I watched the movie again last weekend with my 7 year old grandson. Will went with us to the theater when "We Are Marshall" first came out, and he has asked to see it again several times. I don't watch the DVD often, but whenever I do, it never fails in bringing tears to my eyes. Most likely any Huntingtonian who remembers that night in November 1970 has a similar flood of emotion when the film is shown.
Most of us can remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news of the Southern Airways chartered plane crash at Tri State Airport, claiming the lives of most of the Marshall University football team, coaching staff, Athletic Director, sports announcers, boosters, and flight crew. I had been a classmate of a number of the players at Marshall. My doctor and his wife were on that plane. The parents of several of my friends were also aboard. Our neighbor, WHTN Sports Director, Ken Jones lost his life as well. It would have been hard to find anyone in Huntington who would not have been touched by the tragedy.
I had transferred from Marshall to Free Will Baptist Bible College in Nashville to prepare for the ministry only a semester before the crash. Several guys in the dorm were talking that evening about the results of various college football games. Alabama, North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina were the favorites of most of the southerners in the dorm. I asked if anyone had heard how Marshall had done and Grady Holder said, "I think I heard they lost to East Carolina."
"Oh well", I thought, "Same old same old."
It wasn't until I climbed into bed that night that I turned on the radio. That was my usual routine, with the radio turned down low, listening to Scott Shannon, I generally dropped off to sleep pretty quickly. At the top of the hour (11:00 PM) the regular five minute news report came on with the lead story that a plane carrying the Marshall University Football team had crashed upon landing at Tri State Airport in Kenova, WV.
I couldn't believe what I heard. Sitting straight up in the bed, I asked myself, "Did I dream that?" My roomate was home for the weekend so there was no one to verify what I thought I had just heard. I quickly put on my pants and made my way to the pay phone on the third floor in the stair well at Goen Hall. I called the radio station and the DJ answered after a number of rings.
"Did I understand that there was a plane crash in Huntington, WV?" I asked. "What can you tell me about it?"
"I don't know a lot" he said. "It was a college football team and everyone on board is believed to be dead."
"My God!" I gasped. "I know some of those guys."
"I'm sorry, man. That's really tough. I sure hate it for you..."
Immediately I called home and Dad filled me in on what was known of the tragedy at that hour. A thousand thoughts ran through my mind and suddenly I felt so very, very far from home. Over the course of the next few days, I poured over newspapers, caught the TV news when I could, and called home often. The more I learned about the various friends and neighbors who had been lost, I just felt more and more helpless, and incredibly sad...
Now, nearly 38 years later, the feelings come rushing back every time I see the movie. I know that director McG. employed some theatrical license, but basically the story is based on fact. It succeeded in bringing the old memories flooding back, and I wonder where the time has gone. There was the deep sense of loss in the community. Then the years of frustration as the football program slowly went forward. The frustrations of the 70's - the hope and promise of the 80's - and the championship seasons of the 90's. What a great story, and a great movie to keep it new in our minds. Now I have grandchildren who are fascinated by the story and love the movie.
Upon seeing the movie for the first time, Will asked me about the fountain. "Do you know where that is Papaw?"
"Sure do, would you like to go see it?" I asked.
He couldn't wait. He generally spent the night with us on Friday, so that Saturday, Linda and I took him up to Huntington for his first visit to the Marshall Campus. After visiting the fountain, I asked him if he would like to see the grave site and memorial in Spring Hill Cemetery, and we made the trip up 20th Street hill to visit that sacred spot. Will is a Marshall Football fan now. He loves to go to the games, and thanks to "We Are Marshall" he will never forget what transpired in Huntington, thirty one years before he was born.
I think it's important that we never forget.
Perhaps the movie will cause a whole new generation of fans to remember the ones who lost their lives, and to build a sense of pride in what has been accomplished after such a great loss.
"From Ashes to Glory" indeed.
I am proud when I hear Will and his little brother, Asher, say, "We are... Marshall!"