We Are Marshall true story: The real-life tragedy that inspired the movie

We Are Marshall

We Are Marshall stars Matthew McConaughey and Matthew Fox as coaches of Marshall University’s new football team. Set all the way back in the 70s, the movie follows the journey of the underdog team brought together by a tragedy that struck the university and the town of Huntington, West Virginia.

The movie is a dramatization of the real-life events that happened in the aftermath of the 1970 plane crash. In what would become one of the worst air disasters and the deadliest accident in American sports history, the crash claimed the lives of Marshall University’s football team and its coaching staff.

We Are Marshall is based on the events following the 1970 crash of the chartered plane that killed 75 people in Huntington

On November 14, 1970, a chartered Southern Airways Flight 932 crashed just two miles ahead of the Tri-State Airport in Kenova, West Virginia.

Of the 75 people on board, five were crew members while the remaining were native to Huntington, West Virginia – notably including the 37 football players of Marshall University’s athletic team the Thundering Herd, the team’s head coach, 25 team boosters, the university’s athletic director, the team’s doctors, and a few townspeople. All people on board perished in the accident.

Marshall’s Thundering Herd was returning home from Kinston, North Carolina after losing a 17-14 match against East Carolina University. Scheduled for almost an hour’s journey, the plane took off at 6:38 pm and was supposed to make the landing at the Tri-State airport at 7:34 pm.

However, in an unfortunate turn of events, it hit a tree on the first hill in Huntington and swerved nose-first into the forest floor, the impact resulted in an explosion where the right wing of the plane was shattered and its engine was irrevocably damaged.

Jack Hardin, the police reporter for the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, was the first person to investigate the accident scene and he recalled that:

“The fuselage was still burning, but you could see the ‘E-R-N’ on the end of it. One of the firefighters – a friend of mine – said, ‘Jack, it could be an Eastern flight.’ Another one said, ‘Jack, the Marshall team was coming in on a Southern plane.’ I thought, ‘Oh my God.’”

In 1972, almost a year and a half later, the National Transportation Safety Board discerned the “probable cause” of the crash in its report as, “the descent below Minimum Descent Altitude during a non-precision approach under adverse operating conditions, without visual contact with the runway environment,” attributed the mishap in landing to improper use of cockpit instrumentation data and altimetry system error.

The aftermath of the crash tasked Marshall University with rebuilding its football team

A memorial service for the victims was held the following day, falling on November 15, at the city’s Veterans Memorial Field House. It is known that six victims could not be identified as the severity of their injuries rendered them unrecognizable. The university and the town entered mourning, closing down and canceling all the classes, programs, offices, and businesses for a week.

The tragedy almost led to the discontinuation of the Marshall football program but at the behest of Jack Lengyel, the newly hired head coach, and Red Dawson, a member of the coaching staff who did not travel by plane that day, the university president agreed to rebuild the team.

Lengyel, who had previously been a coach at the College of Wooster in Ohio, was assisted by Dawson in training and motivating the new team comprising of nine veteran players who missed the flight, new recruits, and freshmen players.

For the newly formed Thundering Herd to participate in the 1971 football season, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) reviewed its rule of disallowing freshmen from playing in the varsity football squad and permitted the team to have freshmen players.

Though the team began a little rusty and lost its first game of the season, it won its first home game since the accident in a 15-30 match against Ohio’s Xavier University. Moreover, the Herd won another game and ended the season on a high note.

Director McG initially faced a “lot of resistance” in making We Are Marshall

The accident became a go-to inspiration for many filmmakers to adapt the story on screen. However, the university did not relinquish the right of the events to be dramatized. Keith Spears, Marshall University’s Director of Communications and an alumnus of the 1970 batch, told ESPN that at least six filmmakers or studies approached the university every year to recreate the story.

“We made a commitment early on that we would want someone who had the experience and recourses, but most importantly, the heart to do this story. I would receive calls from major filmmakers with impressive resumes, but none of them passed muster,” said Spears.

Director McG, real name Joseph McGinty Nichol, sought to make an optimistic movie surrounding the event to tell the story of how the community of Huntington emerged stronger from the tragedy that shook the town. Unsurprisingly, many felt uneasy touching on the subject as the accident was still fresh in the minds of the people even 35 years later.

“There was a lot of resistance. Hollywood has a terrible reputation of ruining more than helping, and that was a significant hurdle,” said Director Joseph McGinty Nichol in a 2006 interview with ESPN.

To convince the university board, Warner Bros’ executive and the film’s producer Basil Iwanyk contacted Spears and provided him with a readymade script for the film that was written by the then-unknown scriptwriter Jamie Linden.

This was unusual as studios normally produced the script after acquiring the rights to the story and as Iwanyk put it, it was a gamble. But the attempt worked and the university gave them the right to retell the story.

“None of the other filmmakers had scripts, so we knew that they were serious. Jamie Lindon just nailed it. I cried a lot that night,” Spears said.

The premiere of the movie held in Huntington was well-received by the community

Although Marshall university had signed the story off to Warner Bros, former coach Jack Lengyel (portrayed by Matthew McConaughey in the film) was apprehensive at first and was unsure whether the film would be honest and respectful to the victims of the crash. But after meeting with the filmmakers, he was assured of the film’s good intentions.

Likewise, the filmmakers met with Red Dawson (later played by Matthew Fox), who had left the university in 1972 after rebuilding the team. Dawson suffered from survivor’s guilt for not being on the plane that night and had distanced himself from football after the 1971 season. Yet, he accepted to be a consultant for the movie as he felt that “it was time to tell the story”.

The premiere of the movie held in Huntington’s Keith-Albee Theatre was attended by over ten thousand citizens of the city. Needless to say, the film was well-received by the community as people mourned the victims and celebrated the players of the 1971 team.

Lengyel felt that the filmmakers of We Are Marshall had done “a great job” and was full of praises for the director, scriptwriter, and actors for the tasteful adaptation and portrayal of the story.

“We couldn’t ask for anything more… Today has been terrific, as much fun as anything during this process. Some of us haven’t seen each other in 36 years, so this film gave us a chance to return home,” he told ESPN at the premiere.

Similarly, Dawson has said that revisiting the accident while acting as a consultant for the film helped him in healing his trauma. He explained:

“This whole process has been a series of ups and downs. I had to face difficult emotions and memories of the plane crash and the people who are taken away from us too early in their lives. I think it has helped me to get better. I’m not completely well yet, but I’m sure that time will come.”