Special to Page 2
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- It's bowl season, but the big doin's, as the locals say, in this down-home, blue-collar city have nothing to do with Marshall University's usual success on the gridiron. The Thundering Herd was eliminated from bowl contention weeks ago.
No, the doin's are even bigger than Marshall, one of the city's largest employers and its greatest source of pride. Everyone is chatting up the Dec. 12 world premiere of "We Are Marshall," the big-screen retelling of the revival of Marshall's football program and how its miraculous 1971 season -- a season that almost never was -- lifted a school and city up from the ashes of the 1970 plane crash that killed 37 Marshall football players, 12 coaches and school administrators, five crew members and 21 boosters and townspeople.
Like the story it tells, the film itself is an unlikely source of jubilation for this city of 51,000. A barrel of crazy Hollywood types came, saw and told their story -- their story -- and the people of Huntington couldn't be more stoked.
"Boy, oh, boy, Radisson's been sold out for weeks," says Al Collins, the shuttle driver for the Radisson in downtown Huntington. He offers to drive me to my hotel, 20 minutes outside of Huntington in Barboursville, without accepting a dime. "Never seen anything like this.
"We Are Marshall" wasn't the easiest story to bring to the big screen.
"Funny, it's filled mostly by locals who want to see the celebrities," says Collins, who drives a dump truck for the city on most days. "But this movie and this premiere and whatnot, it's all great for the city for at least a few more weeks anyway. Then everyone will get back to their lives."
Sure, "We Are Marshall," which opens up nationwide Friday, is an uplifting tale about the aftermath of the tragedy, when a young outsider, head coach Jack Lengyel (played by Matthew McConaughey), joined assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox of "Lost") -- a reluctant holdover from the staff of the '70 squad who had skipped the flight -- to rebuild Marshall's football program and, in the process, help heal the community.
But there was a good deal of trepidation from people who were understandably reluctant to revisit the years of sorrow that followed the accident.
"There was a lot of resistance," admits the movie's director, Joseph McGinty Nichol, known professionally as McG. "Hollywood has a terrible reputation of ruining more than helping, and that was a significant hurdle."
The morning of the premiere, I followed Collins' advice and took a cab to Jim's Steak and Spaghetti, a downtown Huntington diner, for brunch. It's the type of place where the locals swap gossip and finish each other's stories, but where first-timers are welcome. I express my desire for breakfast, but my fellow diners convince me to order spaghetti. First-timers always order spaghetti, I'm told.
Martha Baker and Sharon Price have manned the diner's counters for 50-some-odd years, including the night of the crash. Baker knew something was wrong when Jim Tweel, the diner's late owner, climbed atop a chair to address the full house. The makeshift podium was only used to deliver urgent news or introduce a special guest -- like, say, soon-to-be-president John F. Kennedy.
"Mr. Tweel said, 'Can I have your attention please?' and then he told us the plane had crashed," Baker says. "Everybody here had either a friend or a relative who was on that plane."
The late Nate Ruffin (played by Anthony Mackie), whose injured forearm forced him to miss the team's ill-fated road trip to play East Carolina, would become the default leader of that '71 team, back when he was a regular visitor at the diner.
"I waited on Nate every day for years, just a wonderful young man, but I'll never forget " Baker says before she starts to tear up. "He had to call his mommy and daddy and tell them that he wasn't on that plane, that he was still alive."
For weeks after the tragedy, mommies and daddies would filter through the diner on their way to identify the bodies.
"They'd come here before, then they'd go identify the bodies, and they'd come back after," Baker says. "Everybody was in shock and it was that way for a long time."
"But look at us now," she continues, now beaming. "We're still here."
Here, according to Baker, is a city on the rebound, thrust back into the hearts and minds of a watchful nation. This is due, in no small part, to the efforts of the filmmakers behind "We Are Marshall." Back in April, the cast and crew spent just over a month in Huntington and, like all visitors, were welcomed with open arms at the diner.
"There ain't many restaurants in Huntington, so they'd come through all the time," she says. "I just loved 'em. I wanna adopt them all. They were just like downtown Huntington boys."
Except these weren't Huntington boys. These were Hollywood boys. And it doesn't get any more Hollywood than this bunch. The film's director, McG -- a childhood nickname that sounds like the most Hollywood of monikers -- is the auteur of the lightweight "Charlie's Angels" movies. McConaughey and Fox are known as much for their heartthrob status as for their résumés.
But before the actors were on board, producer Basil Iwanyk, a former Warner Bros. executive and the producer of nondescript thrillers like "Mindhunters" and "Firewall," had to win over the school.
The task of safeguarding the story belonged to Keith Spears, Marshall's director of communications and a graduate of the Class of '70, who had entertained -- and declined -- overtures from as many as six filmmakers or studios per year.
"We made a commitment early on that we'd want someone who had the experience and recourses, but most importantly, the heart to do this story," Spears says. "I'd receive calls from major filmmakers with impressive résumés, but none of them passed muster."
Just days after a brief phone call with Spears, Iwanyk landed in Huntington, toting a finished script by unknown 25-year-old screenwriter Jamie Linden.
"As any producer will tell you, it was a gamble," Iwanyk says. "You're supposed to secure the life rights before you write the script, but we wrote the script first, which was stupid."
And in retrospect, genius.
"None of the other filmmakers had scripts, so we knew that they were serious," says Spears, who shared the script with Marshall's board of governors and made it his own bedtime read. "Jamie Linden just nailed it. I cried a lot that night."
Once the school signed off, Iwanyk and McG set about meeting players and coaches from the '71 squad, and securing the rights of potential characters. Paramount were Lengyel and Dawson.
"The big concern was that they'd treat the people with respect and the story with honesty, that they wouldn't Hollywoodize it," Lengyel says. "When I listened to them, they said all of the right things, so we knew they could talk the talk. But could they walk the walk?"
The tougher get was Dawson. Only 27 at the time of the tragedy, he was an assistant with the '70 squad and personally recruited 20 of the 37 players who perished in the crash. What's more, he'd given up his seat on the flight to go on a recruiting visit, and he has struggled with that guilt ever since. After he served at Lengyel's side for the triumphant '71 season, he left the game, never to return.
Though he still lives in Huntington, Dawson has kept his distance, making appearances at pregame tailgate parties but leaving before the game; returning every year for a ceremony at the Memorial Student Center Fountain, but never speaking, standing instead beneath a sycamore tree a football field's distance away.
But when the filmmakers asked for his blessing and participation in the production, he accepted.
"It was time to tell the story," says Dawson, who swallowed his fear of flying to meet Fox in Hawaii, where the actor was shooting "Lost."
"Red's had a tough run," Fox said. "So when we met, I knew we needed to take it slow. The first couple of days we just got to know each other. We spent some time with my kids and wife, who made us some lasagna, and then we got to talking and joking. He warned me that I was going to have to do some crying, and that was it.
"Ultimately, Red really made me feel that he was turning that year of his life over to me, that he trusted me. He's become a friend of mine, and I just felt a big obligation to tell the right story."
Winning the trust of the real-life gridders was one thing. Winning over the town was an entirely different obstacle.
"They didn't just give that confidence away we had to earn it," McG says. "A lot of that fell to the Matthews [McConaughey and Fox]. They were very open with the people here."
McConaughey recalled an early street encounter: "I asked one lady how she felt about us being here to tell their story. She sat there and stared at me blankly for five seconds, then she said, 'Kinda spooky and kinda weird.' It was a very basic instinct, but I understand it. I'd be spooked too."
"I grew up in Wyoming, and if I was a part of this community, I would have been very suspicious of a film crew coming in to tell our story," Fox added. "But by the time production got under way, I didn't feel it. Because of McG, there wasn't anything but positive communication."
For McG, the culmination of his efforts came just prior to filming. While scouting the memorial obelisk at Spring Hill Cemetery, the site of six unmarked graves for unidentified crash victims, he discovered an anonymous, handwritten letter addressed to the production and left on a headstone. Written in the victims' collective voice, it read, in part: "You guys have been given the challenge to tell my family's story to the rest of the world. I charge everyone involved to put their very soul into this challenge. We represent the hope of every son and daughter of Marshall University and, like hope, our spirit will never die."
"That letter galvanized us and separated this from the garden-variety film experience," said McG, who immediately copied and distributed the letter to the crew. "We knew we had a tremendous responsibility."
On the night of the tragedy, Dan Shoemaker, a Huntington lifer and now a VP of regional television for ESPN, was a Marshall student on a date at the Ceredo Drive-In. As a cold rain drilled his car and fog engulfed the screen, a midscreening announcement was made on the speakers.
"I don't know if they finished that movie or not," he recalls. "I just dropped my date off and like so many others drove straight to the airport."
Shoemaker's two closest friends were on that plane. Earlier that day, he lent kicker Marcelo Lajterman $5 for the trip and gave defensive back Bobby Wayne Hill a lift to the bus that would deliver the team to the airport.
"I had just an old, piece-of-junk car, so we had car trouble on the way to the bus," Shoemaker recalls. "We were late, but not late enough, obviously."
For Huntingtonians like Shoemaker, the sense of loss reached far beyond the school and its gridiron. Because it was the team's only chartered flight of the season, boosters and prominent citizens were brought along, so the crash left 70 children without one parent, 18 without both. Among the crash victims were a city councilman, a state legislator and four of the town's six physicians.
"A lot of people don't realize, so much of what was core to the city was erased that night," Shoemaker says. "The city came to a complete stop. In a way, we've been stuck in a time warp ever since."
It's one of the great ironies of the story. Sure, Marshall football marched on, overcoming 13 consecutive losing seasons and a cumulative 9-33 record during Lengyel's four-year stint as head coach, to eventually secure two NCAA Division I-AA championships and a move to I-A, where it would win five bowl games with future NFL stars such as Randy Moss, Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich. But while the school did, indeed, achieve glory, the town suffered.
Huntington is located where the railroad meets the Ohio River at the nation's largest inland port, so when the coal industry in West Virginia dropped, the train whistles went silent -- and so did the town's industrial base. Mining-related jobs declined with automated technologies, and factory closings in industries such as steel and glassworks forced young Huntingtonians to search elsewhere for economic opportunities. Huntington's population has decreased by 30 percent since the time of the crash.
Mayor David Felinton, who was elected while still a student at Marshall and holds weekly town hall meetings at Hillbilly's Hot Dogs, says he's indebted to the filmmakers and Warner Bros. Pictures for boosting the local economy.
"I don't have a dollar figure, but we estimate that the impact was in the millions of dollars," he says. "There's no question that our region is economically depressed, so while they've certainly helped in shedding some light on our small town, the influx of the crew and the money they spent on goods and services was critical."
The studio could afford to spend only four weeks -- roughly half of the production schedule -- shooting in Huntington. The balance was shot in Atlanta.
"Shooting in Huntington was cost-prohibitive," McG said. "There's no film infrastructure -- no camera support, no film lab, no experienced crew -- so in order to shoot here we had to bring everything, and that costs a lot of dough."
1971: Go 2-8 in first season after the tragic plane crash.
1984: Finish 6-5 under coach Stan Parrish for first winning season since 1964.
1987: Lose I-AA championship to Northeast Louisiana, 43-42.
1992: Under coach Jim Donnan finish 12-3 and defeat Youngstown State 31-28 for I-AA title.
1996: In final year of I-AA, finish 15-0 under Bob Pruett and win national title, 49-29 over Montana, as Randy Moss catches four TDs.
1999: Led by Chad Pennington, finish 13-0 and beat BYU in Motor City Bowl.
2002: Go 11-2 and win fifth straight bowl game.
Still, the director was happy to help. "West Virginia is the second-most impoverished state in the union, and that sort of atrophy saddens me," he said. "These are good people, so anything we can do to help drive business here, to get them on their feet, is a positive thing."
What can't be quantified, however, is the film's emotional impact on Huntington. The premiere, in particular, has become something of a reunion, with sons and daughters and brothers and sisters returning home to mourn the victims of the tragedy, celebrate the heroes of the '71 team and see the film that tells their stories.
Sisters Cindy Krieger and Kym Adams of Ohio brought along a bushel of family members. They were all smiles, wagging cameras, and wearing pins featuring a discolored photo of a young man. It's a photo of their brother James "Jimo" Adams, a long snapper and guard for the '70 squad. These are Jimo's living relatives, and they'd like nothing more than to take a family portrait in front of the "We Are Marshall Memorial Bronze" at the entrance of the football stadium.
"I only have a few memories of that night," says Krieger, who was 12 at the time of the accident, and watching television with her sister, who was 3, when a news bulletin flashed across the screen. "Next thing I know, my parents are screaming. They packed our bags and dropped us off with our grandparents before driving down here."
For Krieger and Adams, there is another memory that sticks with them: An unidentified, young pregnant woman who'd attended James Adams' burial. Turns out their brother was the father. The daughter James Adams would never know was born on Nov. 22, 1970 -- the day he was buried. Recently, they located that child, who is now married with three daughters of her own. They look forward to welcoming her into their family.
Just as their discovery helped bring closure to their family, Krieger and Adams expressed their hope that the screening will bring peace to the families of other victims.
"We get teary-eyed whenever we watch the clips," says Krieger, who leaves with a warning:
"Just so you know, if the Matthews turn up missing, they've gone back to Ohio with us."
The screening is over and, by all accounts, the premiere was a rousing success.
The historic Keith-Albee Theatre is 76 years old, but it's quite possible this vaudeville stage turned grand movie house never looked better. Its bulbs had been replaced, it's theater refurbished, and an organist was situated in the orchestra pit. It had that brand-spanking new sparkle.
Just like Huntingtonians themselves.
Ten thousand of the city's star-crazed citizens turned out for the premiere, lining Fourth Avenue and yelling their throats hoarse, many seated in bleachers that give the festivities a Marshall football feel, and all toting magazines, posters and photos they hoped to get autographed.
I met a Marshall student named Eric Kutcher who'd been waiting for this night since the project was announced, back when he and his wife, also a Marshall student, immediately signed up to be extras. They appear in a scene filmed outside the Keith-Albee.
"You can't even put into words how much tonight means to this town," Kutcher said. "These events brought this town together, going back to before we were born. When you're born here, you learn the story and you join the family.
"Just look around here," he said, motioning to the crowd. "That's what this is. It's a family."
That family included the lucky citizens who were able to score tickets to the premiere, 2,000 in all. The red carpet was green and the Hollywood slicksters were overrun with Huntingtonians in suits and wedding tuxes, evening gowns and prom dresses, and they all had one question:
"Where are the Matthews?"
For those who couldn't see them, a massive two-sided projection screen gave fans the play-by-play from the carpet. McConaughey seized the MC's mic to address the crowd: "I know you were all a bit weary, but we opened our script, you opened your hearts, and I think we made a movie that would make you proud. Keep living."
At the afterparty, though the moviegoers are still dabbing the moisture from their eyes, it's clear a weight has been lifted and the celebration has begun.
Actors, coaches, filmmakers and townsfolk mingle together. Sure, McConaughey is flanked by four uniformed cops, but someone needs to keep the throng of camera-toting women -- young to very old -- at bay. All get the movie-star treatment as partygoers devour snacks and kick their heels to the sounds of big band classics like "Mac The Knife," courtesy of Gary Recan and the Studio E Band.
"The movie brought out memories, but it's also awoken a spirit that had been sombered," Spears says as he scans the room with pride. "Now, look at us. People are festive.
"Of course, it was a great tragedy, but the people on that plane wanted to make this community great. Tonight, I think we've continued their cause."
The hoopla had McG a bit nerve-wracked, but he couldn't be more pleased with the result.
"When I signed on, I knew the day of reckoning was coming, when I would look Red and Jack and the players and families in the eye and go, 'Here's the film,'" he says. "To see these people cry and hear them laugh, to feel like we helped in the healing of a community to some degree, I'm just in awe and humbled to be a part of this. I don't think any of us will do another film quite like this."
Of course, the real stars are the players and coaches from the '71 team, who were eager to pass the praise onto the filmmakers.
"They did a brilliant job," Lengyel says. "The actors were fabulous and McG and Jamie Linden told the right 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 for 36 years, so this film gave us a chance to return home."
Though he's never really left, Dawson was there, standing away from the hustle and bustle of the party, just as he'd hoped to isolate himself from memories of the tragedy for more than 30 years. But he was there. You just had to know where to look. He was the guy with the pilsner in his hand.
"This whole process has been a series of ups and downs," Dawson says. "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."
Still, Dawson mustered the strength to eventually serve as a production consultant and even accepted a cameo as the coach of rival Morehead State. In November, for the first time ever, Dawson finally left the shelter of the sycamore tree to speak at the wreathing ceremony.
McG relayed a story from the recent College Football Hall of Fame ceremony when Bob Markum, Marshall's athletic director, stood before the crowd to thank the filmmaker.
"Bob stood up and said, 'I just want to thank you for giving Red Dawson back to us,'" McG said. "That's when the magnitude of this film came crashing down on me."
Dawson says the film has, indeed, served as a significant step in the healing process.
"I think it's helped me to get better," he says. "I'm not completely well yet, but I'm sure that time will come."
Sometime after midnight, with the festivities winding down, I joined the first wave of partygoers who stumbled into the brisk night under the soft drizzle of rain, giddy from drinking out of Hollywood's cup, weighted with the emotions of the past 24 hours. We were quickly lifted by the school's signature battle cry that begat the film's title, which was being looped on the loud speakers outside the arena.
A father and young son skipped to the chant, walking hand in hand.
"We are " prods the father.
" Marshall!" the boy yelps.
Even as the town's prodigal sons have returned, another is born.
I recalled something McConaughey had discovered in the process of researching the aftermath of the tragedy and Lengyel's involvement in it.
"When you get to understand Jack's approach, he was the outsider coming in to help rebuild a football program, but he discovered that his task was so much greater than that," he explained. "So yeah, he's only an outsider, but when you're in mourning or chaos, sometimes it takes somebody from outside to help bring order, to help the healing process."
On nights like this one, when Hollywood gets it just right, that could never be truer.
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can reach him at Sam.Alipour@gmail.com.