Tuesday, January 29, 2008

We Are Marshall

Back in 1970, a particularly cruel tragedy occurred. Almost an entire University football team was killed in a catastrophic plane crash. Marshall University lost most of their players, coaching staff, many parents and community supporters in one devastating instant.

The story of this tragedy, and of collective community's healing was captured in the movie, "We Are Marshall." I was deeply touched by this movie, and this painful and difficult to accept story.

In the wake of such overwhelming loss, a little known football coach, Jack Lengyel, came to this university, after the accident, to resurrect the devastated football program. He came because he heard about the horrible event and felt compelled to help. He felt like he had something to offer that could help make a difference to the hurting population of this community. There was actually another coach who was hired for the job prior to Lengyel, but he quit after two days. The obstacles to overcome were just too overwhelming. It would take a special person to take on this situation. It would take a person who had just the right temperment and motivation to withstand all that was to come.

Jack Lengyel felt he was the right person for the job. He had to build a team with mostly freshman. He had to convince his university's president to lobby for special permission to play freshman in the NCAA football league, which was a long and frustrating process. This team had a staggering mountain of obstacles to overcome... grief... sorrow.... rules... lack of developed talent... community scorn in some cases... and yet they continued on. The goal became to simply carry on and build for the future. It was about proving that life does indeed go on in the face of overwhelming, unfathomable loss.

I admire Coach Lengyel for taking on this difficult assignment. He certainly didn't have to. There was no fame and no glory in what he did. In a world where 'winning is everything,' he had to take a very different approach. He had to focus on building a team from scratch in the face of overwhelming odds, in order to help bring some sense of healing to individuals, a university and a town.

One of the most powerful scenes for me in this movie, is when Coach Lengyel and his assistant coach, Red Dawson (who was a coach of the 1970 team that perished in the crash), went to a rival university, West Virginia University, to ask for help in implementing a new type of play (the veer) for the young team. Not only did this rival university offer any and all possible assistance to support Marshall's effort to come back, the two coaches learned that all the WVU players had added a symbol on their helmets to honor the memory of the Marshall University Team. They had added a cross, with an MU for Marshall University. This represents, to me, the most important and inspiring part of the human spirit. To play one's game with concern and love for other people in your heart. The old rivalry faded in the face of something much deeper and much more important: shared humanity and the connection of all of us to each other.

The first home game that the 'new' team played in 1971 was against Xavier University... and Marshall won! Against all odds. It was an incredible achievement, accomplished with the most lofty of goals at the core of the effort. To bring honor to those who perished.

Marshall University only won one additional game that season. But that didn't matter. Team showed up and played. That's what mattered.

Coach Lengyel resigned in 1974 with a collective record of 9 and 33. He helped to rebuild a team... and an entire community during his years at Marshall. He gave a great gift that only he could give.

It would be 1984 until this football team would have a winning season, but that isn't really the important part of the story. Life went on. Strength was gained. The human spirit prevailed.

Check out the movie... and check out the memorial website for the 1970 "Thundering Heard" football team!

Marshall University Foot Ball Team Memorial Web Site

1970 Marshall University Football Team Memorial Photo

No comments: