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Without giving too much away, a key moment in the new film We Are Marshall re-creates a 1971 game between Marshall and Xavier. The matchup took place less than a year after a plane crash killed 36 Marshall players and five coaches. In real life the Thundering Herd scored a last-second touchdown on a bootleg pass play so perfectly executed that quarterback Reggie Oliver faced almost no pressure and receiver Terry Gardner strolled untouched into the end zone. The play would become so symbolic of Marshall's rise from the ashes that to this day, photographs of it hang on walls all over Huntington, W.Va., the town the university calls home.
But on a high school field in Atlanta, the filmmakers decided that this defining moment needed more pizzazz. So the actor playing Oliver was made to run for his life from a pack of snarling defenders before heaving a desperation pass into the end zone, where Gardner's stand-in made a fingertip catch so spectacular Dwight Clark would blush. Watching the filming was Jack Lengyel, the coach hired in the wake of the plane crash. He was hardly dazzled by the Hollywood trickery. "I was sitting in the stands with a couple of players who were on the field that day, and we were upset," says Lengyel, 71. "I said, 'I'm not going to let them get away with this,' so I marched down and told them what I thought."
Lengyel would have been laughed off any other movie set. But part of what makes Marshall work is how committed the filmmakers were to authenticity. (The film was produced by Warner Bros., a division of SI parent Time Warner.) To re-create the look of 1970s telecasts, old Panavision lenses were dusted off and vintage Kodak stock was pulled out of storage. The athletes were carefully chosen for their lack of brawn, and the celluloid coaches were outfitted with too-tight polyester slacks and old Spotbilt shoes. So the producers patiently listened to Lengyel's objections, weighing verisimilitude versus the desire for a punchier ending. Having now seen the finished movie, Lengyel says, "I concede. They were right. The dramatic finish really helps tell the story. But I'm still glad they cared enough to hear me out."
Lengyel, who is played by Matthew McConaughey, spoke about the film last month at a screening at the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend. It was Nov. 14--36 years to the day since Southern Airways Flight 932, carrying the team home from a loss at East Carolina, came in too low to Tri-State Airport near Ceredo, W.Va., and crashed just short of the runway. (All 75 aboard--including crew, school administrators and boosters--perished.) The Hall of Fame setting heightened the film's connection to the sport's past. Actress Kate Mara (24), who plays a cheerleader, let out a squeal when she happened upon a plaque honoring her grandfather, the late New York Giants owner Wellington Mara. "There's no way they were going to make a football movie without me," says Mara (below).
Mara's football fever was typical of the cast and crew. Director Joseph McGinty Nichol--better known as McG (Charlie's Angels)--is the son of a Michigan high school football coach. His family rooted for Penn State, and McG says Something for Joey is "one of two or three movies that makes me cry every time." During the filming of the Marshall football scenes, McG had a voluble adviser in former Green Bay Packers running back Dorsey Levens, who has a cameo as Xavier's coach.
McConaughey's father, Jim, played at Houston and was drafted by the Packers. To lose himself in the role of coach, McConaughey had long talks with Texas coach Mack Brown, Brown's predecessor Darrell Royal and former LSU hoops coach Dale Brown, and he studied the writings of John Wooden. It paid off. Says Mara, "In a lot of movies the football looks kind of fake and overdone. I thought our action looked amazing. McG sent the footage to my dad [Chris Mara, the Giants' VP of player evaluation], and he was very impressed."
The heart of Marshall, though, lies in the wrenching personal stories. The film traces the struggle to rebuild the program and repair the psyche of the school and the town. For McConaughey the galvanizing scene was when Lengyel confronts a grief-stricken Red Dawson (Lost's Matthew Fox), an assistant whose life was spared when he took a last-minute recruiting trip by car. Says McConaughey, "In that scene Lengyel says, 'It's not about winning and losing, it's not even about how we play the game. What matters here is that we suit up on Saturdays and take the field.' This is a great truth for this movie. It's rare when a story can convey a simple universal truth that we can understand and learn from at the same time."
Such scenes may give Marshall appeal beyond just foam-fingered frat boys who consider Lee Corso a deity; in test screenings the most favorable scores have come from women. McG says he is most gratified by the feedback from those who lived through the crash and its aftermath. "This movie belongs to Huntington," says the director. "It belongs to Marshall University, and it belongs to the survivors. This is their story. We just wanted to stay out of the way."
Then how to explain the liberties taken with that climactic touchdown against Xavier? McG laughs. "That was our one tiny little bit of artistic license," he says. "I hope the people at Marshall can somehow forgive me."