We are Marshall (12/06)
By Cathy Schultz
Most fact-based films soften their claims to absolute
accuracy with a disclaimer that they're merely "based on"
or "inspired by" a true story.
Not We are Marshall. The new film about the tragic loss
of the Marshall University football team in a 1970 plane crash opens
with a bold assertion: "This is a true story."
They probably should have changed it to "mostly true."
The essence of the story is accurate, certainly, but as is inevitable
in Hollywoodland, many details and even some key characters have
been changed to add dramatic tension. Which ones got tinkered with?
Q. What caused the plane crash?
A. To this day, no one is really sure. The team was returning home
to Huntington, West Virginia after a difficult loss against East
Carolina, when their chartered plane slammed into a hillside just
west of Huntington's airport. Onlookers on the ground remembered
seeing the plane come in too low as it approached the airport on
that rainy night, but it's never been determined whether instrument
failure or pilot error caused the accident. All seventy five on
board -- which included most of Marshall's football team and coaching
staff, as well as key alumni and boosters - were killed. It was
the worst sports disaster in U.S. history.
Q. Did assistant coach William "Red" Dawson really
give up his seat on the plane at the last minute?
A. Dawson didn't, since he had planned a recruiting trip by car.
But another assistant coach - Gale Parker -- did survive because
he gave up his seat to join Dawson on the recruiting trip.
Q. Did Dawson really want nothing to do with Marshall
football after the accident?
A. That part's a bit fudged. Mike Brown, who covered Marshall football
as a sports writer for the Huntington Herald Dispatch, said in a
recent radio interview that Dawson, along with two other surviving
assistant coaches, continued recruiting and helped keep the football
program going while the university searched for a new head coach.
Q. The movie shows Marshall president, Donald Dedmon, having
a hard time finding another coach. True?
A. Not according to Brown, who took objection to the portrayal of
Dedmon in the film. The real Dedmon, said Brown, was highly knowledgeable
about sports. In fact, not long after the crash, he hired a well-recommended
athletic director to oversee the hiring of a new football coach.
And unlike in the film, the new coach, Jack Lengyel, was only the
third person offered the job.
Q. How close did the university come to shutting down the football
A. It was discussed, but journalist Brown recalls few heated debates
over the issue. And by February, three months after the crash, when
the new athletic director was hired, Brown says that few among Marshall's
administration, students, or boosters were still pushing to end
Q. But what about that big gathering of students chanting, "We
are Marshall!" The movie suggests that was key in the decision
to keep football at Marshall.
A. It's a great moment in the film, but that gathering never happened,
according to sources. The surviving players did make impassioned
pleas to the administration to keep the program, but there was no
mass student protest. In fact, according to Tom Aluise, a Marshall
alumnus and currently a sportswriter for the Charleston Daily Mail,
the stirring chant of "We are
Marshall!" wasn't even
around in 1971. Marshall fans didn't start that chant until the
Q. Did the football team actually rob other Marshall teams of
A They did. A basketball player joined the team, and a soccer player
named Blake Smith became the football team's new kicker.
Q. A key subplot in the film is the grief over dead football
star Chris Griffen, shared by his father Paul, and Chris's fiancé
Annie Cantrell. Did the movie get that right?
A. Afraid not. In fact, none of those people actually existed, at
least by those names. The filmmakers changed the names and some
details about characters when they couldn't get permission from
the families, or if they wanted to heighten the drama in the story.
So the Griffens and Annie didn't exist, but the grief for dead sons
and loved ones was real enough in Huntington.
Q. Did Bobby Bowden actually help out Marshall during that first
A. He did, as Lengyel recalled in a recent interview. Lengyel realized
in early practices that he couldn't use his standard offense with
the young and inexperienced Marshall team. So he sought out Bowden,
then the head coach at rival West Virginia, for help in adapting
West Virginia's offense for Marshall. As shown in the film, Bowden
graciously consented. It was an extraordinary gesture, considering
the secrecy with which most coaches guard their playbooks.
Q. The ending is great, but isn't it kind of implausible?
A. I won't give away any spoilers here, but that ending? Well, that
is a true story.
Q. Where can I find more information?
A. Check out The Marshall Story by Rick Nolte.
Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University
of St. Francis in Illinois.