Oct. 26, 2017
By Chuck McGill
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - The small wooden bleachers quaked beneath the feet of a couple thousand pounds of football players. The muscular behemoths playfully shouted at the officiating crew, encouraged the tinier participants on the court and broke out their cell phones to video the waning moments of a Southside Elementary girls basketball game last Saturday morning.
That might be a stunning enough sight for some, but then consider the group of Marshall University football players visited the gymnasium the morning after their flight landed in Huntington following a Friday night win against Middle Tennessee, 38-10, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The Herd's charter flight returned to the airport around 1:55 a.m., Saturday, and the players rallied for an 11 a.m. basketball game involving Riley Price, the daughter of MU assistant football coach J.C. Price.
Those Herd players could have stayed in their rooms and apartments and relaxed on a rare Saturday without a game. They could have watched ESPN College GameDay, played video games or found something to do with their friends.
Instead, players like offensive lineman Levi Brown and linebacker Eli Gates - along with a host of defensive linemen, the position Price coaches - made their way to an elementary school in Huntington to cheer on an elated girl.
The visit was a memorable one.
"It meant a lot to me that they came," said Riley Price, who is in fifth grade. "I really appreciated it. They were really loud and it made me really happy to hear them. And the way they yelled 'Southside' was cool.
"I invited them, but they chose to come, which is really cool."
Can you imagine being a young girl and telling your friends every day that you hang out with football players from time to time? They're around your father, around your house and they feel like a band of older brothers. That might seem like a tall tale to a bunch of childhood friends Ã¢â'¬Â¦ until 10 of your big brothers get rowdy and shout your name at a hoops game.
"They were totally into it," J.C. Price said. "It was a heck of an environment."
J.C. Price called the game a "barnburner," - Riley's team lost, 6-5 - but there was a victory to be had once the players pulled themselves out of bed and headed to the game. This, Price said, is one of the underlying reasons why Marshall has won six of its first seven games, why the Herd is undefeated in Conference USA play and why the team is receiving votes in both of the major national Top 25 polls.
"We're a much more selfless team than we have been since I've been here," J.C. Price said. "The camaraderie is not split in the locker room. No one cares about stats or anything like that. Everyone is in it for each other."
Here's the kicker: Showing up at a Saturday morning girls basketball game might have meant more to those seemingly gruff and tough football players.
"She has been wanting us to come to a game," said Blake Keller, a senior defensive lineman. "We were lucky enough to have a day so we could go cheer on Southside Elementary."
After the game, some of the players headed to the Price house for fellowship: food, football and a few games of pool.
"That meant a lot to all of us," said Levi Brown, who starts at center on the offensive line. "Riley loves it when we can come out and the Prices are a great family.
"What's great is that we're not just hanging out with the same group of people or the same position. I'm an offensive lineman hanging out at a defensive coach's house. I'm not stuck with the offensive line group. It's not individualized. There are no barriers."
Plus, Brown had the chance to see a nail-biter involving Price's Southside squad.
"The game came down to the last second," Brown said. "It was a blast."