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40 years later

Hicks recounts life as a “Young Thundering Herd”

October 1, 2012
By ED LOOMAN - Sports correspondent , The Herald-Star

STEUBENVILLE - During his high school playing days, Lester Hicks was known as a fierce defensive end. Soon, he will be known for authoring the fourth book on the tragic Marshall University plane crash.

Hicks, a 1970 Big Red graduate, was in town Friday for his alma mater's homecoming game with Pittsburgh Westinghouse. He served as honorary captain. Hicks played for Abe Bryan and was a member of the 1969 Steubenville team that went 7-2-1 and battled Massillon to a scoreless tie.

Following graduation, Hicks took his gridiron talents to Ellsworth Community College in Iowa. From there, he moved to Marshall.

Article Photos

YOUNG HERD — Steubenville Big Red graduate Lester Hicks has written a book about his days as a member of the “Young Thundering Herd.”
-- Contributed

Hicks was a member of the Marshall program in 1972 and 1973, teams that took on the staggering task of re-establishing football at the school. He was a 6-5 defensive end on what was the second edition of the "Young Thundering Herd."

"When Jack Lengyel, the Marshall head coach, recruited me, he said, 'other schools may want you, but we need you.' It was then that I decided I needed to be at Marshall," Hicks noted.

He joined an eclectic group of athletes recruited from other sports, along with surviving freshmen players who didn't make the fateful trip, and a host of walk-ons. Their task wasn't so much to win championships, but to simply play competitively and position the program for future success.

Along the way, the program endured its lumps, recording consecutive 2-9 seasons in 1971 and 1972 before managing a slight improvement to 4-7 in 1973. In an effort to get the program off the ground, Hicks and his teammates made their fair share of sacrifices, gaining perspective along the way.

"I learned to sacrifice my talent for the betterment of the team by playing hurt and playing almost every position, including defensive tackle at 212 pounds, which probably cost me a potential career in the National Football League," he said. "On the football field, I worked as if I was to play for 100 years, and I prayed as if I was to die tomorrow."

On Nov. 14, 1970, the lives of 75 people were lost in the worst single air tragedy in NCAA sports history. Among the losses were nearly the entire Marshall football team, coaches, flight crew, numerous fans and supporters.

Lengyel was hired following the crash and the initial "Young Thundering Herd" took the field in 1971.

For most people, the crash is a simply a tragic footnote in sports history, as well as the subject of the 2006 movie, "We Are Marshall." For Hicks, who resides in Powder Springs, Ga., with his wife Della, it is part of his life story. He returned to the Huntington campus last October when the school held a 40th anniversary reunion honoring Hicks and his teammates.

The event allowed him to renew the bond that he shares with his former teammates and prompted his decision to write the book. He began his work in February and hopes to have the book released on Nov. 14. His work will be entitled "Against All Odds - 4th Down and Forever."

During his time at Marshall and in the years to follow, Hicks, who returned to Harding Stadium for only the second time in 42 years, faced his share of adversity. He nearly died after passing out during a weight training session in college due to undetected viral hepatitis. He had a near-fatal blood clot after a knee scope in 1992. And he was almost killed in a car crash in 2005, and later that year, suffered a ruptured appendix.

Those travails, as well as the memory of those who perished in the aircraft accident in, taught him to treasure each moment and each breath.

"I personally have learned that life is fragile," he said. "The loss of the players' lives taught me to never take life for granted, regardless of my age. I felt privileged to be a Marshall University football player, and I felt an obligation to play through frustration, fatigue and a partially torn deltoid.

"I learned not to complain about anything because millions would love to have the good and the bad of my life. I treat each day as if it is my last day of living. As a result, I accomplish what I can by not leaving anything for tomorrow."

In a summary about the book, Tiffany Hicks writes that her father's journey echoes the universal sentiment that you can beat the odds as long as you have faith, determination, discipline and a tireless pursuit of happiness.

"This book takes the reader on an insightful ride of heartbreak, triumph and perseverance," she notes. "In a time of despair, division and recession, a book like this is just what the doctor ordered because it's relatable and its message of hope and generosity transcends race, gender and/or age."