- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2007

“Marshall … has had its share of bad breaks this season.”

Huntington (W.Va.) Herald-Advertiser,Nov. 15, 1970

By the time these ironic words — referring to a doubtful officiating call that led to Marshall’s 17-14 football loss at East Carolina the previous day — appeared in Sunday morning’s sports section, they didn’t matter at all. What did matter was the unbelievable headline that screamed across Page 1: “Marshall Team, Coaches, Fans Die In Plane Crash.”

It was, and remains, the biggest sports-related airplane tragedy in U.S. history. All told, 75 people perished aboard the chartered Southern Airways DC-9 when it crashed into a hillside in rain and fog less than a mile short of home at 7:37 p.m. Ultimately, blame was placed on a faulty altimeter that deceived the pilot into thinking he was 400 feet higher than he actually was.

Decades later, Marshall star Randy Moss would say the crash was “a tragedy, but it wasn’t really nothing big.” For shame. More than 36 years later, the pain lingers and aches for family members and friends who suffered a far greater loss than any on a football field.

Said Nate Ruffin, a defensive back who missed the game and flight because of a dislocated shoulder and became captain in 1971: “I was left behind so I could tell the story for those men who are not around now. As long as I live, I shall tell the story. As long as we tell the story, they shall live.”

Although Ruffin died of leukemia in 2001 at age 51, the school’s tragedy and ultimate triumph finally have gotten national exposure through the dramatic and sensitive Warner Bros. film, “We Are Marshall.” Ruffin is played well by Anthony Mackie, but the movie centers around Matthew McConaughey’s portrait of Jack Lengyel, the young coach who took the job when nobody else wanted it and rebuilt the program virtually from scratch with mostly freshmen and walk-ons.

After leaving Marshall in 1974, Lengyel served as a coach and administrator at several other schools before retiring in 2001 as athletic director at the Naval Academy. As played quirkily and engagingly by McConaughey in the film, Lengyel emerges as a cinematic combination of Knute Rockne, Vince Lombardi and Joe Gibbs. But so what? Melodrama beats morbidity any day.

Lengyel was coaching at little Wooster (Ohio) College when a television bulletin relayed the terrible news on the evening of Nov. 14, 1970.

“My heart just sank,” he recalled in 2005. “The atmosphere of [being around] players, coaches and fans, it’s like [it happened to] your team. There’s that fraternity of athletics, that bond. I imagine every coach in the country had that same hollow feeling.”

Four months later, Lengyel was dealing directly with that emotion in a town and school devastated by their loss. After Dick Bestwick, who later became coach of Virginia, turned down the job, Lengyel signed on to succeed the late Rick Tolley at Marshall.

Why take on such a daunting task?

“I had a chance to give back to football what football gave to me,” Lengyel said while the movie was being filmed last spring. “It was an overwhelming challenge. … It was more than football recovering. It was a town recovering.”

Before the tragedy, Marshall had floundered in football, going 27 straight games without a win before rebounding somewhat to win three games in 1969. The loss to East Carolina in Greenville, N.C., left the ill-fated 1970 team with an unexpectedly final 3-6 record.

A long, sad year later, the Thundering Herd seemed to have nothing except a few experienced players and Lengyel’s boundless enthusiasm. In the movie, McConaughey/Lengyel tells reporters, “If you’re expecting a lot, you better look somewhere else.”

Of course, any positive note was a plus. Marshall did manage to win two of 10 games in 1971, and the first — a last-second 15-13 upset of Xavier — provides the movie’s climax. With eight seconds remaining, assistant coach Red Dawson called for “213 bootleg screen,” and sophomore quarterback Reggie Oliver delivered a 13-yard touchdown pass to freshman fullback Terry Gardner as fans and players in both the movie and real life went berserk.

What the film doesn’t tell, Hollywood being Hollywood, is that Marshall lost its next game to powerful Miami of Ohio 66-6. Yet at season’s end, Lengyel was characteristically upbeat, saying, “I think the kids have done a fine job. … I’m sure we’ll get better.”

And so they did — but not until long after Lengyel left Huntington. Marshall had 21 straight winning seasons starting in 1984, posted the nation’s best record (114-25) in the 1990s and won Division I-AA national titles in 1992 and 1996. After moving up to Division I-A in 1997, the Herd thundered to three consecutive MAC championships and sent quarterbacks Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich to the NFL.

If such recent success represents the highest point of Marshall football, there’s no question what the lowest always will be. Today, on the hill near Tri-State Airportwhere the plane crashed, an eternal flame burns atop a monument bearing names of the 75 victims. On campus, water flows from a memorial fountain resembling a giant flower. Each Nov. 14, a bugler sounds “Taps,” wreaths are laid, prayers are murmured and the water is turned off until the following spring.

The Marshall story meshed tragedy and triumph to a degree seldom seen in or out of sports. More than anything else, perhaps, it illustrates man’s ability and determination to surmount unimaginable adversity with pluck and perseverance.

As 19th century American poet John Bannister Tabb put it most poignantly in his classic “Evolution”: “Out of the dead, cold ashes, Life again.”

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