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Lori Wolfe/The Herald-Dispatch Marshall student Julie Mello gets information about the College of Fine Arts from Mike Cornfeld Wednesday, April 1, 2009, while visiting the Spring 2009 Majors, Minors and More Fair at Marshall University in Huntington.

HUNTINGTON -- California native Julie Mello was so impressed by the movie "We Are Marshall" that she wound up enrolling at Marshall University.

Her story doesn't stop there, though.

Once on campus, she struck up a friendship with Red Dawson, one of the coaches depicted in the Hollywood film. Dawson now runs a construction company in the Huntington area and was moved by Mello's fascination with the movie.

The 65-year-old former coach helped move the 18-year-old freshman into her dorm and has counseled her when she's been homesick.

Now she calls him "Uncle Red."

"He shows me the ropes," Mello said. "I know his eyes are around watching me, and that's been nice."

Mello, a native of Manteca, Calif., first saw the movie "We Are Marshall" last year after her father bought a copy.

The 2006 release, starring Matthew McConaughey and Matthew Fox, dramatized the true story of rebuilding Marshall's football team after the deadly 1970 plane crash.

Mello said she found the movie so inspiring she wanted to go to school in Huntington.

She estimates she's seen the movie more than 100 times.

"People said, 'You should see it, it's really good, you should watch it,' " Mello said. "Then I fell in love with it and realized it's the school for me."

Now Mello is in the middle of her freshman year. She said Huntington has exceeded her expectations.

"It's bigger than my hometown, but it still has that hometown feel," Mello said. "I'm definitely going to be here all four years."

Mello also found similarities between her high school, Manteca High, and Marshall.

The school colors for both are green and white and use a block letter "M" as their insignia.

Marshall's mascot is the Thundering Herd. Manteca High's is the buffalo.

"I thought it was cool," Mello said. "I'll always be a green-and-white buffalo at heart."

When Mello made her decision, she also made a connection with Dawson.

In the film, Dawson, played by Fox, along with head coach Jack Lengyel, played by McConaughey, work to rebuild the football team after the plane crash that claimed the lives of 75 people, including 37 players and eight coaches.

Dawson was notified of Mello's story earlier this year.

John Daniels, a new friend of Mello who lives in Huntington, stopped Dawson as he was walking out of the Huntington YMCA.

"John came up and introduced himself and said Julie was coming here strictly because of the movie," Dawson said. "That kind of impressed me. I told him I would sure like to meet her."

Mello and Dawson then met when she came to orientation in July.

Dawson called Mello and her parents one morning and invited them to breakfast.

"We went to Bob Evans, and I saw that her parents are just as nice as can be and I was very impressed with Julie," Dawson said.

When Mello moved into her dorm, Dawson helped out. When Mello began to miss her family in California, Dawson lent his ear.

"About two or three times she called me a little homesick, and I just told her everything is going to be fine," Dawson said. "I try to check on her from time to time to make sure her chin is still up."

Since she first saw the film, Mello said she's been on a whirlwind adventure. She said the experience has taught her a lot about herself.

"I look back now and it amazes me," Mello said. "A year ago, I saw the movie and it made me realize that I could do this, I could leave home. Now I love every second of it."

Now 65, Dawson said it is tough for him to watch the film. He said he hasn't seen it since it premiered in December 2006.

Dawson was an assistant coach the year the plane crashed after a game at East Carolina. Dawson wasn't on the airplane because he had driven so he could recruit a player on the way back. He heard about the crash on the radio.

He remained as an assistant the next year when Lengyel was hired as the head coach. After the 1971 season, which saw the young Thundering Herd win two emotional home games, Dawson resigned and never returned to coaching.

Shortly after the film came out, Dawson said he was stopped everywhere he went.

Now he said his life is back to normal.

Dawson said he's pleased the film has inspired people like Mello.

"I thought the movie might help with football recruiting, but I never thought this would happen," Dawson said. "I'm amazed at how somebody could watch a movie and be so intrigued that they would want to come to school here."

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