Marshall University lost its football team, coaching staff and many boosters when their plane crashed just before landing home in West Virginia on Nov. 14, 1970. The crash in Huntington is still one of the worst disasters in the history of American sports. It took the lives of all 75 people aboard: 37 players, 25 fans, eight coaches and five crew members.
The season for the Marshall University Thundering Herd was obviously over as Huntington mourned. Few people associated with the football program even remained. Among them were a handful of injured players who didn’t make the trip to North Carolina, and an assistant coach, Red Dawson, who was driving back to West Virginia to make some recruiting visits along the way.
Dawson was in no mood to coach football again, but others in the Marshall community thought it a good idea to field a team for the 1971 season. How the community responded to the tragedy is the subject of a new movie, “We Are Marshall,” which opens Dec. 22. The movie, starring Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox and David Strathairn, begins with the crash and quickly moves on to how Marshall and Huntington dealt with grief first and football second.
The genesis of the movie
Jamie Linden was a student at Florida State University in 2000 when the student newspaper ran an article about the crash on its 30th anniversary. FSU was Dawson’s alma mater, and FSU head football coach Bobby Bowden was actually the head coach at West Virginia University when Marshall’s plane went down.
Linden had never heard of the crash, but he was so taken by the story that he clipped the article. Several years later, when he had a writing deal with Warner Bros., he retrieved the clipping and began developing a script. It immediately caught the attention of producer Basil Iwanyk.
Iwanyk started searching for a director, and an unlikely choice in the eyes of many surfaced: Joseph McGinty Nichol, who goes by McG and is best known for directing the female action pictures “Charlie’s Angles” and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.”
McG was wanting out of the filmmaking box into which he had been placed, and Iwanyk saw in the 38-year-old a youthful energy and sincere attachment to the material.
“Huntington, West Virginia was not warm to our making this picture,” McG recently told journalists covering the movie in New York. “This is their identity, this is their story, and Hollywood has a bad reputation.”
McG knew the town and community would need to feel comfortable before signing off on anything. He traveled to Huntington three times before committing to the picture, listening to the population and visiting the crash site and various memorials.
“I never wanted to take advantage,” said McG, “and I didn’t want to make the picture in the absence of their support. Slowly but surely we gained their trust.”
“When you go to a town like Huntington, West Virginia, and people come up to you and say, ‘I lost both of my parents in the crash,’ you realize that you’re telling a very intimate story, and it’s much more than your garden-variety Hollywood directorial assignment,” said McG. “And it was very, very important to me to tell this story earnestly and justly and cleanly and make a film that, should people elect to go see it, they immerse themselves totally for two hours and come out the other side having been moved by the picture.”
Shooting the film
McG and company shot town exteriors in Huntington, wanting the town to function as a character in the film, and also wanting to pay tribute to the people of Huntington and Marshall.
“Two and three hundred people a day would come to the set,” said McG, who invited families of the victims and other members of the Marshall community to be part of the process. “It was a very, very intimate experience where we truly made this film with that town,” he said.
Other scenes, however, including the crash site and the football games, were shot in and around Atlanta for several reasons. The producers felt it would be inappropriate to recreate the crash site anywhere close to Huntington itself. Atlanta also offered a filming infrastructure of crews, and several football stadiums in the area approximated the early 1970s look.
And when it came to capturing a 1970s feel on camera, McG did his homework, going so far as to use old Kodak film stock and Panavision camera systems from the era.
Sports and grief
The Marshall crash isn’t the only incident of a downed airliner claiming the lives of a sports team.
On Oct. 2, 1970, just six weeks prior to the Marshall tragedy, a plane carrying 36 players, coaches and supporters of the Wichita State football team, plus four crew members, crashed on a Colorado mountain. Thirty-one people died. The remaining team members resumed their season three weeks later.
On Feb. 6, 1958, a plane carrying members of England’s Manchester United club crashed shortly after take-off from Munich. Seven of the 21 people killed played for the soccer team, also known as the Busby Babes. The team played through the rest of the season.
The Manchester crash is oddly connected to “We Are Marshall.” Actor Ian McShane, who plays bereaved father and husband Paul Griffen in the film, is actually the son of Harry McShane, who played for Manchester United from 1951-1956.
“My dad played for Manchester United which, if you notice, is MU—Marshall University,” McShane told journalists. McShane plays Al Swearengen on the show “Deadwood,” and he left shooting the popular HBO series to go directly to the “We Are Marshall” set, where his first day of shooting involved the funeral scene—complete with wreaths bearing “MU.”
“It took me back about 45 years to Manchester United. I was a kid and my dad played there. I knew most of the players,” he said. “It sort of brought back memories.”
Other disasters have also highlighted the relationship between sports and grief. On Sept. 5, 1972, eight Palestinian terrorists infiltrated the Olympic Village at the Munich Olympics, taking 11 Israeli athletes and coaches hostage. The terrorists killed two Israelis outright, and the other nine hostages died during a botched rescue attempt. Olympic organizers initially decided to let the games continue during the hostage crisis, but later changed their minds and suspended the games during the 24-hour standoff.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. sports leagues like the NFL, NHL, MLB and NCAA debated how soon was too soon to begin playing games. Most canceled games set during the next week.
Grief and Marshall
The 1970 Marshall disaster killed all but the entire team, so there was no question that the season was over. But questions about the 1971 season peppered the community, and that dilemma plays a key role in the film.
Actress Kate Mara plays Marshall cheerleader Annie Cantrell, a composite character, in the movie. She didn’t know the Marshall story before reading the script, but she loved it immediately.
“It’s about life and loss and what football means to people and to a town,” she said. “I just think it’s so inspiring that football lives on during this enormous tragedy.”
However, “I can certainly understand where people were coming from, not wanting to bring it back. It’s just too much pain, too soon,” said Mara. “I can understand why a person wouldn’t want to be reminded of it everyday.”
Red Dawson seems to have shared that sentiment. Marshall’s Interim President at the time, Donald Dedmon (played by David Strathairn), offered Dawson the head coaching job after the accident. He turned it down, as did every coach in the country Dedmon approached.
But one man volunteered for the job: Jack Lengyel, then coach at Wooster College in Ohio.
Matthew McConaughey, who plays Lengyel, said he naturally identified with the coach’s decision to take the Marshall job.
“He didn’t go in thinking he was going to be a savior,” said McConaughey, who was very enthusiastic about football, this role and this movie. Rather, Lengyel just thought he could help the community by doing what he did best: coach football.
Lengyel even approached Dawson to join the coaching staff. Dawson agreed to give Lengyel one year, and their relationship during the tragedy’s aftermath forms a large part of “We Are Marshall.” Dawson represents the insider’s perspective and those who endured the initial disaster, whereas Lengyel is the outsider who comes in to help the community “move on” in some way.
Dawson, in fact, kept his word: He gave Lengyel one year, then quit coaching, never to return. He stayed in Huntington, however, and built a successful construction business.
Matthew Fox, who plays Dawson, remembers one of the first things Dawson told him: “You’re gonna have to do a lot of crying.”
“He remembers crying,” said Fox. “The man was hurt.”
In fact, “We Are Marshall” does not skirt around Dawson’s or anyone else’s grief.
“I did not want this to be a ‘Hollywood picture,'” said McG, “because when immeasurable grief comes into any of our lives, we don’t all grab our inner hero and rise above and do great. I wanted this to be a very fair portrayal of grief, where some people do well and rise up, and some people don’t.”
“I didn’t want a big rah-rah ending in that respect at all,” he continued. “It was much more important to me to have the film be true.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
The Marshall University library has a special site about the disaster here.
The movie’s official Web site is here.