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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? Read on.

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 program?
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 the program.

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 1990s.

Q. Did the football team actually rob other Marshall teams of their players?
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.
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Q. Did Bobby Bowden actually help out Marshall during that first year?
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.



Coach Lengyel inspires the troops.


Did Red Dawson really want nothing to do with the team after the crash?


© 2004 History in the Movies
cschultz@stfrancis.edu