We are Marshall: What Was True and What Was Not?

We Are Marshall, What was True and What was False?

The film version of the story of the tragic Marshall Plane crash explores issues in only the most elementary manner, with overwrought dialogue that rarely seems believable. People don’t talk to each other in “We Are Marshall,” they make inspirational speeches. People don’t walk, they stride forcefully. And people don’t make phone calls to handle important business, they drive 200 miles and show up unannounced — and soaking wet because they forgot to bring an umbrella in a rainstorm. The story of the Marshall football team’s plane crash is one of the most tragic stories in sports history, and over a decade later I can’t help but think the filmmakers missed a chance for this film to leave a lasting impression.

I will admit the first time I saw the movie it did bring a tear to my eye, but looking back at it, the movie is not what brought tears to my eyes. What brought tears to my eyes was the fact that this tragedy really did happen and the tragedy was about real people with real emotions and I know people signed off on this movie, but I feel this movie could have been so much more than it turned out to be.

What was true and what was made up?

Was Lengyel as strange a guy as he was portrayed?

Give Matthew McConaughey credit for trying, but his overly exuberant and slightly flaky character is completely unbelievable as a head coach. Jack Lengyel wasn’t at all like he was portrayed. He was a low-key man in his approach to everything. Jack had a deep voice that he very seldom raised, but when he did, you knew to listen. He was the perfect guy for the job because he had had a knack for connecting with people immediately. The characterization of Lengyel is so off-base it really doesn’t belong in this movie. I understand that movies go over the top on dramatizations but this one was so far from the truth that it shouldn’t be allowed.

One of the most dramatic scenes in the movie happened when a player Nate Ruffin interrupts a meeting, then makes President Donald Dedmon look out a window to the thousands of Marshall students showing their support for the football team. Did this really happen?

No, and it is so far from reality that it shouldn’t have made the script either. The Marshall players had worked behind the scenes shortly after the crash to make sure that the football team was never in jeopardy of not returning. So no, it was nowhere near the truth, the Marshall football program was never in jeopardy.

How did people discover the plane crash victims were the football team?

Not the way the movie showed you. The plane was down for around 30 minutes before the media was ever notified. Jack Hardin, who was a veteran newspaper reporter, actually found a wallet that belonged to one of the players and that’s how the passengers on the plane were initially identified.

 Did coach Lengyel actually say the line, “The funerals end today”?

It wasn’t said exactly the way it was in the movie but it is probably about 80-90 percent accurate. Coach Lengyel actually took all his Marshall teams to Spring Hill cemetery every year before the first game to explain to them what exactly happened.

Did the crowd really chant “We Are…Marshall?”

No, not at all. From most of the information that I found it started in the early 80’s.

How accurate was the portrayal of Marshall’s win over Xavier?

The only real difference between the movie and reality is the fact that reality was a 13-yard screen pass won the game for Marshall, not a hail mary.

Was the Red Dawson character true?

Yes, Dawson was a tragic figure because he looked at the young men he coached as sons, and the loss of these players took a huge personal toll which led him to no longer coach football. One of my biggest problems with this movie while researching it was the fact that Red Dawson did not give up his seat on the plane. That was simply not true! Actually, the truth would be that the person who gave up the seat to assistant Deke Brackett was a graduate assistant named Gale Parker. Brackett and Dawson hadn’t even flown to Greenville, N.C., with the team for the game. They had been on a recruiting trip in Virginia late that week and drove themselves to the game in Greenville. They were going to drive back to Huntington until Brackett asked Parker, who’d flown to the game, to give up his seat going home. Dawson was going to drive home all along.

Did West Virginia and Bobby Bowden really wear the green crosses on their helmets in tribute to Marshall?

Yes, they really did and it’s also true that Bowden and his staff did help the Marshall coaches with installing the veer offense.

Was Marshall’s team really without the help of an athletic director?

No. Before Jack Lengyel was hired to be the head coach, Joe McMullen was appointed as the new AD in February of 1971. Add to that McMullen already knew Lengyel and by now you should realize the way Lengyel got the job was not as it was portrayed. Actually, a Georgia Tech assistant coach Dick Bestwick was hired before Lengyel, but he left after just a couple of days and Lengyel became the new coach.

Did all of the Characters really exist?

No, two of the people were completely made up. The first was “Paul Griffen,” played by Ian McShane, who worked in the steel mill and had a son on the 1970 football team who died in the crash. The other was “Annie Cantrell,” played by Kate Mara, who was a cheerleader and engaged to Griffen’s son. I know these are what Hollywood calls composite characters but I myself was very disappointed to find out these two people never even existed.

Was Nate Ruffin really buried in Spring Hill with the six unidentified players?

Yes, he was. Ruffin died in 2001 at the age of 51 and he is buried with his teammates.


The Marshall plane crash was a tragic event in American sports history and I think the movie could have been so much more than what it was. Robin Williams could have portrayed Head Coach Jack Lengyel better than Matthew McConaughey did. Let’s face it, the way Lengyel was portrayed was how you would portray a head football coach in an Adam Sandler movie. This was an entertaining movie, I just feel it could have been so much more.

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