In 1970, Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, faced a tragedy of epic proportions when it lost its entire football squad, along with coaching staff, boosters and family members in a plane crash. The recently released film, We Are Marshall tells the story of how this tiny steel town coped with the loss of loved ones, and how Jack Lengyel (played by Matthew McConaughey) took the coaching reigns and tried not only to rebuild an athletic team, but also a community.
Paulist Father Bob Scott—who was the campus minister and chaplain for Marshall University’s football team at the time—would’ve perished along with everyone else had he not stayed behind to work on campus that weekend. In the conversation that follows, Fr. Scott, now 86 and still working as a campus minister at the University of Texas in Austin reflects on the heartbreaking events from 37 years ago, and tells us the real “True Story” behind We Are Marshall.
BustedHalo: Were you supposed to be on the plane that went down with the Marshall football team on board?
Fr. Bob Scott: Yes. I was the chaplain of the team and the week before we had flown in our regular team charter plane up to Chicago. I went with the team and they played I think Northern Illinois University. And then the next week they were playing North Carolina at East Carolina University and they asked me to go again on the trip with the team but I had taken the weekend off before and I said ‘I better not go again.’ So that’s the reason I didn’t take the trip. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here today.
BH: You’ve seen the movie. Can you tell us how accurate it was? What did they get right? What did they miss?
BS: Well, it says at the beginning of the movie “This is a true story,” and I think basically it was true, but of course with a little Hollywood embellishment. For example, I knew the new coach very well, Jack Lengyel [played in the movie by Matthew McConaughey] who was really the star of the movie,…and the only thing I thought was that he wasn’t like the coach I knew in the sense that [McConaughey] was very flamboyant. But, still, basically, it was a pretty true story of what happened after the crash and then the following year when they were trying to make a recovery with a new team.
BH: Could you tell us what that day was like for you on campus after the crash occured?
BS: I ministered to Catholic students at Marshall as well as the team. And they had a chapel there which is an all-purpose chapel, an all-faith chapel. I was home, of course, at my place and then the news came out about the crash which just devastated the town. And that night—of course the chapel is right next door to where I had lived—kids were in the chapel all night long and I was with them. It was just a terrible experience for their girlfriends or roommates that had been with them in the dormitory the day before they left. A number of the coaches were Catholic and it was such an experience to deal with their wives and children. And throughout Huntington that next week—well, longer than that—all of the memorial services and all of the funerals. These people just went through devastation.
BH: I know the town of Huntington is filled with Marshall Football fans. How did the loss affect the wider community?
BS: Well that was even more devastating in a sense because it’s a relatively small town— although the university has grown to a fairly large university now. But the problem was that some of the leading citizens of the town were also on the plane and they were killed along with the players and the coaches and the trainers and all that. So it had a real impact on the city of Huntington WV, as much as it did on the university. There was a very good documentary that came out, Ashes to Glory, and they really brought that out. The movie really brings it out too; a restoration and a revival of not only the team but of the city or the town.
BH: You bring up the documentary that PBS did some time ago, Ashes to Glory, you’ve also seen that? How does the new film compare to it?
BS: Well I saw [the documentary] some time ago and it is entirely different because it’s the real pictures of the real people and the footage from the 1970 and the 1971 seasons. You see both the team that was killed and the new team which was all freshmen that started the next season. They got special permission from the NCAA to play freshmen who were not usually eligible as freshmen in those days.
BH: Did President Deadman [the President of Marshall at the time, played in the film by David Straithairn] really go to the NCAA and stand out in the rain to petition them to ask them to play freshmen?
BS: Well, I think that’s an exaggeration. I thought of that when I saw the movie. I said, ‘I don’t think that happened that way’ but he did petition them. At first he was against it, as the movie brings out, which was true. He figured that we ought to just wait and pack it in for a year. But then, when the people got after him and the coach got after him, he did do that. But I don’t think there was any story like what Hollywood put out.