Published June 7, 2006.
ATLANTA -- Joe Gillette's association with Marshall University first began in 1969. A first-team All-Ohio defensive end at Johnstown High School near Columbus where he also played wide receiver, he started his college football career with the Thundering Herd as a wide out.
A shoulder injury would limit him to one season's service. Gillette, though, would go on to graduate in 1973. Today, he still is in close contact with Marshall even though he resides in Marietta, Ga.
Gillette, a franchisee for Wendy's and owner of 16 restaurants, is on Marshall's Yeager Scholars board. He's affiliated with the Thunder Club, which helps with financial support for Marshall's athletic department staff. He's a past president of the Atlanta chapter of the Marshall Alumni Association. He devotes a lot of time to work for his alma mater and makes trips to Huntington when necessary. If not, he does it by phone.
"My time for Marshall, my money for Marshall," he said. "I love Marshall."
Those ties to Marshall football helped Gillette land roles in the movie "We Are Marshall." The Warner Bros. production is an inspirational drama based on the true story of Marshall's and Huntington's efforts to rebuild after a devastating plane crash. The chartered jet bringing the Thundering Herd football team back from a loss at East Carolina on Nov. 14, 1970, crashed short of the runway at Tri-State Airport in Kenova. All 75 aboard died.
Shooting locations for the movie are Huntington and Atlanta. Right now, the filming is being done in and around Georgia's capital and Gillette landed roles by answering casting calls. The movie stars Matthew McConaughey, who plays former Marshall head coach Jack Lengyel, and Matthew Fox, who plays assistant coach Red Dawson.
Gillette is the first to admit that if not for the shoulder injury, he would have likely been on the plane that crashed along with players such as Bobby Harris, Ted Shoebridge and Marcelo Lajterman, his teammates on the 1969 freshman team. Lajterman was his roommate.
On the night of the crash, Gillette said he was with his girlfriend in Twin Towers West when the first bulletin about the crash came on television.
"I turned to her and said wouldn't that cap off a bad day," he said. "After getting beat they had to walk. I didn't know how bad it was."
In early April of this year, Gillette and Marshall fans everywhere learned Warner Bros. would make the movie. He said he had mixed emotions at the news.
"There was pride first of all," he said. "Then there was curiosity. What were they going to do? It's a wonderful story about the Marshall family and Huntington community. I wanted it to be told with dignity and respect. I asked questions up front. I was excited about the potential it had."
Gillette and his wife, Pam, have roles in the movie. Gillette has already been part of a scene filmed at a restaurant (Lloyd's). Tuesday night, the Gillettes had roles in a scene about a crash memorial service. That scene recreated a service held at Fairfield Stadium in Huntington just a few days after the crash.
"Imagine how I felt being cast in that (restaurant) scene," Gillette said. "I'm the only Marshall person there. People would ask me how I feel? I thank God for unanswered prayers. Both my dad and I wanted me to play for Marshall.
"It probably took 20 years before I would even talk about it. The hair on my arms rises when I talk about. I have the video 'Ashes to Glory,' but I can't bring myself to watch it."
Football action is also being filmed in the Atlanta area.
The crew wrapped up the Marshall-Morehead State shots last weekend at Tara Stadium in Jonesboro, Ga. Gillette's son-in-law, Patrick Furlong, had a role as a player for Morehead State.
"He knows I love and preach Marshall," Gillette said. "I've gotten him involved. He's grown to appreciate and love Marshall. It was a way for him to share a piece of my life."
Starting today, attention turns to the Marshall-Xavier game. It was the first home game for the Young Thundering Herd in 1971. The site is Herndon Stadium at Morris Brown College in downtown Atlanta. Marshall has scheduled a tailgate party for alumni and friends for Saturday afternoon, the final day of shooting. The final scene is Reggie Oliver's TD pass to Terry Gardner on the last play of the game, propelling the Young Herd to a 15-13 victory and touching off a wild post-game celebration.
Since the tailgate party takes place before the movie's cast and crew call, the entire production crew was invited, said Keith Spears, Marshall's vice president for marketing and communications. Lengyel, Dawson and Marshall president Stephen J. Kopp will attend. Herd fans who want to be non-paid extras for filming sessions on Friday and Saturday may do so.
"The next big step will be when it comes time to see the movie," Gillette said. "It will be difficult to watch. There's tremendous pride to see how a community lived through tragedy and heartache. I had to do it from a long distance. It's not been easy, but I'm getting there."
The movie is being released later this year, possibly as early as October.