HUNTINGTON — Homecoming festivities at Marshall University wrapped up with plenty of fanfare Saturday as people gathered to celebrate love, rivalry, friendship and the school that unites them.
Kicking off the day well before the football game got underway between the Herd and Chanticleers, a group hosted a tailgate wedding reception for a Marshall grad and a Coastal Carolina alumna.
Ben Newhouse and Jennifer Wheeler-Newhouse — or “Bennifer” — live in Huntington.
Wheeler-Newhouse said that when she attended the South Carolina school in the 1990s, there was not a football team to root for. The team’s first full season was in 2017.
The couple got married Friday evening and decided to have their wedding reception the next day with drinks, football and some playful competition.
“When we were discussing wedding options, we couldn’t think of anything that would be more representing of our love of community,” Wheeler-Newhouse said.
Wheeler-Newhouse joked about her husband almost “failing” the first “husband test” when she asked if her fully sequined shirt and pants, sequined shoes and big, white boa was “too much.”
“It’s perfect,” he responded.
Newhouse sported a white “Bennifer” jersey during the tailgate reception, which included 1,000 miniature wedding cake bites from Nomada Bakery in Huntington, a 5-gallon champagne fountain and a “shotgun wedding” beer. A kegerator was painted to look like it was wearing a tuxedo.
Friends and family members took photos with the couple in a selfie station with a cardboard cutout shaped like a car and printed with the words “Just Married.”
While Wheeler-Newhouse said she always supports Marshall, she also supported her alma mater Saturday with some of her Gamma Phi Beta sorority sisters at the tailgate.
Another type of celebration was taking place not far from the reception, where a group of Marshall alumni from the late 1970s and ’80s marked friendships that have lasted for more than 40 years.
Several of the men in the group lived on the 12th floor of a Towers dorm on Marshall’s campus in 1976, and they say they instantly became friends.
“Although the majority of us were not fraternity brothers — it’s a brotherhood,” explained Mike Akers, the “tailgate master” of the group.
Akers lives in Culloden with his wife, Carla. The two are known as the “king and queen of tailgating” after picking a tailgate spot four years ago that is under a tree near the university’s softball field.
“We know we will be under this tree every single time,” Mike Akers said.
Akers’ roommate was entrepreneur Chris Cline, who died in a helicopter crash in the Bahamas in July 2019. So even though one of their friends is now gone, the group continues to gather on weekends in the fall and cheer for their alma mater.
Carla Akers said planning for the year’s tailgate menu begins in July as they prepare for competition. On Saturday, tables were decorated with Marshall gear and Halloween treats, and chicken wings were served since their competitors were chanticleers.
The group of more than a dozen say they chat and bond over memories for hours before the game begins.
Mike Akers graduated in 1982 as an education major, and Tom Stepp, of Columbus, Ohio, graduated the same year with a journalism degree.
A majority of the other friends graduated in 1980. Don Brown, of Sissonville, West Virginia, received an education degree, while Kevin Morgan, of Delbarton, West Virginia, received an accounting degree. Mark Gibson, of Huntington, and Mike “Tree” Trawich both received criminal justice degrees.
Charlie Cline, of Beckley, West Virginia; Nick Miller, of Ripley, West Virginia; Craig Karges, of Wheeling, West Virginia; and Mike Mick, of Weston, West Virginia, all received journalism degrees.
Stepp even introduced Mike and Carla, who was also a student at Marshall, and the two got married in 1981.
“Back then in college, all we wanted to do was leave and graduate. Now we can’t wait to come back,” Mike Akers said.
The day’s festivities also included the announcement of the newest members of Marshall royalty, which were announced during halftime. Calvin Hunter was named as Mr. Marshall, while Neveah Harmon was selected as Miss Marshall.
Hunter represented the Society of Yeager Scholars, and Harmon represented the Society of Black Scholars.
Other members of the homecoming court were Abbey McBrayer (representing Delta Zeta), Alex Roets (Kappa Sigma), Catherine Blankenship (Marching Thunder), Gracie Queen (Baptist Campus Ministries), Joelle Williams (women’s swimming and diving), Michaela Marshall (Cru), Taylor Isaac (Marshall’s Village Projects) and Trey Moss (the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation).
Isaac was the university’s first gender-nonconforming candidate on the homecoming court.