Oct. 31, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – It’s been a while, but Ron Puggi said he and his 1998 Marshall football teammates remember “like it was yesterday.”
And when those memories are rekindled this weekend as that first Thundering Herd team with a bowl victory holds a 15th anniversary reunion in conjunction with the Marshall-Southern Miss game, one remembrance is likely to involve pizza.
That ’98 team – the Herd’s second after a return to major college football from Division I-AA – went 12-1. It beat Toledo for the Mid-American Conference title and topped Louisville in the Motor City Bowl.
The lone loss came – coincidentally – 15 years ago today at Bowling Green, 34-13.
“What I think of first when I remember that game is pizza,” said Puggi, a junior starter at defensive end that season. “The night before that game, we ate pizza. I love pizza, but we’d never eaten pizza the night before a game until then … and then we never ate it the night before a game again.”
Puggi is among about 25 players from the Bob Pruett-coached 1998 team who have confirmed to the M Club for a trip back to Edwards Stadium this weekend. The Philadelphia native lives in Baltimore, where he works in sales for McCormick & Co., the spice giant.
“We’d always get Subway or it was Chik-fil-A, I kind of remember,” Puggi said. “We’d eat, go to the movies, watch a little film and go to bed. But that time it was pizza … I don’t know why.
“In the game, Bowling Green, I think they’d put about 2 inches of water on the field, we played hard, but couldn’t move. It was bad.”
“There was another thing for me, too, when you’re talking about specific memories about that game. My grandfather had passed away that week, so I missed practice, went home to Philadelphia for his funeral. I flew back to Huntington just in time to get on the team bus to leave for the game. We got (to BG) and Coach (Mark) Gale went over some stuff with me, and I ended up starting the game.”
There weren’t many of those “bad” days for Puggi and his buddies, the teams from 1995 through ’99. He and most of his freshmen classmates redshirted in ’95. Classmate Chad Pennington played as a true freshman, and the quarterback redshirted the next season when Eric Kresser started after transferring from Florida.
Those five Herd teams were a combined 62-7 with two perfect seasons, a I-AA title and runner-up finish and two wins in three bowls – 12-3, 15-0, 10-3, 12-1, 13-0.
“We came in together, we stayed together and we graduated together,” the loquacious Puggi said. “We had such a strong bond. We all left the same time. It was special. And we all took care of one another. We were like family.
“A lot of us got together in 2006 for the final scene of the ‘We Are … Marshall’ movie. We’ve never had a team reunion weekend like this before. But a lot of us still keep in touch. And even if we don’t with some guys, when we get there this weekend, it will be like we’d last seen them yesterday.”
The ’98 Reunion will begin with a Friday night reception. At 10 a.m. Saturday, the ‘98ers will gather for a tailgate two hours prior to kickoff at the M Club Pavilion at the southwest corner of Edwards Stadium.
The team will then head onto the field for introduction to the crowd during the second timeout of the second quarter of the Golden Eagles-Herd Conference USA game, which starts at noon.
“The thing I remember about our ’98 defense is we played such sound defense,” Puggi said. “What was different about us, I think, is we talked on the field more than an offense. A lot of times, it was like we almost knew what the offense was running.
“We were solid, a team, a unit. We didn’t need any guy to be ‘the guy.’ If I missed a tackle up front, I knew a guy like John Grace would be there at linebacker to plug the hole.”
Puggi said he tries to get back to campus at least once a season to watch the Herd. On two occasions during the Mark Snyder-coaching years (2005-09), Puggi was asked to address the Herd in pregame.
“I’ve got two wins,” Puggi said, promoting his availability. “I’m 2-0.”
He said that after graduating from Marshall, he was struck with how special his time in the Herd program when he played two seasons for Los Angeles in the Arena league.
“We’d play a team where we had a guy from a school with us and there’d be a guy from that same school, the same time, on our opponents, maybe from a Florida or Florida State, or wherever,” Puggi said. “They’d never say more than ‘Hi.’ I never got that. I never understood why it was like that.
“They just never had what we had at Marshall. It was special.”