. That’s what we do. People will rally around those who need it. Just like what’s here; that sort of thing is happening around the state, and they’ll find a way to get through it.”
Hamrick, a former Herd football player, was as touched as anyone by the outpouring of support and effort by his co-workers, coaches and Herd student-athletes. In his hometown of Clendenin, it’s estimated that 99 percent of the businesses were wiped out and about 60 percent of the homes were destroyed.
“This is really personal for me,” said Hamrick, who will begin his eighth year as the AD at his alma mater in mid-July. “I grew up on Elk River. I spent my first grade through high school on Elk River. I swam in Elk River, fished in Elk River, boated in Elk River, jumped out of trees into Elk River. And to see a beautiful river where I grew up, do what it did — you know, destroy what it destroyed – it’s personal with me.
“I’ve spoken with many people in the last few days in the Clendenin/Elkview area – my brother (former Herd place-kicker Ed Hamrick) lives in Elkview – they’re just in dire need. And I thought maybe Marshall Athletics, in some little way, could help out. So, fast forward from Saturday when we started this process and we’ve got two semis filled.
“Listen, it’s Herd fans. We called upon the ‘Herd family’ to help us help other people. And it’s personal with me and it means a great deal to me. But it means much, much more to those people over in Clendenin and Elkview, some who have lost everything. These people have no homes, no water, no detergent, no electric, no phone service. We have two truckloads full of stuff going to them and try to help them in this very difficult time.
“And to all those people who have donated and dropped off things, and our athletes and coaches who have been out there accepting the donations, working in the hot sun, I thank them, and it’s a heartfelt thanks.”
Hamrick said there’s also a teaching moment in giving aid when needed.
“This is what we do here,” the Herd AD said. “We help people. In West Virginia, when we have tragedies, we all help one another, and that’s what this is about. It’s important to help these people, but it’s also important, to me, that these players we take up there, to let them see what these people are dealing with.
“That’s a learning experience. Let them see what these people are dealing with, and not take what we have down here for granted. So, I want our student-athletes to see what really helping out people means, but ultimately, the reason we do this is those people are in need of help.”
One of those student-athletes helping fill the semis Monday and Tuesday was veteran offensive tackle Clint Van Horn, a Beckley native and resident and one of Holliday’s team leaders.
“This community just swarms around people who are hurting,” Van Horn said between lifting loads into the trailers. “A lot of times, when we lose, they feel like they’ve lost. This is a close-knit community and state, and in the state, this team, this program, is important to them.
“The turnout (Tuesday) is even better than yesterday, and we had less time to work with on it today. So, it’s been really, really good to see the number of great people we saw today. We had to get a second truck and we never expected that. For these people to come out in droves like they have, to respond to this state of emergency, that’s special.”
Van Horn called the relief effort special for other reasons, too.
“For me, it’s great to see my teammates come out here and help, as well as the athletes from our other sports,” he said. “On our football team alone, I’ve seen 40-50 guys come through here at times and pitch in and help unload cars, talk to those special people making donations. Some guys have been out here all day both days, and you’re dripping sweat, and it’s just like another workout, a good workout.
“And it’s great for me because it hits close to home, especially for those who are hurting. For me, I’m from here (Beckley), and I played in some of these areas that were devastated. White Sulphur Springs is a big one for me and it was hit hard. My grandma used to live there and we had a lot of family reunions there. Some of the happiest memories of my life are there. It just hits really close to home for a lot of guys from West Virginia who are on this team.”
With state natives like Hamrick, Holliday and D’Antoni in the lead, this was the best kind of teamwork the Herd could display.
# # #
This is my last column for HerdZone.com and HerdInsider.com. As some readers are aware, I am retiring from the sportswriting profession into which I made a somewhat accidental entrance nearly 50 years ago, and today (June 30) is my last day of work. My wife, Carol, and I will be moving soon to northern Kentucky, which is “home” for us because we grew up there in the shadow of Cincinnati … but haven’t lived there in nearly 44 years of marriage.
In four-plus years with Marshall Athletics and Herd Insider, I have written more than 1,100 stories – this one is No. 1,103, to be exact. In my years behind the keyboard, I’ve seen a lot of big games, been a lot of great places and witnessed plenty of compelling moments … not to mention seen a lot of changes, like working behind a computer monitor rather than with typewriter and paper, or ending a story with a -30-.
I’ve also had the opportunity to mentor more than a few younger writers and publicists who have gone on to love the craft as much as I do. Helping our profession with such encouragement has been important to me and will remain so when I have the opportunity.
But what I liked most about what I was doing – then and now – is that it was different every day. Sports stories are a lot like fingerprints. Every game is different. Every story is different. Rarely is a situation you deal with quite the same as the day or week or year before.
It’s often live, taking place only yards in front of you, and there are times when you’re sweating like the participants – like when you have 20 minutes until deadline and you need to file a 650-word, no-quotes column on an NCAA Tournament title game that’s just ending.
But to me, what sports writing and sports public relations are mostly about is people – like the many Herd athletes and coaches I’ve gotten to know and to chronicle and since May 2012. It’s about making a connection. When you’re writing a story and quoting someone, it’s about he or she letting you into their thoughts and their lives, and trusting you to tell their story … and whether good or bad, to get it right.
I have never forgotten that. I always tried to fulfill that responsibility. Yes, it’s good to be first with a story. But it’s great to be accurate. It’s paramount. The reader and the subject are counting on you. It’s OK to be tough, as long as you’re fair.
And in the good ol’ days when print was king, you couldn’t take it back. These days, you can take an online version down. Once a story was on the page, however, you couldn’t hit the “delete” key.
Most days over the years, I haven’t looked upon what I do as a job. It was a calling that turned into a passion. What I wrote about seemed to intrigue people, and so I tried to deliver something intriguing to them.
I wanted people to learn something from what I wrote. And I wanted to learn something while working background for a story and base my opinions on fact and go from there. If somebody wanted to know a reason why I wrote what I did, I wanted to have more than one reason to offer.
To me, writing about sports is what I always wanted my copy to be – compelling. I might be retiring, but I hope to continue writing about sports in some fashion until I can’t anymore. I may have lost some hair, may have lost some hearing, but I don’t want to lose my keyboard.
A lot of people deserve thanks, but the ones at the top of the list are you – the readers. Without readers, we’re nowhere.