Two of the star players in this Sunday's game between the Jaguars and the Vikings are products of a football program that previously was only known for tragedy. Then, it was Marshall College, and the mere mention of it sent shivers down the back of every college football fan who remembers the shocking news from that Saturday in November of 1970: The Marshall College football team's plane had crashed; there were no survivors.
It took nearly 30 years for the program to resurrect itself. Marshall College is now Marshall University and though its tragedy will never be forgotten, Marshall now stands for success stories, such as those belonging to Randy Moss and Byron Leftwich.
In Minneapolis this Sunday, Moss and Leftwich will return to their team's respective lineups, following midseason injuries that sidelined them in November. Moss lost time to a severe hamstring injury; Leftwich to a left knee sprain.
"All indications … are that he's on track to have some type of role in the game," Vikings coach Mike Tice told reporters on Wednesday. Moss is officially listed as "questionable" on the Vikings' injury report, but that classification would seem to be more formality than reality.
Leftwich is "questionable" on the Jaguars' report, but Leftwich has been full-go in practice this week and there would seem to be no reason to believe he won't be under center for the start of Sunday's game.
Moss and Leftwich: Two of the NFL's brightest stars, from a resurrected college football program and a conference not afforded major college status.
"If you can play football, you can play football. They said you don't play anybody," Leftwich said, referring to criticism of Mid-American Conference teams. "The more they said that, the more we beat people. Randy opened the door for everyone."
Moss' emergence as a mega-star at Marshall in the late-'90s seemed to kickoff a run of MAC stars into the NFL. Chad Pennington followed, then Leftwich, now, this season, Antonio Gates and Ben Roethlisberger are the hot-new MAC products.
So, how important are Moss and Leftwich to their teams? Well, Moss hasn't caught a pass since Oct. 17. In the five games since then, the Vikings are 2-3 and have seen their 4-1 start fade into 6-4.
In the Jaguars' case, Leftwich has only missed two games, but one of those resulted in a demoralizing home loss to Tennessee last Sunday. The 6-4 Jaguars have fallen a game-and-a-half behind Indianapolis in the AFC South title race and, with the tie-breaker all but lost to the Colts, it would seem the Jaguars are now playing for a wild-card spot.
"We build our offense around Randy Moss. That has something to do with the fact we haven't had as many passing yards and we've struggled some offensively at times. He's a big part of what we do. He changes the complexion of the game," Tice said.
The same could probably be said of Leftwich's impact on the Jaguars. Prior to Leftwich's knee injury on Oct. 31, the Jaguars were a pass-happy team with a second-year quarterback whose talents seem to favor the shotgun formation.
Since Leftwich's injury, the Jaguars have turned hard in favor of the running game, which produced 390 yards in the last two games and has moved up from 27th in the league rankings to 15th. So, in which direction will the Jaguars turn with Leftwich back under center? Will they return to the shotgun and the pass? Or will they stick with the run?
"I have stated how important I think that is: eating up the clock, keeping your defense off the field. They help you win and we've certainly had our opportunities," coach Jack Del Rio said of the running game and its effects. "We've re-dedicated ourselves to the run and we don't want to lose sight of that."
In Minneapolis on Sunday, two teams that have fallen into midseason slumps will turn to their star players, two guys from a college made infamous by tragedy, to reverse their fortunes. Moss vs. Leftwich: It's the game within the game.