We are on the brink of one of my favorite times of year — namely, having daily televised football on for the next several weeks. Between the college-bowl games and the playoffs in the NFL, gridiron fans are going to feasting at an all-you-can-eat buffet of sacks, scrambles, receptions, runs, and touchdowns. Yes, I know it is the glorious season of Christmas when we bundle up, exchange gifts, and celebrate the sacred birth of Jesus. But from an unapologetic couch potato’s perspective, I can hardly be entranced by cheesy Hallmark Christmas specials or one more showing of It’s a Wonderful Life. Especially not when we have still have wild-card races for the NFL playoffs and never-ending grousing about who Ohio State should be playing in the national championship game.
All of that is to say that this is an ideal time for We Are Marshall , the poignant and emotionally charged true story about the 1970 plane crash that claimed the lives of an entire college football team, coaches, and supporters. Not exactly the kind of seasonal lift-me-up story moviegoers may expect for this time of year. But then again, who would have ever thought The Pursuit of Happyness, a film dealing with poverty and homelessness, would have been so inspirational?
It was 36 years ago when the nation was stunned to hear the news that the chartered jet carrying 37 Marshall University football players, eight coaches, as well as 25 prominent fans crashed a minute before touchdown in Huntington, West Virginia. The flight was returning after the “Thundering Herd” played a tough game in North Carolina.
A disaster like this for a small town is never actually absorbed. It devastates the cultural, social, and spiritual fabric of a community for generations — scarring every single family, business, and institution. Healing and a sense of normalcy comes at exceedingly different stages and speeds for each individual touched by the tragedy. That is the emotional exploration of We Are Marshall.
For those who hail from urban mega-cities, it is may be hard to comprehend what a local athletic team means to the identity of small town America. Basketball and football are two sports in particular that reflect the perplexing interconnectedness and pride that a town often adopts toward a team. That was one of the great challenges that the filmmakers had in adequately conveying the tragic story of Marshall. To his credit, director McG (known only for his Charlie’s Angels films) proves that he can respectfully tackle middle-America drama. “They want me to make action pictures,” he said of the Hollywood studios. “They want me to blow things up and have girls in bikinis. And I wanted to tell a true story. I wanted a character-driven piece.” He got it, and he did it.
Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn), president of Marshall University, originally was prepared to suspend the football program and even considered ending it indefinitely. He and others believed that was the winsome and respectful way of dealing with the torn soul of the school and close-knit community. But there were other voices who wanted to honor the importance of the team to the town by calling for the program’s immediate reinstatement.
One coach, Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), was not on the flight. He had volunteered to give up his seat for another coach who was going to miss his daughter’s piano recital to go on a recruiting trip. Dawson offered to take his place so that his colleague could be with his family.
There also were a small handful of players who for various reasons were not on the fatal flight. Each suffered survivor’s guilt, plagued with the nagging question of why they were not on board with their teammates.
According to their true testimonies, there was no way that any one of these individuals were prepared to move forward to play or coach again without the outside impetus of Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), a firebrand coach who had no ties to Marshall University or the community of Huntington.
Lengyel convinced Dedmon — with the extraordinary encouragement of the grieving student body — that the program needed to be resurrected from the ashes of the tragedy. The film deals respectfully with those who did not agree with fielding a new team, and carefully walks the viewer through the painful struggle of Red Dawson’s reluctant promise to serve as assistant coach for one year — a pledge he kept in real life.
Officials at Marshall University and the townspeople of Huntington are said to be pleased with the film — serving as extras and advisors. For many of the citizens, We Are Marshall serves as a cathartic healing balm for a wound that has ached for 36 years.
According to McConaughey, several people in town told him that the entire filming process in Huntington was “spooky and weird” — forcing their community to retrospectively watch their reaction to the tragedy in a mirror via the big screen. “It’s not like there was a good idea and bad idea,” McConaughey said regarding the town’s response to grieving. “There’s no way to prepare…You know you’re going to have to navigate that going in, knowing that you’ve got to listen to every individual differently.”
Red Dawson and Jack Lengyel are diametrically different kinds of men — even to this day. But they were critical instruments in creating a new hope and opportunity for a small town that had been sacked for a devastating loss. Outside their goal of getting the team back out on the field, the two men had nothing in common. The animated McConaughy and stoic Fox actually pull off the quirky challenge of portraying non-fictional characters — warts and all — who are still alive without making the scenes look contrived.
In Dawson’s case, he had personally recruited more than half the players on the plane. He sat in the living rooms of the players and looked the parents in the eyes and assured them that he would take care of their son at Marshall. Fox believes that Dawson was haunted by the memory of those words every time he saw young men wearing jerseys that were worn by players who had died. “I think that everything about his life right then was just really hard,” said Fox. “Giving that year was almost sacrificial in some way, like he was guarding over and making sure things were done right. And then when that was done, the team was up, and they’d won a couple games and were moving forward anyway, one step in front of the other, he kept his word.”
For Lengyel, the coaching was his attempt at doing the right thing for a grieving community. He didn’t have all the theological or philosophical answers but he knew how to coach football. The screenwriters held back from writing clichéd responses to the question of why, especially for Lengyel’s role. “We were very considerate of looking at those points where we could’ve thought this is a great time to write a beautiful, prophetic soliloquy,” said McConaughy. “But that’s not who the guy was.”
We Are Marshall is not so much about football as it is about a town wrestling with painful devastation. This passionately told true-life drama is about suffering, grieving, and living again. It’s a winner.
— Steve Beard is the editor of Good News and the creator of www.thunderstruck.org — a website devoted to faith and pop culture.