Published June 20, 2006
ATLANTA -- Mike Bankston had an academic conflict that prevented him from being one of the victims of the Nov. 14, 1970, Marshall University plane crash.
Bankston was a student assistant coach for the 1970 Marshall football team working with the freshman squad. On Nov. 13, 1970, the Thundering Herd flew to Greenville, N.C., where it would meet East Carolina the next day. Bankston didn't make the trip because he had to take the National Teacher's Exam. There were no other possible dates.
East Carolina won the game, 17-14. Then the chartered jet bringing the Herd, coaches, athletic department staff and fans home crashed short of the runway at Tri-State Airport in Kenova. All 75 aboard died.
Last week Bankston had a role as a Marshall assistant coach in the movie "We Are Marshall" being filmed in the Atlanta area. The film by Warner Bros. Pictures is an inspirational drama based on the true story of Marshall's and Huntington's efforts to rebuild after the devasting crash.
The movie starts with the East Carolina game and wraps up with the Marshall-Xavier game in 1971. The Young Thundering Herd scores on the final play to beat the Musketeers, 15-13, in its home opener at Fairfield Stadium.
Bankston, 59, lives now in McDonough, Ga., and has strong memories of November 1970.
"It was a tough week," he said, remembering. "I got to say goodbye and good luck to them, but I didn't get to say welcome home."
Bankston's movie scenes were from the Marshall-East Carolina game.
During the week film crews shot game action, the locker room scene after the game, the Marshall party boarding the plane for home and the moments leading up to the crash.
Game action, shot at DeKalb (Ga.) Memorial Stadium, consisted of two plays. After a pass fell incomplete on the final play, Herd players and coaches made the long walk back to the locker room while East Carolina players, coaches and fans whooped it up on the field.
In the locker room scene, coach Rick Tolley (played by Robert Patrick) addressed his players in a stern way. He told the players they would be home by 8 that night and they could do what they normally do on Saturday.
"When you come back Monday, your. ... is mine," Bankston said, repeating Tolley's closing lines.
Filming of the Marshall travel party getting on the jet was shot at Charlie Brown Airport in Atlanta. On the plane, Bankston said his character was seated next to the actor playing Tolley. A warehouse featuring a simulated cabin was the sight for plane going down.
In the plane scene, Bankston said the passengers hear a thump as the cameras start to shake, they look at each other, then after the 3-2-1 countdown, they are told to fall forward as they look at each other again. The real plane slammed into a hillside short of the runway.
"Being on that flight now is emotional," Bankston said. "I get to see what they went through. I believe I handled it real well."
Bankston, who's retired from teaching but will return to coaching football this fall, secured his part in the film by responding to a casting call in Atlanta.
During the filming in Atlanta, Bankston and his wife, Joy, have been virtual regulars at shoots. The Bankston family came to Huntington in April to be part of the Memorial Fountain scene.
Since April 3 when filming started, Bankston has made many new friends and became reacquainted with friends, Marshall alumni and former Herd players he hadn't seen in some time. That happened June 10 when the final scene of the movie -- Reggie Oliver's TD pass to Terry Gardner against Xavier and subsequent storming of the field by Marshall fans -- was shot at Morris Brown College's Herndon Stadium.
"What a great story and it's been an honor and blessing to help tell it," Bankston said.