Earlier this year, something odd happened in Huntington, West Va.: A film crew rolled into town. They brought with them well-known actors Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox and David Strathairn. They turned back time to 1970, and they delved into one of the town’s tragedies: the deaths of players, coaches and fans from Marshall University, whose plane crashed just before landing at the Tri-State Airport.
All 75 people aboard died in the crash on Nov. 14, 1970. Marshall’s football team was gone. The community mourned. Funerals were held. Memorials were constructed. Though the university found the means and fortitude to field a new team for the 1971 season, the grieving process continued.
And it continues, more than 35 years later, as the movie “We Are Marshall” prepares to open Friday on screens across the country.
“It’s really a movie about grieving,” said Allen Reasons, pastor of Fifth Avenue Baptist Church in Huntington and a board director for the Baptist Center for Ethics. “I hope people see it. It really is who Huntington is.”
Reasons arrived at Fifth Avenue, just a couple of blocks from Marshall’s campus, in the spring of 2000. In 2001, Reasons personally experienced the significance of the crash for the community when the funeral of former Marshall player Nate Ruffin was held at Fifth Avenue.
Ruffin hadn’t been on the fateful plane in 1970 due to an injury that kept him from traveling. One of the few players left after the crash, Ruffin was instrumental in jumpstarting the 1971 season. He went on to become one of Huntington’s most beloved citizens, and Fifth Avenue was asked to host his funeral because it offered a large space to hold the mourners.
“That was one of my first introductions to the story,” said Reasons, who got more firsthand experience with the legacy of the crash while doing chaplaincy work for Marshall’s football team from 2001 to 2004. That was during the coaching tenure of Bobby Pruett, who is also a member of Fifth Avenue.
Reasons traveled with the team to every game and said, “I was never on a plane where a player on the team didn’t talk about it,” referring to the crash.
And this year, filming the movie’s last scene brought Reasons back in touch with the tragedy again. The scene shows the current Marshall and Huntington communities gathered around the campus fountain created in 1972 as a memorial to the victims.
Director Joseph McGinty Nichol (who goes by McG) had decided that scene would end the film, and the producers invited the families of the 1970 and 1971 teams, as well as other members of the community.
“McG told Marshall he would like to have a pastor come and offer some sort of blessing” prior to shooting the scene, said Reasons, who added that some of the families hadn’t been back to Marshall since the disaster.
Marshall asked Reasons to give the blessing, and he accepted.
“I thought I was doing it just with the surviving families, but it turned out there was something like 5,000 people that showed up for that scene,” said Reasons. “It was basically just a blessing that the scene itself, the filming of it, would bring a sense of peace and closure.”
“It was a powerful moment for me, and McG, even later, made a comment about how that became a pivotal part in how that scene formed,” said Reasons. “So it was a pivotal moment for me.”
Reasons saw the film for the first time last week at a special screening in Huntington.
“I thought it was an incredible movie,” he said. “It was obviously very moving. The place was just still.”
Though the Marshall-Huntington community was initially reticent about Hollywood telling such a sacred story for the community, the outcome so far seems positive.
“I don’t know that I have heard one negative thing,” said Reasons, whose daughter, Katherine, attends Marshall, and whose church members served as extras during filming.
Reasons added, however, that some people “won’t go see it because the grief is so much alive.” The fact that some people choose to see the movie while others don’t indicates how people respond differently to disaster and grieve in their own ways.
“Every character grieved in a different way,” he said of the people in the movie. “It was the whole grief process that really struck me in how each one of them dealt with grief so differently.”
“It really is what people do with grief all the time,” said Reasons, adding that some respond with humor, others with anger. “There’s not a right way to grieve. There’s not a wrong way to grieve.”
“Everyone wants to know what the perfect game plan is for grief, and the right order, and there’s just not one.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
The Fifth Avenue Baptist Church Web site is here.
The Marshall University library has a special site about the disaster here.
The movie’s official Web site is here.