HUNTINGTON - A decade after its debut, a film based on the 1970 plane crash that claimed the lives of the members of Marshall University's football team, its staff and supporters, and the plane's flight crew has, in its own way, become another unifying chapter in the university's 179-year history.
Ten years ago today, Huntington rolled out the green carpet for Hollywood and local celebrities alike for the premier of "We Are Marshall" at the Keith-Albee Theater. While the film received mixed reviews after its national release Dec. 22, 2006, it still is endeared to thousands of Marshall students, alumni, supporters and athletic fans, according to university officials.
"It speaks to our community," said Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert. "It speaks to the Huntington feel, the support that Huntington has for the university, the support Huntington has for the victims, their families, the orphaned children and the spouses who lost their loved ones. I think it speaks to all that in a powerful way."
The movie, which was largely shot on campus in April 2006, is an adaptation of university officials' efforts to restore the football program and the community's spirits after the crash. Scenes in the movie were also filmed in Atlanta.
It stars Matthew McConaughey as head coach Jack Lengyel, Matthew Fox as assistant coach William "Red" Dawson and David Strathairn as university President Donald Dedmon. It also starred Ian McShane, Anthony Mackie, Kate Mara, January Jones and Brian Geraghty.
In theaters, "We Are Marshall" grossed $43,532,294 and has grossed $28,052,759 in video sales since its release, according to The Numbers, a movie industry data source.
The film was proven to be so powerful, to use Gilbert's description, on campus that Marshall University Athletics requires all athletes entering the university to watch it, said Ginny Painter, senior vice president of communications and marketing at Marshall.
University officials order copies of the film on Blu-ray annually and distributes it when large groups or conferences take place on campus, Painter said.
"Any opportunity we have, even 10 years later, we do that because the story resonates with people," Painter said.
Student groups frequently host screenings of the film, Painter said. Most recently, the Marshall University Alumni Association hosted a screening of the film at the Keith-Albee on Oct. 31 to raise funds for student scholarships.
Painter also said the film has been woven into the fabric of the Huntington and Marshall communities, based on market research her office was involved with two years ago.
"A lot of the research was focused on people's association with the term, 'We Are Marshall,' " Painter said. "It was interesting that some people associated it with the movie, and some associated it with athletics, football in particular.
"What was most interesting was that a remarkable number of people who were surveyed, from alumni, community members and students, associate it with a feeling of community and a sense of family."
The idea that Marshall alumni and supporters are "Sons and Daughters of Marshall" is something Painter said people with the firms conducting the research and facilitating a marketing campaign said was unusual in higher education.
"What they found really unusual was that sense of community, and it was really distinct for Marshall University compared to other schools," Painter said. "I think it's because of the ties between the city and the school that unfortunately go back to the plane crash and because of the resilience of the community."
Forty-six years later, the aftermath of the crash still affects those who lost family, friends and loved ones, and the story of the crash resonates among students past and present, said Beth Wolfe, director of recruitment at Marshall.
"The one thing with the movie is we are talking about the actual crash in general, and we always want to be so respectful of that," Wolfe said. "It can be difficult because it is so well known. It's difficult to walk that line between seeing that connection people feel from seeing the movie, but doing that in a way that is respectful of what happened and the people it affected."
Wolfe said there was almost no stopping the film's presence from creeping into recruiting efforts, especially after Warner Brothers sent the university 50,000 copies of the movie on DVD in 2009.
Wolfe said staff in the recruitment office distributed all of those DVDs within a couple years, but the recruitment office doesn't purchase copies of the film to give out as a recruitment tool.
That being said, Wolfe said she can tell when the film has aired on television, most commonly during the fall football season months, via results of online surveys completed by people interested in attending the university.
"We can see those bumps in those numbers during the time of year when people are showing the movie, and we see those increase in people mentioning that as how they heard about Marshall," Wolfe said.
For Benjamin Sandy of Vienna, West Virginia, his attendance at Marshall pre-dated the film's release as he was in the midst of what turned out to be a successful campaign to become Marshall's Student Body President for the 2006-07 academic year while the movie was being filmed on campus.
Sandy, who now is the president of the Marshall University Alumni Association National Board of Directors, said the semester of filming was a whirlwind for him between classes and his campaigning.
Instead, Sandy said he and his SGA staff were responsible for organizing student-only premier of the film at Marquee Cinemas, also on Dec. 12, 2006.
"Our thinking was the university was putting together the green carpet career that was kind of pricy and wasn't really meant for students," Sandy said. "We sold packages where you got movie tickets, a T-shirt with the movie logo, a glass with the movie logo and admission to the screening after party at the Pullman Plaza Hotel."
Sandy and crew were able to sellout two theaters at Marquee Cinemas in Pullman Square.
"I remember watching the movie with only other students, and it was pretty awesome," Sandy said. "I remember leaving the theater, and I'm not even sure how to describe how you feel after something like that."
The after party was the foundation for a friendship with Arlen Escarpeta, who portrayed Young Thundering Herd quarterback Reggie Oliver in the film and was one of the actors who attended the after party.
When Escarpeta returned to campus following the release of the DVD in 2007, Sandy, who by that time was working in Marshall's Office of Recruitment, was put in charge of escorting Escarpeta and his manager throughout Huntington.
"Basically, I spent an entire weekend with them doing promotional things for the DVD, including being at the stadium for the football game that weekend," Sandy said. "After that we became Facebook friends and Instagram friends. After talking to someone for that period of time, you learn a lot about them. We're still acquaintances. I wish him Happy Birthday or I usually reach out to him every Nov. 14, and he'll respond to it. We're social media pals, and that's pretty cool."
Of course, for Sandy, the experience of getting to know Escarpeta in the subsequent decade was only one piece of the puzzle of his experience at Marshall, and he said he hopes people find the right fit and perspective on Marshall and Huntington when they watch the film in the decades to come.
"The events in the movie are real events that really changed so many people's lives," Sandy said. "It's a movie that's difficult to categorize as entertainment because you know how many people it affected. The movie is a story about hope and perseverance, and for those reasons, I really enjoy it. For people at Marshall, that movie will be special forever."
Follow Reporter Lacie Pierson on Twitter, @LaciePiersonHD.