We Are Marshall (2006)

Director: McG

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, Anthony Mackie, David Strathairn, Ian McShane, Kate Mara, January Jones, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Arlen Escarpeta, Robert Patrick

Some of the greatest stories in all of sports history are about individuals or whole communities which have been faced with adversity and found the strength within themselves to forge ahead. One such story is that of Peyton Manning, who underwent multiple neck surgeries in 2011 which threatened to put a premature end to one of the most remarkable careers any quarterback ever had. Further complicating things, Peyton would have to make his return in a different city with a different team, as the Indianapolis Colts had parted ways with him after fourteen years. Flash forward to February 2nd, 2014. Peyton is completing his second year as quarterback of the Denver Broncos, playing in Super Bowl XLVIII (his third appearance in the championship game) in East Rutherford, New Jersey, after having re-written the NFL record books in the categories of single-season touchdown passes and single-season passing yards, not to mention his team amassing the largest regular season points total in the history of the league. It’s all very impressive, and yet Peyton’s comeback is miniscule when compared to others.

In 1970, one of the most terrible tragedies in American sports history occurred. The Marshall University Thundering Herd football team was on a flight back from a rivalry game against East Carolina University when their plane, Southern Airways Flight 932, clipped some trees and crashed just shy of the airport runway upon attempting descent. All 75 passengers died, including thirty-seven players, the head coach, the school’s athletic director, several assistant coaches and some twenty-five boosters (i.e. fundraisers). It would be perfectly natural to assume that, after a loss so great as this, any school board in their right mind would decide to terminate the football program. But for the determination of a young head coach and the support of Marshall students, the surviving players and the community of Huntington, West Virginia, it might have gone down that way.

Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) is the man who took the job no one else wanted. Lengyel enlisted the aid of the sole remaining member of the 1970 coaching staff, “Red” Dawson (Matthew Fox), to help with the rebuilding process. The rules in place at the time forbade any freshmen from playing on the varsity squad, a rule which school President Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) fought to appeal, and he won. The rule would later be abolished entirely. Some sought-after players ended up going to West Virginia University instead, and so Lengyel made due with what he had. Only eighteen players remained from the 1970 team, none of which had much experience, and the rest of the 1971 team was to be made up of non-scholarship players and kids who had played sports other than football. That first year was rough, and so were the next several, but thanks to the foundation laid by Coach Lengyel, Marshall was able to honor the memory of those who died by continuing to play on autumn Saturdays.

“We Are Marshall” is not a documentary, so some liberties with the facts are a certainty. Still, what transpires should come as little surprise to anyone familiar with the story. Instead, the film should be judged by the quality of the performances within. McConaughey perfectly captures the stubborn enthusiasm of Coach Lengyel, whose attitude helped to lift the spirits of an entire town. Matthew Fox is equally as effective as Red Dawson, the assistant coach who suffered from survivor guilt but did his part to help Coach Lengyel achieve the impossible. Also worthy of note is the scene where then-West Virginia head coach Bobby Bowden (more famous for coaching Florida State) allowed Lengyel and his assistants access to game films and playbooks, which greatly helped this undermanned team come up with game plans designed to work around its shortcomings.  Bowden had been deeply affected by the tragedy of the plane crash. He had been the choice for Marshall’s head coach before Rick Tolley (the coach who died in the crash) took the job. Afterwards, he had wanted his West Virginia team to play in Marshall’s green jerseys against what was to have been Marshall’s final opponent of the 1970 season, but did not receive permission to do so. Regardless of this, it is the gesture that counts, like the gesture of the memorial decal on the helmets of the 1971 West Virginia players in tribute to Marshall, as revealed by Coach Bowden in that scene.

Despite this being a Hollywood account of real-life events, it makes it no less captivating. Still, for me, the most poignant thing about the story of the Marshall Thundering Herd is not the struggle to restore an all-but doomed team, but the fulfillment of that goal. As these were events that took place before my own birth, it’s already history to me. As such, I came in at the part of the story where Marshall was now such a well-oiled machine that it was winning championships and sending its players to the NFL. Where would Randy Moss have played his college ball if the Marshall team had gone extinct after 1970? “We Are Marshall” won’t offer you the clichéd last-second touchdown to win a championship, but it will show you how, over time, one team was able to lift itself up from nothing to become one of the most respected of all programs.

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