Byron Leftwich was looking for any team to give him a chance, and called the 2007 season "a mulligan." Doug Legursky was looking to catch on as a free agent. These two former Marshall Thundering Herd football stars came together for the 2008 season with the Pittsburgh Steelers and now sit on the brink of a Super Bowl win thanks to Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin, who coached against MU as an assistant to Bill Stewart at VMI in 1995. Stewart is a former Herd assistant (1980) and currently is head coach at WVU.
Legursky (MU 2004-07) and Leftwich (MU 1998-2002) missed each other by two years at Marshall, where Leftwich led the Herd to two Mid-American titles and three bowl wins in 2000, 2001 and 2002 (and was a back-up to Miami Dolphins QB Chad Pennington for two more MAC titles and two more bowl wins in 1998 and 1999). Legursky was an All-Conference USA center who started 36 games over four years, including not missing a start as a sophomore (11) junior or senior (12 each year).
Doug Legursky, a three-year starter at center while at Marshall, is a member of the practice squad and will join the rest of the Pittsburgh Steelers next week in Tampa for the Super Bowl. photo from HerdZone.com
Leftwich put up prolific numbers (No. 2 at Marshall to Pennington, who had four years as starter to three for Leftwich), becoming was the MAC record holder in yards passing (11,903), completions (939), completion percentage (65.1 percent) and total offense (12,084) in his career. He was sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting despite playing the entire season with a screw in his leg, but was the two-time MAC Offensive Player of the Year and MAC MVP in 2001, earning the Vern Smith Award. He was drafted in the first round with the seventh pick, best-ever for any Marshall player, by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
For Leftwich, the trip to the Super Bowl is a dream come true, even as a back-up. He hopes to get a ring like former MU and New England star Troy Brown, who won three in five trips to the Super Bowl with the Pats. "I always joke with Troy," said Leftwich. "Hopefully I can get one.
"I know I'm here for emergencies but, hey, I've held my own against these guys more than one time. It isn't like (I) suddenly forgot how to play," said Leftwich. "I have an opportunity to show everybody else that I am healthy. It's a special thing for me."
Byron Leftwich was a star quarterback at Marshall and a starter with Jacksonville and Atlanta. He will back-up Steeler QB (and former Herd opponent) Ben Roethlisberger, who starred for Miami-Ohio when Marshall and Leftwich were tearing up the Mid-American Conference (1997-2004). photo from steelers.com
In his career, Leftwich has passed for nearly 10,000 yards with Jacksonville, Atlanta and now Pittsburgh. This season with the Steelers, he appeared in five games, hitting 21-of-36 passes for 303 yards and two touchdowns (no interceptions). In his career, Leftwich has appeared in 54 games since 2003, hitting 842 passes on 1,438 attempts (58.6 percent) for 9,624 yards and 54 touchdowns against 38 interceptions. In addition, Leftwich has rushed for 378 yards on 130 attempts (2.9 yards per rush) and nine touchdowns on the ground. He also has five career tackles, all solo.
Legursky was on the Rimington Award Watch for the nation's top center in 2006 and 2007, along with the Outland Trophy Watch and the Lombardi Award Watch lists as a senior. He was a three-time All-Conference USA selection in his career, but was not drafted. He signed a free agent contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the spring of 2008, and survived being cut at the end of training camp to return to the team as a member of the practice squad.
Legursky never played on a championship team at Marshall, but he did play in the Fort Worth (Tex.) Bowl as a freshman with the Herd in 2004. He won't dress for the game, but that doesn't mean there will not be butterflies on the sidelines of Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. "It's a little nerve wracking but it makes you feel good at the same time," said Legursky, a former Beckley (W.Va.) Woodrow Wilson H.S. Flying Eagle, recruited to Marshall by another former Beckley player, Herd head coach Bob Pruett (MU, 1996-2004), who also played at Marshall 1962-64 and was an assistant coach to Sonny Randle at MU (1979-82).
"You put all this work in and it comes down to one week." Legursky and Leftwich both appreciate the fans in Huntington to Beckley who are sending encouragement to the two former members of the Herd. "The guys from Beckley and Marshall to here have so much support for me, and I appreaciate them so much," Legursky said. "I give back to them every chance I get." Legursky's mother, Lorrie, and fiancee', Megan Kessinger, will be at the stadium but dad, Wayne, will watch from Beckley on NBC, locally on WSAZ TV-3 in Charleston/Huntington, Sunday evening.
Byron Leftwich, shown against Buffalo in his first pre-season game with Pittsburgh, has backed-up Ben Roethlisberger all season since signing with Pittsburgh in July. With the injury history of "Big Ben," Leftwich knows the next snap could put him into Super Bowl XLIII against the Arizona Cardinals.. photo courtesy of steelers.com
Leftwich had some monster years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but was cut following the final pre-season game of the season. Possibly blacklisted by the Jags staff, his phone would not ring until late in the year when the Atlanta Falcons brought him in for the final three games of 2007. He would then not hear from any team until July of 2008, when Pittsburgh lost back-up quarterback Charlie Batch, a MAC player from Eastern Michigan. Leftwich was brought in to try out, along with UCF great and former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper by Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.
"This Super Bowl is not just for me," said Leftwich, a native of Washington, D.C., and the Steeler QB in a win over his childhood favorite team, the Redskins. "It's for the neighborhood I grew up in, it's for the college Marshall…all the people, all my fans, my friends and my family…it's for all the coaches who ever coached me. There are so many people who helped me along the way. I can only imagine how many people I met by going to Marshall that I still keep in touchdo with to this day. When they say, "We Bleed Green," that really does mean something.
Tomlin had served as an assistant coach at VMI in 1995 for current West Virginia head coach Bill Stewart, coaching wide receivers one season after starring at receiver for William and Mary. In that 1995 season, the Keydets were on the wrong end of a 56-21 loss to Pennington's Herd in Huntington. Tomlin later coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense to a Super Bowl win, and was a member of the Vikings staff while Dante Culpepper was the QB, along with Randy Moss (MU 1996-97) of the Herd at wide receiver. Tomlin choose Leftwich to become the Steelers back-up to another former MAC quarterback, Miami-Ohio's Ben Roethlisberger, taking Leftwich over Culpepper, a former UCF star.
Doug Legursky (No. 64, far right) exits field near Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger (No. 7) at the first pre-season game for the Steelers. Legursky, a three-year starter at center at Marshall, will join the Pittsburgh travel party to Super Bowl XLIII as a member of the practice squad, just like Jason Rader last year with the Patriots. Radar worked that opportunity into a full-time role with the Falcons in Atlanta in 2008. Photo courtesy of Steelers.com
Leftwich, Legursky and the rest of the Steelers are now headed to Super Bowl XLIV in Tampa Bay on Feb. 1, where they will meet the Arizona Cardinals, with outstanding receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Jr. His younger brother, Marcus, was a Marshall wide receiver from 2004-07. Their father, Larry Sr., writes for an African-American weekley in Minnesota and was a regular visitor to the Ernie Salvatore Press Box at Marshall's Joan C. Edwards Stadium to watch Marcus play. He is the first media member to cover their son at a Super Bowl.
The Cards are in their first championship game since winning the title in 1947 and also losing in 1948, both time to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Cardinals are the oldest franchise in continuous operation in the NFL, since 1898, when they began as the Monroe (Wis.) Athletic Club. They latter moved to Racine, then Chicago. The Cards also won a title in 1925, when the Pottsville (Pa.) Maroons were ruled to have played an illegal game outside the league and were stripped of their title.
The Cardinals were still in Chicago and, in 1959, drafted a receiver out of the University of Virginia named Ulmo Shannon "Sonny" Randle. Randle starred for the Cards from 1959-66 and had the most touchdown catches of any player in the NFL all during the 1960s with 65 scores. He went on to be a three-time All-Pro with the newly moved to St. Louis Cardinals (1960-1989). The organization later moved to Arizona in 1988 through 2009.
Sonny Randle, shown here during his playing days with the St. Louis Cardinals, was the Head Coach at Marshall from 1979-83. He had 65 touchdown catches in the 1960s, most in the NFL.
Randle also played for Dallas, San Francisco and Washington, in 1969 for the last team the legendary Vince Lombardi coached. Randle then began coaching at East Carolina where he won back-to-back Southern Conference titles. He moved onto his alma mater, Virginia, in the mid-1970s, recruiting current Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe to UVA. Randle was the MU head football coach 1979-83, then later was on the Marshall Football Television Network from 1991-2005 along with WSAZ's Keith Morehouse. He now works for ISP Sports as a radio color commentator and hosts the "Sonny Randle Sports Minute" to many stations up and down the Atlantic Coast.
For Herd fans, having Marshall players to pull for is nothing new. The last three years have seen eight different Herd players with teams in Super Bowls. Pittsburgh has Leftwich and Legursky (a practice squad player who will travel but not dress unless an injury happens), but last year was as good as it might ever get with five players on two teams. Troy Brown (MU 1991-92) was inactive for last year's New England Patriots vs. New York Giants Super Bowl, but had played a huge part in wins in SB XXXIX ('05), XXXVIII ('04) and XXXVI ('02). He was inactive in his first Super Bowl as well, against the Green Bay Packers in 1997, when former Marshall teammate Mike Bartrum (MU 1989-92) dressed against the Packers, having joined the Pats after being traded to NE after two years in GB. Bartrum was on the losing end to Brown in the 2005 game when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Also with New England last year was punter Chris Hanson (MU 1995-98), receiver Randy Moss and practice player Jason Rader (UGA 2000-01, MU 2003-04), who played for the Atlanta Falcons this season. Meanwhile, the winning New York Giants had former Herd running back Ahmad Bradshaw (MU, 2-004-06), who was key in games leading to and including the win the the Super Bowl. The rookie, drafted in the seventh and last round, got his ring on his first try with the "G-Men," besting Moss, a first-round pick of the Vikings in 1998, and Hanson, a free agent signee of the Cleveland Browns in 1999.
In 2007, Johnathan Goddard MU 2001-04) was a member of the Indianapolis Colts team when they defeated the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. Goddard was on the injured reserve after going to the Colts in 2006. He was selected by the Detroit Lions in the sixth round of 2005. He led the Herd with 49 tackles for loss combined in 2003-04 as well as sacks with 16 in 2004, when he was named to the Football Writers First Team All-American team. Goddard tragically passed away in the summer of 2008 from a motorcycle wreck.
Brown and Bartrum, now retired and known throughout the Tri-State for their decade long summer football camp/auction/golf outing to raise funds for youth organizations and the Herd program, matched up in 2005 when Bartrum was an Eagle and Brown a Pat. Brown also won titles in 2004 (against the Carolina Panthers) and in 2002, when he and former Marshall (1994-95) and University of Georgia (1996-97) tight end Jermaine Wiggins teamed up for the two catches that set up the winning field goal to beat the St. Louis Rams and current Cards signal caller Kurt Warner. Warner played at Norther Iowa 1989-92, traveling to Marshall for a loss in the I-AA playoffs in 1991.
One season earlier, offensive lineman Scott Harper (MU 1999-2000) was a member of the championship winning Baltimore Ravens for two seasons, including the Super Bowl year of 2001, when the Ravens beat the Giants in SB XXXV. Harper went onto to play 2002-04 in the Canadian Football League for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
In 1999, running back Orlandis Gary, who like Wiggins started at MU in 1994-95 (backing up all-time Herd leading rusher Chris Parker, who was a free agent signee with the Jaguars 1996-98) and followed former Herd head coach Jim Donnan to UGA for 1996-97, was a member of the Denver Broncos for their win in Super Bowl XXXIII over the Atlanta Falcons. Finally, Bartrum and Browns were Pats teammate when New England lost to the Brett Farve Green Bay Packers in 1997 in Super Bowl XXXI.
While the Super Bowl traces its roots to 1967, when Green Bay beat the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl I, the Marshall player with the most championships is also Marshall's only member of the NFL Hall of Fame and the only Herd football player with his number retired, Frank "Gunner" Gatski. Gatski, from Farmington, W.Va. (also home to NY Giant great Sam Huff and current West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin), played JV football in 1940, then started at linebacker and center for the Herd in 1941-42 before heading off as a soldier in the U.S. Army from 1943-45. In 1946, Paul Brown signed the 6-foot-2 center to play for his new Cleveland Browns in the All-American Football Conference. The Browns won all four titles in that league, including a often forgotten 14-0 season in 1948 that was part of a three-year, 28-game unbeaten streak (including two ties).
Frank Gatski, known as "Gunner" for his hard-hitting style, won eight championships in eight championships in 11 trips to title games in a 12-year career for the Cleveland Browns (1946-56) and with the Detroit Lions (1957), who beat the Browns in Gatski's last season. His No. 72 is retired at Marshall, as the Herd's only member of the NFL Hall of Fame
The Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts jumped to the NFL in 1950, the Cleveland continued its run with a title in 1950, 1954 and 1955. The Browns were runners-up in 1951, 1952, 1953 and 1957, when Gatski was a member of the Detroit Lions for that '57 season and won his eighth championship in 11 years in professional football. His teammate at Marshall and a fellow offensive lineman with the Browns in the AAFC championship years, Eddie Ulinski, was an assistant coach for the Browns for titles in 1954, 1955 and 1964, and was there for runner-up finishes in 1957, 1965, 1968 and 1969, giving him four titles in the AAFC as a player and three more NFL titles as an assistant coach and, later, the film/video coordinator through 1972.