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The We Are Marshall Movie: Fact or Fiction

Matthew McConaughey's statute at Madame Toussaud's Wax Museum in Las Vegas

It took 36 years before Marshall University’s Board of Regents, grieving family members of the 75 lost souls and Warner Bros. could agree on a movie that would do justice and sensitivity to the crash victims. After lengthy discussions, Warner convinced all concerned parties linked to the university that it was time to relive the Marshall story, the most tragic event in American sports history.

However, there were prominent members of that 1970 Marshall University football team Felix Jordan, Ed Carter, Reggie Oliver, Coach Mickey Jackson, Coach Andy Nemeth, former player and author Craig T. Greenlee, and other insiders had reservations about Warner Bros. intent to release the movie.

On December 22, 2006, the We are Marshall Movie finally premiered in Huntington, West Virginia, the Home of the Marshall University Thundering Herd at the Keith Ailbee Theater. The movie was watched with mixed emotions. Nonetheless, the movie inspired many. This portrayal that many feared became a painful reality though.

Felix Jordan, the team’s starting corner back out of Blue Ash, Ohio did not appear in the movie because there was a communication glitch. Warner Bros. claimed that Jordan failed to honor filming contractual agreement. As a result, Jordan wasn’t given an opportunity to sign has rights away to the filmmaker in order to have his likeness appear in the movie. Ironically, Felix wouldn’t have signed his rights away anyway because he had reservations about recounting the excruciating details for the Hollywood writer according to Craig T. Greenlee, author of November Ever After factual account. However, Jordan’s No.21 jersey appeared on a player during a movie scene during the re-enactment of the 1971 Marshall vs. Cincinnati Xavier game. Jordan felt slighted because he called the defensive backfield coverages during that game and throughout the season. Warner Bros. errantly portrayed The Late Great Nate Ruffin as the leader of the defensive secondary. However, Felix Jordan was the leader of the defensive secondary.

Ed Carter, now a Tennessee world-wide evangelist didn’t grant Warner Bros. rights to use his likeness as well. Carter refused to relive that tragic event that claimed the lives of his fallen teammates, coaches, boosters and the flight crew. Warner Bros. missed out on a real opportunity to make the movie more compelling. Warner Bros. failed to disclose a dream that Carter’s mother had two weeks before the plane crashed. Carter’s mother clairvoyantly dreamed that the plane would crash. Carter’s mother prohibited Carter from playing. As fate would have it, Carter’s father passed away before the East Carolina game. So, Carter was in Wichita Falls, Texas attending his father’s funeral instead of playing in the game in Kinston, North Carolina.

Craig T. Greenlee also revealed that Warner Bros. failed to include a real budding romance between Art Harris Jr., one of the team’s star running back and his girlfriend, Janice Cooley. Two weeks before the plane crash, Harris developed an obsession about death. As a result, he became religious and started attending church services. A few days before the crash, Harris introduced Ms. Cooley to his mother in New Jersey via telephone. On November Friday the 13th, , right before he boarded the team bus to Huntington’s Tri-State Airport, Harris tells Cooley, “If I don’t make it back, give my clothes away and you can keep my car.” This actual event should have been used instead of the fictitious love scene between that star running back and the cheerleader in the diner.

When I saw the movie, I was moved to tears throughout the movie because if it hadn’t been by the Grace of God, I could have been a part of this unbelievable heartbreaking story. Actually, the movie should have been dubbed, based on a true story. Several scenes were not accurate and some characters were fictional. The facts of the movie are as follows:

  • The character portrayed by actor Ian McShane and the cheerleader named “Katie” were fictional.

  • Nate Ruffin did not have a roommate, Tom, who overslept in the Hollywood version. Tom had missed the team plane, and his guilt took away his passion to play football for the Thundering Herd.

  • The Marshall cheerleaders and the marching band did not travel with the team to East Carolina because the school had a losing tradition, so its football program had not been a moneymaker, making it too expensive to fly them along with the team.

  • Coach Red Dawson did not give his seat up to another assistant coach, Deke Brackett. Coach Dawson had made plans to recruit an outstanding junior college prospect who attending Ferrum Community College in Virginia. A graduate assistant, Gail Parker, gave Coach Brackett his seat and accompanied Coach Dawson to Virginia. Coach Dawson’s wife knew Coach Dawson was not on the plane; her emotional scene in the movie was fiction.

  • The movie showed the players joking and laughing after a hard –fought 17-14 loss, but they would not have acted that way after such a loss; Coach Tolley was a very strict coach.

  • A rescue worker did not find a charred Marshall playbook at the crash scene that established the Marshall Football team as the victims. A Huntington Herald Dispatch reporter, Jack Hardin, found a wallet belonging to John Young, a name that rang a bell with him. He called Ernie Salvatore at the paper, and Ernie confirmed that Young was on the team.

  • Reggie Oliver, the Marshall University quarterback, was shown paying his respects to three fallen teammates, his homeboys from Druid High School in a church in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Actually, Oliver paid his respects to his four fallen teammates. Joe Hood, Bob Van Horn, Freddie Wilson, and Larry Sanders, in the Druid High School gym; the church would have been too small to accommodate all the mourners.

  • The scene in which Nate Ruffin walked into a board of governors meeting did not happen; Marshall didn’t have such a board then. There were no “We Are Marshall” cheers that came from students outside the administration building, but Marshall later played up this theme.

  • Marshall University President Donald Dedmon referred most football-related tasks to the recently hired athletic director, the late Joe McMullen, who served at Penn State under Joe Paterno. McMullen, however, was not mentioned in the movie. The scriptwriters also failed to mention the late Ed Starling, the interim athletic director who led the program through difficult times after the crash. Starling made numerous contributions that were not recognized in the movie.

  • Reggie Oliver was playing wide receiver instead of quarterback because he was hampered by an elbow injury. Reggie was a drop – back quarterback who adjusted to Coach Lengyel’s new offensive system, the option offense. Oliver made the adjustment very well and was selected for honorable mention on the All-America Team in 1973 at the quarterback position.

  • Coach Lengyel was not a clueless, scatterbrained coach. On the contrary, he was a smooth talker, very cerebral, and a natty dresser. He had excellent managing skills. He let the other coaches execute their plans and then would tweak everything to his liking.

  • Bill James, a former Marshall University basketball player who turned football player, was my teammate in 1972. He played until his eligibility was up and attempted to get a shot as a NFL wide receiver. The late Dave Smith was the basketball player who played on the Young Thundering Herd football team. “Big Dave” wasn’t mentioned in the movie. Dave Smith should have been identified in the movie instead of Bill James.

  • The movie showed the late Terry Gardner catching a pass in the end zone. However, Terry actually scored the game-winning touchdown while running a screen pass in from the left side of the field. The real version was more dramatic than the Hollywood version.

  • Mr. Dedmon, who served as the interim Marshall University president, was not fired. He accepted a similar position at Radford after Marshall hired a permanent president.

At the end of the day, there were some hurt feelings amongst some of the people associated with Marshall University. My take is that it’s hard to attain perfection and make everyone happy.

I am still blessed to wake up. While doing so, I work hard, run, compete, love my fellow man, volunteer my services to those in need of them, and enjoy my gift of life. I do everything in remembrance of those who have gone before me knowing that each lost soul would love the privilege of doing what the living take for granted – another day of living!

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