July 17, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Bob Bronger will forever be part of the Young Thundering Herd. That will never change.
Yet, an emotional symbol of that football bond was stolen from Bronger … and on Tuesday, his hometown of Louisville, Ky., made things as right in that regard as they can be.
Bronger, a health and physical education teacher and retired high school coach in Louisville, played for the 1971 Young Thundering Herd as a freshman recruit from Bishop David High School, a teenager who made his first visit to Marshall a couple of weeks before the 1970 team plane crash that killed 75.
The offensive guard, No. 62, lettered as a Marshall senior in 1974, playing four years for Coach Jack Lengyel.
In 2007, with assistance from the M-Club, the Young Thundering Herd members had a ring designed by Jostens of Minnesota, and those players and coaches could purchase one of three choices. Former quarterback Reggie Oliver played a significant part in the design, said Bronger, who purchased a 10-karat version.
Last Nov. 8, Bronger’s Louisville home was burglarized, and more than $13,800 worth of property – mostly jewelry and electronics -- was stolen, according to the Jefferson County Attorney’s office. Bronger’s Young Thundering Herd ring was gone … until Tuesday.
This afternoon, Bronger received a new version of the ring, identical to the original, in a presentation by Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell, Assistant County Attorney and Division Chief J.P. Ward, and Detective Michael Schutte of the Louisville Metro Police Dept.
“These guys called one day and said they wanted to present me another Young Thundering Herd ring,” Bronger said. “I didn’t know what to say.
“They had been in contact with the people over there at Marshall and they were so high on how well they were treated through all of this. What a great place, and I couldn’t believe they were doing this when they explained it to me.”
It’s not a short story …
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Bronger not only lost his Young Thundering Herd ring. His Louisville High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame ring was taken in the burglary, too.
He was a head coach for 18 seasons at four Louisville area high schools (Holy Cross, South Oldham, Valley and Fern Creek). Bronger, 58, had nine playoff teams, 92 wins, and ranks eighth all-time in Louisville high school football games coached.
He still teaches at Fern Creek, and he’s preparing to coach a Catholic elementary school team this year at St. Andrew Academy.
“It meant a whole lot to me, being a member of the Young Thundering Herd,” Bronger said by phone from Louisville. “After I retired as high school coach here, my wife (Tricia) and I bought Marshall season tickets, and the past four years we’ve been to every home game, some road games and the two bowl games (in Detroit and St. Petersburg, Fla.).
“I only wore the ring when we attended Marshall games, and our youngest son (of three), Casey, is a competitive gymnast. He asked me wear the ring when he was competing and I was there, so I did that.”
On Nov. 8, 2011, Bronger walked into his home as the alleged burglary was taking place.
“I think I kind of scared them,” he said. “I lost my Louisville High School Coaches Hall of Fame ring. Most significant, Tricia lost every bit of her jewelry, and there were a lot of really special things there, rings her mother had given to her, rings that had belonged to my mother and my dad had given to Tricia, all of her own stuff, things you just can’t replace.”
Bronger also said the family also had no insurance rider for jewelry and personal possessions on its homeowner’s policy.
Bronger called police, and Ward, the assistant county attorney, said the former Herd lineman was “proactive” in a positive way in trying to help in the investigation. And it turned out that Schutte, the detective on the case, had played football for Bronger at Holy Cross High, where the coach had his first head coaching job from 1988-91.
“It started by calling gold dealers,” Bronger said. “There are only so many of those rings, and how many of them are in Louisville? It had my name, number and nickname on it.”
Bronger’s nickname at Marshall was BY, because he spent a lot of time “talking about how beautiful the state of Kentucky was,” he said. “So, they started calling me BY (morphed from KY).”
Bronger said a connection with his Herd ring was made with Little John’s Derby Jewelry, near Churchill Downs.
“A guy said he supposedly found the ring and took it to Little John’s and was given $350 for it,” Bronger said. “That’s what I was told.”
Here’s where the law … and some collegiate emotion … took over.
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Ward said that in Kentucky, a state law “requires gold scrappers to first photograph whatever they’re going to melt down, and Mr. Bronger’s ring was pretty identifiable. Detectives located the gold scrapper that had a photo of the ring.”
Ward wouldn’t identify the man who sold the ring to Little John’s. The alleged burglary case remains open, he said.
“We could never tie the robbery to one person,” Ward said. “A lot of what was gone was never recovered.”
However, this incident became something of a special case to Ward, a former four-year letter winner (1996-99) as a University of Louisville diver.
“We deal with hundreds of cases a year here,” Ward said by phone from Louisville, “and to each individual victim in a case like this, we try to be as helpful as we can, do what we can to make things right.
“To me, this case was special. As a former collegiate athlete, I know what something like this ring means to an athlete. When you put that together with what happened with Marshall and the plane crash, it really triggered with me. I wasn’t born yet (1976) when the Marshall plane crash occurred, but if you’re in college athletics you know about it. That touched me.”
So, Ward said the defendant who sold the ring was charged with receiving stolen property. Ward got a conviction and “through plea negotiation, it was worked out that he had to make restitution for the ring.” Ward contacted the M-Club, which referred him to David Steele, Marshall’s associate athletic director for business and administration. Ward told Steele what had transpired involving Bronger, the theft, the ring, the court-related resolution, and that the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office wanted to replace Bronger’s ring with the plea-bargained restitution.
Steele worked with Herd Equipment Manager Rich Worner, who got in touch with Jostens, which in 2007 offered the Young Thundering Herd ring in three versions -- White Lustrium ($161), Yellow Suncast ($193), 10K gold ($1,078.99).
Bronger had the 10K one.
Ward said the restitution was made in two payments -- $1,000 on March 27, and the remaining $78.99 balance in May. Ward then sent a check for $1,078.99 from Jefferson County to the M-Club, via Steele. Jostens manufactured a new ring for Bronger, and sent it to Worner, who gave it to Steele, who shipped it via FedEx to Ward.
Today, it will go back on the old guard’s finger … and Bronger knows that were it not for the Kentucky law that requires a photo from gold scrappers, he’d likely never have gotten on the trail of his special ring.
“The prosecutor realized the Marshall story, the history of the plane crash, and I think that it meant a lot to him,” Bronger said of Ward. “I can’t explain how grateful I am. I think the ‘We Are … Marshall’ movie (December 2006 release) helped a lot for people to know that story.
“I know it helped us as a team. Since the movie we’ve gotten back together more. For 35 years or so, we’d see one another once in a while, but as a group, 35 years after, the movie brought us back together as a team.”
Bronger was present and advised on some of the filming in Huntington and Atlanta. He and his wife attended the premiere in Huntington, too.
“I just felt a lot of pride wearing the ring at games,” Bronger said. “People would see it and come up and talk. After it was made available I wanted to get one, and I thought the price was very good.
“And when the men from the county attorney’s office said they were working to get me a new ring to replace the one stolen, I didn’t know what to say. They got in touch with Marshall and worked it out.”
Bronger and his wife will be at the Herd’s Sept. 8 home opener against Western Carolina. He will be wearing his Young Thundering Herd ring.
And when he looks at it, he will think of his teammates … and a collegiate diver-turned-prosecutor in his hometown who understands where Bronger has been, and what a special bond with teammates and athletics means.