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MARSHALL: Fact vs. fiction: How 'true' is the Marshall movie?
Rachel Gensler - Herald-Dispat
editor@wvrsn.com
December 26, 2006

MU FBstadium1

HUNTINGTON -- "We Are Marshall" tells a story that many in the Tri-State know pretty well, but how accurate is it?

By Rachel Gensler The Herald-Dispatch

The Warner Bros. Pictures film tells the story of the Marshall University football team after a 1970 plane crash that killed all 75 people aboard, including most of the team members, staff and many fans.

ADVERTISEMENT Here are some of the big scenes in the movie and whether or not they were based on fact:

The recruitment

Former head coach Jack Lengyel says Warner Bros. got many of the details correct, including the hardships of recruiting players. Many of the players they attempted to recruit did in fact end up as Mountaineers as the movie showed, he said.

"We never saw it that way, as an obstacle. We just looked at it as an opportunity to build," Lengyel said. "We lost a lot of players. WVU got some, and then other schools got some. ... But there were a lot of players who accepted our challenge."

The coaching staff did get creative with recruits, as Matthew McConaughey suggests in the movie, using several basketball players and at least once soccer player to fill the roster.

The crash

Ernie Salvatore and Jack Hardin recall how they found out it was the Marshall plane that had crashed differently than how the movie portrayed.

The film showed a firefighter finding a playbook with the Marshall logo on the outside.

"Somebody came up to me and handed me somebody's billfold, a team member's," said Hardin, who was a senior reporter for The Herald-Dispatch and on the scene shortly after the crash. "Then I knew what it was and who it was."

Salvatore, who was the executive sports editor for the Huntington newspapers at the time of the crash, recalls Hardin using a radio device to ask if the name "John Young" meant anything to those in the newsroom.

"And I said 'yeah.' He's an end, sophomore, he caught a touchdown pass a few weeks ago," Salvatore said. "And then we knew it was the Marshall plane. You won't see that in the movie, and I'm not knocking the movie, but that's the way we knew it was the Marshall plane."

Salvatore, whose character is portrayed in the movie, recalled a community that struggled, especially in the days immediately following the crash.

"There were funeral corteges waiting in traffic lights for each other," he said, recalling the movie and real events. "It's a great movie. It's a marvelous movie. Now the accuracy, don't ask. They've made some adjustments and I understand that from a creative standpoint."

The composites

While most of the characters in the film were real, several composite characters were used to tell the stories of many community members touched by the crash without overwhelming the audience.

"We did two composite characters and the reason we did that is because there were so many people," said screenwriter Jamie Linden. One of the main composite characters was "Paul Griffen" played by Ian McShane, who worked in the steel mill and had a son on the 1970 football team who died in the crash. The other was "Annie Cantrell," played by Kate Mara, who was a cheerleader and engaged to Griffen's son.

"All of those stories need to be told," Linden said. "I couldn't look them in the eye and say, 'We are going to take you over you.' Hopefully everyone will see the story and go, 'That's me and I am a part of that.'"

'The funerals end today'

Matthew McConaughey has an inspirational scene in the Spring Hill Cemetery at the graves of six players who could not be identified after the crash. Lengyel said he took his team to that site before every season to help the newer players understand the team's history.

"The new players didn't know the story. They didn't know the magnitude of the tragedy," he said. "This was to help them understand the magnitude if this tragedy and what role they needed to play in the future to build the foundation for the future generations of Marshall football."

Lengyel said this was a "private moment" for the team, which traditionally happened at 6 a.m. before the first game of the year with only the team, coaching staff and team managers there.

McConaughey uses the phrase, "The funerals end today," but Lengyel said he had to make that known not only to the players but to the schools the team played. Each time the team traveled, the school would have a memorial for Marshall, but Lengyel said the team couldn't continue and grow under those conditions.

The chant

While "We are ... Marshall" is famous in Huntington, and now has the potential to be known throughout the nation, the chant was not used in 1970 or 1971.

"The 'We are ... Marshall' chant was never a part of our game," Lengyel said. "It came later, but it's very appropriate for the movie.

"It's a statement that ties 'we' and everybody in the town, the community, the football team together. It ties the whole people together."

The game

The Marshall University football team beat Xavier University on Sept. 25, 1971, at Fairfield Stadium. The final score was 15-13.

The final play in the movie was a crossing route, where the Young Thundering Herd actually called a screen pass for a 13 yard touchdown to take the win.

"I was at the game in 1971 when Marshall beat Xavier," said Dave Wellman, director of communications at Marshall. "In the movie, it seemed kind of strange how everyone was out on the field in the dark. People were in the stands crying. I can't even explain how emotional it was. People stayed in the stands."

Get involved

The Herald-Dispatch is hosting a forum to see what you remember from the movie as accurate or if you noticed something that was embellished.

Here are some of the thoughts readers have shared so far:

The posts include many issues in the movie, including the relationship between Marshall and WVU in 1971.

"(The) WVU stuff was true," one poster said. "Bobby Bowden did help Marshall with recruits and the cross (beside the) MU on the back of the WVU helments, all true. I'm not a WVU fan (like most MU fans) but that was classy what Bowden and WVU did to help MU back in the day."

Another poster pointed out the change in the winning play at the Xavier game.

"Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie crying throughout and undoubtedly, it has a great deal of fact in it, but of course, the final play that beat Xavier is also fiction," the psoter said. "It sounded like it was called in correctly, but it was not the play run for the movie."

Join in the forum at http://forums.heralddispatch.com/viewforum.php?f=37.

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