Thursday, December 22, 2016

Survivors' Guilt and Infinite Hope

"One day, not today, not tomorrow, not this season, probably not next season, either, but one day, you and I are gonna wake up and suddenly we're gonna be like every other team in every other sport where winning is everything and nothing else matters. And when that day comes, well, that's, that's when we'll honor them."

Jack (Matthew McConaughey)

The motion picture can inspire people in ways that no other medium can.

That may never have been illustrated as well as it was in "We Are Marshall," which premiered 10 years ago today. It told the story of a school and a town shaken by tragedy — and rising from the ashes. Literally. The airplane carrying nearly all of the Marshall University football team crashed just short of the airport as the team was returning to Huntington, West Virginia, from a game.

I remember when the Marshall football team was almost entirely wiped out by that plane crash in 1970.

I was a young boy in Arkansas, a follower of the Razorbacks, and they had played a school earlier that year that had a similar tragedy befall it. One of two planes carrying the members of the Wichita State University football team to a game in Utah crashed in Colorado. The upperclassmen and the head coach were among those killed.

Wichita State resumed playing with the players who survived by virtue of the fact that they were riding on the other plane, but they went on to lose all their games in 1970, including a 62–0 loss in Little Rock to the Razorbacks about three weeks after the crash. Frank Broyles, the Arkansas coach, tried not to let things get out of hand, bringing in the second– and third–stringers fairly early in the game — but try telling young guys not to do well when they get a rare opportunity to play.

About the only way to keep that score down would have been to invoke the mercy rule — except I'm not sure if that even existed in 1970.

Anyway, when that tragedy struck Marshall, I thought I was seeing history repeat itself.

And I was — only it was worse.

At least Wichita State had some of its players left. Quite a few, actually, although most lacked much in the way of playing time.

The Marshall football team, as I say, was nearly wiped out. The remainder of the 1970 season was canceled, and the program was nearly dropped.

But the student body resisted — and insisted that the football program continue.

If you're a football fan, you have to understand that the Marshall football program of today bears little resemblance to the one in the early 1970s. Granted, Marshall did struggle this season and won't be playing in a bowl — but the team has been in bowl games in five of the last seven seasons.

In 1970, when the last couple of games were canceled, Marshall was 3–6 and had seldom won more than it lost in the previous seasons. In spite of this season's record, it can truthfully be said that the football team has risen from the ashes and is better than it was before.

Preserving the football team was not exactly an act of loyalty to a storied program at the time. For some, dropping the program was about redirecting funds to areas where they could be more productive. That is certainly a worthy goal for any college administrator, but there are other considerations.

David Strathairn, an actor whose work I have admired for many years, played the university's president who was initially inclined to suspend the program indefinitely. He had the best of intentions, not the least of which was the money that could be saved and redirected to other things.

But preserving the program was important to the students — and to the community. It wasn't about winning; for most, it was about moving on — but in an "we all move forward together" kind of way.

It was a long hard journey for Marshall, and it started with getting someone to accept the incredible challenge of taking over as the program's head coach and essentially building it from scratch. Yes, a long hard journey that was dramatized effectively in "We Are Marshall."

Everyone in Huntington was facing a challenge after that crash. The football players who survived the tragedy were dealing with plenty of issues. The father of one of the victims and his son's fiancee struggled to move on.

One of the few teammates to survive took it upon himself to carry the program forward on his shoulders. It was a burden he soon found to be impossible yet he felt a solemn duty to his deceased teammates. "They left it in my hands," he tearfully told his coach.

"No, they didn't," the coach replied. "They just left."

A surviving assistant coach (Matthew Fox) helped the new head coach (Matthew McConaughey) rebuild the team quickly, but the tragedy weighed heavily on him, and he wondered if they were disgracing the memory of his colleagues.

But that's the thing. When you've been knocked to your knees, you have to endure some difficult moments to return to what you consider normal, and some people don't possess whatever you want to call it — courage comes to mind for me — needed to persevere.

It is that courage that is inspiring, but it can be so easily manipulated in the movies. It's enough to put a viewer on the defensive from the start, isn't it? I mean, you know when you sit down to watch a movie like "We Are Marshall" that you're going to be manipulated, and you kind of brace yourself for that, don't you? I know I do. I think it's some sort of defense mechanism.

But "We Are Marshall" got away with it in large part, I believe, because it was unquestionably and demonstrably true.

Oh, sure, I know there were some things that were made up for dramatic effect, but much of it was probably dialogue (and, being a writer myself, I have to tip my hat to whoever wrote some of those lines). The events were beyond dispute — and even though you knew there had to be a moment of triumph, a time when the football team would win a game for the first time since the crash, it was no less effective when it happened on the big screen.

The sad truth about life is that not everyone who tries to rise from the ashes is successful. They don't make movies about those who, as Tennyson might have put it, are washed down by the gulfs, only about those who "touch the Happy Isles."

But, while not all who attempt to touch those Happy Isles succeed, all who try do so with the hope of success. "We must accept finite disappointment," Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "but never lose infinite hope."

Anything that inspires people — a movie, a book, a song, a speech — appeals to that infinite hope, not acceptance of finite disappointment.

The story of Marshall University, its football team and the town of Huntington fed that hope by virtue of its truth.

It was not a Hollywood story strategically slated for a holiday premiere. It was the real thing.