What could he do?

The questioned gnawed at Jack Lengyel's soul. A news crawl at the bottom of his television screen reported a plane crash involving the Marshall University football team and Lengyel felt a powerful pull to do something.


It was Nov. 14, 1970.

His life was comfortable. He had found success at the College of Wooster, a tiny program in Ohio that once had its football program disbanded because the school president thought it created a profane atmosphere.

Yet like the residents of Huntington, W.Va., who could smell the unmistakable odor of jet fuel for days after the crash, Lengyel was haunted by an accident 200 miles away.

"My heart sunk," said Lengyel, now a resident of Surprise, Ariz. "I thought, 'To the grace of God, there goes a football team.' "

Lengyel felt an overwhelming need to apply for the head coaching job. After a Penn State  assistant turned it down and a Georgia Tech assistant pulled out, the position was offered to Lengyel.

The rest of the story will be told on the big screen Friday when We are Marshall opens nationwide. Lengyel's character, played by actor Matthew McConaughey, is at the center of the story because the university's decision to continue football after the loss of 37 players and eight coaches and administrators was controversial.

"I thought I was going down there to rebuild a program," he said. "I had no idea the crash touched the community the way that it did.

"I've worked at 16 universities and the only one I've ever been at where the hearts beat as one is Marshall. That community bleeds as one.{"

The crash occurred at a hillside near Huntington's Tri-State Airport on a rainy, foggy night after Marshall had lost to East Carolina. The cause remains a mystery although many believe the pilot may have mistaken the lights of the nearby Ashland Oil refinery for the runway.

All 75 people aboard the DC-9 died in what remains the worst sports-related disaster in U.S. history. What Lengyel didn't realize at the time was that many of the community's best known citizens were aboard the charter, from doctors to journalists to members of the state legislature.

"There wasn't just a void in the university, there was a void in the community," Lengyel said. "Suddenly, there were 70 children without one parent and 18 without two. It was a tragedy."

A scene in We are Marshall shows a young Huntington boy watching TV when the news breaks. It gave Phoenix resident Russell Meadows, who saw a preview, a jolt because that's exactly what happened to him.

He was 6 and growing up near the Marshall campus. He followed the Thundering Herd teams closely and has vivid memories of the names of the dead scrolling across the television screen.

"There were so many funerals and I remember funeral processions on the street that had to cross each other," said Meadows, 43, an executive in the healthcare industry. "It was pretty intense.

"I've talked to kids I've grown up with and we were sort of the next generation. We grew up with it and carried it with us."

Lengyel thought he was coming to Huntington to coach football. Little did he know he was also coming to help heal.

The decision to continue football the following season divided the community. Some feared the results would be disastrous and the season would be an embarrassment to an already distraught community. When Lengyel was hired, Marshall had just a handful of players because freshmen weren't allowed to compete.

The NCAA made an exception and with the help of walk-ons, ex-servicemen, three basketball players and a soccer player, the team endured. Thirty-one days after he was hired, Lengyel had 43 players available for the spring game.

Because of the team's inexperience, Lengyel sought out a simplified offense. He admired the Houston Veer run by rival West Virginia, and went to then-Mountaineers coach Bobby Bowden for help. Bowden, now with Florida Sate, opened up his playbook and spent three days with Lengyel and his staff teaching the system.

"He took care of us," Lengyel said. "I'll never forget that."

Recruiting was a challenge, but because he was able to promise immediate playing time, Lengyel was able to get players. Linebacker Nate Ruffin, who missed the flight because of a shoulder injury, became the team's conscience and is featured prominently in the movie. Ruffin died from leukemia in 2001.

One player who doesn't appear in the film is popular Baptist evangelist Eddie Carter, who was afraid to sign off on the movie because he was fearful of how the event would be portrayed.

Carter's story is especially chilling to Lengyel. Carter, a tackle, was home for his father's funeral but prepared to make the trip to East Carolina. His mother begged him not to go, convinced the plane would crash.

Carter thought she was crazy but, to appease her, skipped the trip.

"I had always been taught to obey my parents," he said. "What a lesson that turned out to be." Another player, defensive back Felix Jordan, was on the team bus that Friday when the coaches told him to get off because his injured ankle needed to heal. He was upset.

Boosters filled their spots. Ruffin told the Associated Press in 2000 that he never wanted to find out who filled his seat.

"The stories that came out of that event were amazing," Lengyel said.

Some of the stories on the field were amazing, too.

The Young Thundering Herd, as Lengyel called them, lost their first game 29-6 at Morehead State. The lopsided effort was disappointing but not unexpected.

Still, an emotional crowd filled the stadium for the home opener against Xavier. Many expected a blowout but Marshall hung tough, and in an ending made for Hollywood, won 15-13 on a touchdown pass as time expired. The fans stayed in the stands for hours afterward. The local paper called it a miracle.

It was one of two victories that season. More than anything, Lengyel helped do the impossible: restore some normalcy. He stayed three more trying seasons before resigning.

He held jobs as athletic director at Fresno State, Missouri and the U.S. Naval Academy before helping out as interim AD at a handful of schools. He and his wife moved to Surprise two years ago.

Lengyel often reflects on those emotional years, but nothing compared to what's happened because of the movie. He is pleased We Are Marshall stays true to the story and is grateful the filmmakers were sensitive to the victim's families. The crash scene is handled carefully.

He is infinitely amused that People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive, McConaughey, was selected to play him. The actor told CBS he appreciated the approach Lengyel took.

"Here was a man who was not related to anyone on that plane crash, didn't pretend to understand how everyone felt and came in to do one thing, coach the football team," he said.

He did. And he's thrilled that the rest of the nation is about to learn the story of a community's resolve, too.


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