We Are Marshall – 1971 Marshall Football Team
On November 14, 1970, a charter plane carrying the Marshall University Thundering Herd football team crashed on a return trip from an away game in North Carolina. 75 people lost their lives, including 37 players and 8 coaches. We Are Marshall tells the true story of the accident, the aftermath, and how a group of determined men rebuilt the program the very next year.
It was after a loss to East Carolina (14-17) that the Marshall football team boarded their plane, expecting a short ride home to Huntington, WV. With friends, family and girlfriends waiting for them, the players were upbeat despite their earlier loss. Everything seemed normal, as the pilot made the announcement, “We will be landing shortly”. Then without warning the plane crash-landed into a wooded area right outside their destination.
The tragedy hit the townspeople hard, leaving school president Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) with the task of deciding whether or not to continue the football program. He had all but made up his mind for suspension, until one of the few players to not be on the plane that day, Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie), led a charge to show that Marshall students wanted football back at their school.
Upon deciding to keep the football program, Dedmon had the difficult task of finding a coach. After making calls to every available coach he knew, he got a call from Jack Lengyel (Mathew McConaughey), who wanted to coach the team when he heard about the tragedy. Dedmon hired him, and Jack got right to work rebuilding a team. He recruited assistant coach Red Dawson (Mathew Fox), who had gave up his seat on the plane that fateful night of the crash. Suffering from survivors guilt, Red wanted nothing to do with football anymore but agreed to give Jack one year of assistance.
To build a team, Marshall would have to use freshman, which was against the NCAA rules at the time. Dedmon traveled to Kansas City to convince the NCAA to waive that rule, which they agreed to do. With that, Jack was able to construct a team comprised of freshman, athletes from other sports (including a soccer player as kicker), and the few returned players like Nate. Without a lot of time, Jack decided to install an as simple an offense as he could and settled on the Houston Veer system, the same offense that Bobby Bowden used as the head coach of West Virginia at that time. Showing complete compassion, Bowden graciously opened up his playbook and his film room to the Marshall coaching staff. However, due to their utter lack of experience, the team fell hard in the first game of the season, an away game against Morehead State.
On the morning of their first home game, it was unsure how the town would respond, or if they would even go. All uncertainties were diminished when nearly the entire town headed to the stadium to support their team. Marshall would go on to win their game against Xavier 15-13, scoring a touchdown on the final play of the game. It was not only a win for the record books, but an emotional victory as well.
Contributing author: Rick Parsons
We are Marshall – Real Facts, Reel Differences
- The chant, “We Are Marshall” was, according to Jack Lengyel, not used in 1970-71. This means that the scene outside of the school board where the entire school was chanting “We are Marshall!” was indeed a Hollywood moment.
- It’s true that injured football player Nate Ruffin, who had not traveled with the team to the East Carolina game, was instrumental in making sure the football program at Marshall continued as portrayed in the movie.
- The firefighters did not identify the crash as the Marshall plane because they found a playbook, as depicted in the movie. In reality, they found a wallet and ID for John Young, who was the Marshall wide receiver. Below is real-life news footage covering the aftermath of that crash:
- The movie shows President Dedmon calling and crossing out a full list of names in a hunt to find a head coach, then is suprised when Jack Lengyel calls him asking to be hired. In reality, Jack did not call the Marshall President – he was recruited by the Athletic Director, Joe McMullen, who had Jack as his third choice for the job.
- In the movie, Red Dawson gives up his seat on the plane that crashed, which causes him a great deal of guilt. In reality, it was graduate assistant Gail Parker who gave up his seat to another assistant, Deke Brackett. Brackett and Dawson had driven to the East Carolina game together because Dawson had a pre-planned recruiting trip before and after the game. So, Dawson was never going to be on that plane at all.
- It’s true that when Jack went to Bobby Bowden at West Virginia, Bobby graciously let him have full access to his playbooks and tapes. Bowden had a special place in his heart for the rival Marshall team and Lengyel is quick to credit Bowden for his help. The blue crosses on the back of his teams helmets were also true to life.
- The movie ended on a desperation throw into the end zone but in real life, it was a 13-yard screen pass from Reggie Oliver to Terry Gardner. A summary of that game was published in HerdHaven on Sept 25, 2006, 35 years after the Xavier-Marshall game was played.
- After their win against Xavier, Red Dawson comes out of the locker room to see that nobody had left the stadium. This is reportedly true and has been described as surreal. Many fans remained in the stands, weeping and hugging one another in memory of having lost a friend or loved one in the crash.
- It’s true that the crash deeply affected Red Dawson and that he had to walk away because he couldn’t be around the game anymore. He resigned in 1972 and never returned to coaching. For 20-some years, he’s refused to talk about the event. It wasn’t until after Marshall won the 1992 1-AA National Championship that Dawson began to open up about the event, mostly for a book about the incident that was published in 1993.
Where Are They Now?
Jack Lengyel won only one other game in 1971 besides that emotional home opener against Xavier (). Jack spent four seasons with Marshall before he was fired in 1974, racking up a 9-33 record. For the next few decades he moved around different sport programs as Associate Director of Sports at Louisville (1978-1980) and Missouri (1980-1983), then Director of Athletics at Fresno State (1983-1986), Missouri (1986-1988) and the United States Naval Academy (1988-2001). He is currently retired and living with is wife in Phoenix Arizona. Though while living in Arizona, he frequently returns to Huntington WV, calling it his “second home”. Jack worked as a consultant for We Are Marshall.
He is currently the VP of Business Development for XOS Digital, a sports media and technology company (read his bio). He has a LinkedIn account and a Facebook account, but apparently is not very active on either. In fact, his last post on Facebook from July 15, 2012 was, “How do I drop facebook”. You can, however, see a few pictures of him and players from that 1971 Marshall football team on there.
Red Dawson stayed true to his one-year terms and officially retired from football after the 1971 season. Just as his character said in the movie, he sited feelings of uneasiness in recruiting since he could no longer promise parents that he would take care of their boys. He started to work for a construction company and eventually started his own, the Red Dawson Construction Company, Inc. Today he lives in Huntington where he owns a construction business. He was hired on as a consultant for the movie, which he says has helped him after 30 years of survivors guilt. Yahoo! Sports published an article on November 15, 2006, a month before the release of the movie, We Are Marshall about Dawson’s thoughts and emotions after that event.
Nate Ruffin stuck close to the West Virginia/Virginia area after graduating from Marshall, finding jobs in multiple levels of human resources management. Ever since that plane crash, Nate has been instrumental in carrying on the legacy of his 1970 teammate, including this piece he wrote in 2000 to honor the 30-year anniversary of the tragedy: