Sam Botek Jr. knew playing football at Marshall University would be tough. But he never knew his trials would include learning how to avoid being stampeded by a buffalo.
"I'm the captain of the kickoff team, and I'm giving signals to the unit," Botek said. "[Toledo native] Keno [Hatfield, the game referee] walked up and said, 'You better get your team off the field.'
"I looked up and I saw this buffalo - no kidding, a buffalo - running towards us. I told the guys, 'Trust me on this: everyone just run for the sidelines.' Everyone scattered, and some of the guys even ran to the other team's sidelines."
It seems Marco, the Thundering Herd's live buffalo mascot, had broken loose from his handlers and rumbled onto the field. While that may have been the craziest situation Botek and his Marshall teammates had to overcome during the 1971 football season, it was far from the most difficult.
That season was the first for the Marshall program following a 1970 plane crash that killed 75 players, coaches, administrators and boosters associated with the football team.
That season, and the "Young Thundering Herd" that replaced the lost team, are featured in the movie We Are Marshall that will be released nationally Dec. 22. That movie stars Matthew McConaughey in the role of Jack Lengyel, the coach who rebuilt the football program the next season.
After the crash there was debate as to whether the program should be rebuilt, but on St. Patrick's Day of 1971, Lengyel was hired from the College of Wooster as the school's new coach.
Soon after that Lengyel came to Toledo to recruit Botek, an All-City performer as a St. Francis senior playing for coach Dick Mattingly.
"I only knew what I read in the newspaper and what I saw on television," Botek said of the tragedy. "I had never heard of Marshall much. It was tragic, but after a few weeks life went on and I didn't think about it because it didn't touch me."
The NCAA offered Lengyel one recruiting plum that no other college coach could offer a high school senior - the chance to play immediately. At that time freshmen were not allowed to participate until after they had spent one year on a college campus.
The team was so young, its nickname was changed to the Young Thundering Herd.
"I had offers from UT and BG and Michigan State, but I always wanted a full ride," Botek said. "When that was offered [by Marshall], I thought it was wonderful. It was a no-brainer. I wanted to be a part of it.
"It was a unique scenario, to be a freshman and starting. As I thought about it, I realized this type of situation would never come up again. I thought it would be unique to be a part of building up something from the ashes.
"And it was the greatest experience of my life."
Botek can say that now. He also admits that summer and fall drills were difficult for the freshman-dominated squad.
"It was very strenuous and very stressful," Botek said. "The coaches would move you around. I went there as a halfback, and two weeks into drills the coaches said, 'Tomorrow you're moving to tight end. Learn the plays tonight.'
"Two weeks later they would move you around to defensive end. They kept moving everyone around like a chess game, trying to figure out where everybody fit. It was crazy."
Soon the time came for Marshall's first game. It was played on Sept. 18, 1971, in Morehead, Ky., against the school's big rival, Morehead State.
"When we walked onto the field, everyone gave us a standing ovation - even the Morehead fans," Botek said.
Former Bowsher standout Dave Schaetzke was the starting quarterback for Morehead State. He said he and his teammates quickly realized this wasn't a typical football game.
"We had a picture of the game in Sports Illustrated, and we were on the national news," Schaetzke said. "All around the country it was a huge thing. And we quickly realized that no one was cheering for us.
"In fact, some of us thought, 'Should we win?' But it was a rivalry, and we knew we had to win. But everyone was cheering against us."
Schaetzke had a big game, carrying the ball 15 times for 87 yards and a touchdown while completing 13 of 23 passes for 109 yards in the Eagles' 29-6 win.
"I remember talking to [Marshall quarterback] Reggie Oliver after the game," Schaetzke said. "I walked over, congratulated him and shook his hand. Would I have done that normally? Maybe. But maybe not."
Marshall's first home contest following the crash was played the following Saturday, Sept. 25, in front of a record crowd at Fairfield Stadium. And more than just home fans were there to watch the new team play - the country seemed to support the team.
"Before we went on the field, the coaches said, 'Quiet down, because someone wants to talk to you,'•" Botek said. "Then who came over the loudspeakers? Richard Nixon, the president of the United States.
"He told us that the nation was behind us, and that we should do our best. Can you imagine that? A freshman in college, and the president of the United States is talking to you before you play a football game."
Marshall scored on the final play of that contest to claim a 15-13 victory over Xavier, an emotional victory that left fans weeping in the stands long after the game had ended.
It was back to reality the following week as Miami (Ohio) hammered the Young Thundering Herd 66-6. There were other bumps along the road, to be sure.
"We were playing seniors from other teams - guys like Chuck Ealey and the undefeated Rockets," Botek said. "It was a challenge physically and mentally, but it was a challenge emotionally, too."
The Young Thundering Herd finished the season with a 2-9
record, also posting a Homecoming victory over Bowling Green. But the success of that 1971 team was measured in more than just victories.
"It was a success, in our hearts, that we won one game, let alone two," Botek said. "We won when we put the uniforms on and walked onto the field for that first game.
"We had at least put it back together. It wasn't perfect, but we had made it happen."
Botek spent two more seasons as a member of the Marshall program before an injury ended his football career. Botek graduated from Marshall in 1975, then returned to Toledo to work for his family's business, Metropolitan Distributing Company, where he serves as company president.
While Botek now is 35 years removed from the experience, he said he would eagerly do it again.
"Through all the stress, agony, uncertainty and fear that we went through, being a part of making it a success has made me a better person," he said. "When I have problems in my life, I think about those days and I plant my feet. I think it gave me strength, to let me know I could go through things."
Contact John Wagner at: email@example.com or 419-724-6481.