clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

"We Are Marshall" And "The Marshall Story" - Hollywood vs Reality

I reviewed the book "The Marshall Story" several months ago. The book tells the story of Marshall football, including the 1970 plane crash that killed 75 people, including the football team, coaching staff and several prominent boosters.
The movie "We Are Marshall" was recently released on DVD, with Matthew McConaughey playing the part of coach Jack Lengyel, Matthew Fox as coach Red Dawson, Anthony Mackie as football player Nate Ruffin, and David Straitham as Marshall President Donald Dedmon.

"We Are Marshall" in an excellent movie. It is not a "football" movie, but the story of a great tragedy that befell a community and how they managed to pull themselves back together. I’d recommend it to anyone.

After watching the movie, I did a follow-up interview with Rick Nolte, one of the authors of "The Marshall Story". I’d recommend you see the movie before reading the interview. We talked about some of the events portrayed in the movie as well as characters. I’d hate to ruin a movie for you.

Click on the 'Full Story' link to read the interview.

Matthew McConaughey does an excellent job in "We Are Marshall" as coach Jack Lengyel. Do you think that this story waited so long to be told just so that McConaughey could play this part? (Some cosmic force in the universe?).

I think the timing of the movie, 36 years after the crash, was the result of a variety things.

People around Huntington and Marshall always have felt the plane crash and the rebuilding process was worthy of some sort of treatment by Hollywood. A couple of filmmakers with connections to the university did a wonderful documentary in 2000, but everyone felt it was something that could be successful in wide theatrical release if handled correctly. Coach Lengyel took up the cause for a number of years, using our first two books on Marshall as a foundation for a script, but never could get the right people interested. The school received numerous inquiries over the years, particularly when fact-based sports movies started gaining box office popularity, but nothing ever came of it until a couple of years ago.

Marshall really only agreed to explore the possibility with this production company after first reading the script and then ensuring that those who were offering it had enough funding to do a worthy treatment of the subject. When you start hearing names like Matthew McConaughey and David Strathairn, Matthew Fox and Kate Mara, you know the people are serious about what they're going to do. Once the school and some of the families directly connected to the crash were satisfied the screenplay was respectful to those who'd died, they gave the OK.

The production company, to its credit, then went above and beyond to involve former players, the community and Marshall supporters in as much of the film as possible. They not only encouraged participation in scenes in Huntington and Atlanta, where the bulk of the filming took place, but begged for it. My wife Claudia and I were in the stadium crowd in Atlanta with other Marshall fans the day they shot about a half-dozen scenes including the final touchdown, following celebration and the one in which McConaughey gives the game ball to Strathairn, who played Marshall president Donald Dedmon.

Was Lengyel as quirky a guy as he was portrayed?

McConaughey's protrayal of Lengyel was a bit contrived, but Jack was fine with it. McConaughey really went heavy "old-school" in his characterization, particularly in mannerisms and speech. Jack wasn't at all like that. He was very low-key in his approach to everything. Jack had a deep voice that he didn't raise very often, but when he did, you'd better listen. He was the perfect guy for the job because he had had a knack for connecting with people immediately. And, because he was young (35) and had been toiling at a Division III school, he had no expectations or illusions of grandeur in the job. Marshall needed someone who could be satisfied with small successes and was able to make others be satisfied with that, too. Every coach who followed Jack — and I covered them all up through Bob Pruett — never missed including Lengyel's work on the foundation as part of their advancement of the program. Hopefully, no coach will ever have to face Jack Lengyel's task.

One of the most dramatic scenes in the movie happened when Nate Ruffin interrupts a meeting, then makes President Donald Dedmon look out a window to the thousands of Marshall students showing their support for the football team. Did this happen or is this pure Hollywood?

The crowd scene outside the Board of Presidents meeting was the biggest of the movie's dramatizations of the plane crash and the rebuilding. No such scene took place. In fact, there was very little debate on whether Marshall would continue playing football. The school had no Board of Presidents to meet in that manner.  That, however, doesn't make good theater, which is what films are all about. Nate Ruffin, who was later a co-worker of mine at the Huntington newspaper and a key source for our first two Marshall books, did play a central role in making sure the program would remain. He and the others who were hurt along with the freshmen team did everything they could in the days following the crash to get the ear of the right people to make certain football would continue. Once they hired Joe McMullen, there was no doubt there would be football because McMullen was an old football coach and understood the importance football — even in this devastated condition — meant to an athletic program, university and community like Huntington.

The movie also dramatized the scenes related to the crash site, Lengyel's hiring, the petition for freshman eligibility as well as McConaughey's speech at the cemetery before the game against Xavier, and Dedmon's place in the rebuilding.

The plane had been down for more than a half hour before confirmed word even reached the media. There were only two roads into the area where the plane crashed and both of those were blocked off by local and state police well before anyone connected to the school — certainly not Ruffin and his teammates — could get there. The confirmation that it was the Marshall plane came from Jack Hardin, a veteran police reporter for the Huntington newspaper who lived only a couple of miles from the airport. When he heard every fire truck in the area go by his house, he followed the last one and because everyone knew him, he got into the area with the rescue people. He found a wallet, looked at the ID inside and radioed the city desk for them to ask sports if the name "John Young" was that of a Marshall player. Young was a receiver. That's how they knew it was the Marshall plane, not from a playbook uncovered by a fireman.

Lengyel actually was Marshall's third choice for coach, after assistant coaches at Penn State and Georgia Tech. And he was hired by McMullen, not through President Dedmon sitting at his desk checking off a list of names after phone calls. Marshall had no trouble getting its petition for freshman eligibility granted. The issue already was among proposed rule changes being discussed by the NCAA. The rule was adopted for everyone in 1972. Lengyel usually took the team to the cemetery before the season. Dedmon was Marshall's interim president at the time of the crash, and was replaced, officially in March of the following year by John G. Barker. He was a senior VP,  the role he had before becoming interim president, at the time of the victory over Xavier, and left early in 1972 to become president at Radford, from where he retired.

There was nothing in the movie about the dream that lineman Ed Carter's mother had that kept him from being on the plane. Why wasn't this included in the movie?

You would have thought something as dramatic as that involving Ed Carter would've been a natural for the movie. I have no idea why it wasn't used other than maybe they couldn't get him or his family to sign a release to include his name and the instance. They had to do that with anyone who actually was on the team that was portrayed in the movie. Terry Gardner, the person who caught the touchdown pass to beat Xavier, didn't sign off on his name being used until production was almost finished. They were going to have the fictional character Lucas Booth, who was white, catch that pass until Gardner, who was black, gave his release.

In "We Are Marshall", Red Dawson is painted as a very tragic figure. The movie mentions that he resigned after the 1971 season. Why was it that Dawson never returned to football?

The movie's protrayal of Red Dawson was rivaled only by that of its treatment of Ruffin. Outside of those who lost family members in the crash, nobody suffered more from the crash than Red. He left after one season because he honestly just couldn't be around the game any more. Just on the team, he'd lost young men who were like sons and colleagues who were like brothers, not to mention his connection to the team doctors and other local community leaders. When you look at it that way, nobody lost more than Red. We tried to talk with him for our first book, but he just couldn't do it. That book came out in the late fall of 1988 after Marshall had played Northeast Louisiana for the I-AA championship in 1987, but he still was hurting. He was glad we were doing the book, but he just couldn't talk about it. When they finally won the title in 1992, he was able to talk about it for the book that came out in ’93. It was the first time he'd talked at length about the crash and the following 20-some years. His grieving process seemed to end with that championship. The movie, I think, completed his healing.

Anything in the movie that you personally didn't like or would have changed?

The only complaint I have with the movie's treatment of Red's character was the fact they made him the person who gave up his seat on the plane home to another assistant. Actually, the person who gave up the seat to assistant Deke Brackett was a graduate assistant named Gale Parker. Brackett and Dawson hadn't flown to Greenville, N.C., with the team. They had been on a recruiting trip in Virginia late that week and drove to Greenville. They were going to drive back to Huntington until Brackett asked Parker, who'd flown to the game, to give up his seat going home. Dawson was going to drive home all along.

The first time I watched the movie, I was somewhat disappointed. The second and third times I saw it, I understood why. Because I had lived it all, I spent the first showing finding all the inaccuracies. I found out later, that was pretty typical of anyone who had a history with the story. When Ruffin and his teammate come out of the movie theater upon hearing the news of the crash, the fire trucks are heading east on the street. The airport was west of Huntington. The Ohio River doesn't run through Huntington, it forms the city's northern border with Ohio. None of the cheerleaders dated a star player. And when the star player's dad was alone in the deserted downtown, you wouldn't have been able to hear cheers from the stadium. It was almost four miles away and the crowd wasn't much over 10,000.

The successive times I watched it, though, I was able to look at it differently. From those times I felt like it was a good movie.

Did funeral processions actually meet at intersections?
Yes. After all the bodies were identified and arrangements were finalized, mortuaries met to try to schedule funerals so times wouldn't conflict. They did the best they could, but they couldn't keep some from overlapping. I attended 13 funerals in a five-day period after the crash. Three of those came in one day.

Did the game against Xavier unfold as it was portrayed?
Pretty much. Marshall drove late to score the winning touchdown. They play used in the movie, however, wasn't the play that Marshall won with. The winning pass from Reggie Oliver to Terry Gardner was a screen pass that was wide open, not the "Hail Mary" that was used.

Did players from other sports, like the kicker from the soccer team, play football to help the numbers?
Yes. A handful of guys who's exhausted eligibility in other sports, especially basketball used that fourth year (created by the freshman rule change) to play football in the fall. The kicker, Blake Smith, however, didn't come from the soccer team because Marshall didn't have soccer until the mid-1980s.

I heard the basketball player who was recruited in the movie to play football actually played for Marshall's basketball team.
That's correct. Mark Patton was a senior on the 2005-06 team. The 6-foot-9 center grew up just outside of Huntington in Barboursville and led the team in scoring and rebounding.

Did Lengyel and his assistant coaches actually meet with West Virginia coach Bobby Bowden and his staff for information about the veer offense?
Yes. Bowden and his staff welcomed Marshall with open arms. The Mountaineers also played the 1971 season with the green crosses on the backs of their helmets.

How could they do that? The movie protrayed them as recruiting rivals.
Although Marshall and WVU both were Division I programs at the time, it was pretty much in name only. At that time, Marshall and WVU seldom, if ever, vied for the same players. The best players in the state — and there weren't that many — went to WVU if the Mountaineers could keep them in the state. Marshall was pretty much a poor stepchild to WVU in all aspects of the university until after the crash when some funding from the state legislature started finally coming its way.  Baseball was the only sport in which they met until basketball was added in the late 1970s. They ended a span of nearly 80 years of not meeting in football in 1997, Marshall's first back in Division I-A. They didn't, however, play again until 2005.