The Never-Ending Story
I missed Marshall University’s recent 30-point thumping of my alma mater, Ohio University. Ironically, the afternoon the Bobcats were playing in Huntington, I was at a family reunion 35 miles west of OU’s campus in Athens, Ohio.
However, a week before the game, I warmed up for the current football season by attending an outdoor screening of We Are Marshall. The epic film stars Matthew McConaughey as Jack Lengyel, the first coach of the team after the tragic 1970 plane crash that wiped out all but four players.
This wasn’t my first viewing. My wife and I attended a sold-out Saturday matinee nearly eight years ago on the weekend of its nationwide release.
Even in recent times I received a couple e-mails from friends in other states who had just seen the movie and asked if I was in the area then. I wasn’t, but what touched me when I first moved to Huntington was the crash’s long-lasting impact.
Six years later people were still wounded and mourning the loss. Not just of 75 lives, but the ongoing impact on countless extended family members, friends, and citizens with no direct connections to the victims.
Making an Impression
It’s always interesting to see a movie a second time and notice little things that passed by me the first.
One poignant scene I had overlooked involved a player who missed the flight because of an injury. Right before the plane departs, a player in line at a pay phone (there’s some ancient history) tells his friend to buy him a case of Falls City beer.
The friend hangs on to it for a year, carrying it around like a silent memorial. Then when new teammates arrive the following summer, one who has no idea of the beer’s significance grabs a can. Confused by the looks he gets, the guy tosses another can to the player who bought the case. He hesitates and then opens it, signifying it is time to move on.
I also felt a deeper appreciation for Ernie Salvatore, the legendary sports columnist whose name adorns the press box at Marshall University’s football stadium.
The film portrays him at Lengyel’s opening press conference, asking what he thinks about the Huntington residents who considered resuming football so soon insensitive to the victim’s families.
Although I’m never sure if a movie is true to historical fact, I can imagine Ernie posing that kind of question. A New York area native who settled here after marriage, he was never afraid to ask tough questions or discuss issues in print that many preferred remain buried.
While we weren’t best friends, we often talked after meeting at a Marshall game—and occasionally had lunch after I returned to the area in 2005. I can’t believe it’s been five years since he died.
Another fact that made a deep impression on my second viewing came from a note near the end: the 20 consecutive losing seasons Marshall endured before surpassing .500 in the mid-1980s. In retrospect, I marvel at the school sticking with the program that long, especially since three-fourths of that streak came after the crash.
This is where the film shines, as it portrays the fictional father who doesn’t want Marshall to resume football and then gets the school’s president fired. He represents all the naysayers and critics supporters had to wade through to reach MU’s current level of success.
This is why the story of a plane crash 44 years ago retains such power and visceral impact in this community. It’s one that continues to be written.