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Observations and Punditry

Woody's Ramblings
Tuesday, January 9, 2007

By Woody Peele

Some ties that bind are forever

By Woody Peele
All rights reserved.

The other day, I finally got the chance to see “We Are Marshall,” the story of the horrible plane crash and the aftermath that began the Thundering Herd’s revival from the ashes of that devastating night.

Anyone familiar with East Carolina football knows that the crash followed a 17-14 Pirate victory that November afternoon in 1970. Except for a few injured players left behind in Huntington, WV, the entire Marshall squad, along with most of the coaching staff, support staff and fans — all 75 aboard — perished when the plane clipped a tree on a mountainside just minutes from landing.

That night, I was at my post at The Daily Reflector working on getting Sunday morning’s sports section out, when the phone rang. It was a man from a Huntington area radio station, asking if Marshall had left to fly back home. He said that a plane had crashed at the airport and there were fears that it was the team’s flight.

I told him I thought the plane had left, but I would check with Kinston’s airport. A quick call revealed that the plane had left. The contact there told me the plane should have landed just a few minutes ago, and wanted to know why I was inquiring. When I told him, his only reply was “Oh, my God.”

I called the radio station back, but they had already confirmed that it was, indeed, the Marshall plane.

It was a night I would just as soon never recall, but it can’t be helped. I had to contact Pirate coaches and administrators to get their reactions, and the phone began to ring off the hook with media from across the country wanting those reactions.

I really didn’t know what to expect from the movie, but I thought it was an outstanding picture, very inspiring, despite the fact that I recognized several “dramatic effect” portions that were pure fiction.

The movie opened with the closing moments of the Pirate-Herd game, and showed Marshall failing to complete a pass into the end zone on the final play of the game.

At the climax of the movie, Marshall claimed a win in only the second game after the crash, completing a final-play touchdown pass.

Neither of these matched the actual endings of the game.

East Carolina’s Ficklen Stadium obviously wasn’t used in the filming of the game, but it was shown smaller than it actually was. And even though our press box of the time was dinky, it wasn’t as dinky as was shown. Marshall’s stadium — in the film — was shown larger than it was in those days.

Red Dawson, the coach who switched with another coach to drive on a recruiting trip after the ECU game, is shown calling from the airport in Greenville, and learning of the crash when he stopped at a rural filling station to gas up.

Dawson — whose name was on the plane’s manifest and believed among the dead — actually didn’t learn of the crash until the next morning when he was eating breakfast in a café in Virginia.

There were probably other such “dramatic moments” in the film, and it’s not surprising, knowing Hollywood’s penchant for that.

All that aside, however, the inspiration of Marshall’s return to the football field, eventually winning two Division I-AA championships, made for a fine story.

While little was said of East Carolina’s reactions to the accident, the worst in the history of sports, the ECU family did join in the mourning of those who died. Head coach Mike McGee, several players and, I believe, Chancellor Leo Jenkins flew to Huntington for a memorial service.

Over the years, there was a push for some sort of memorial at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, but it wasn’t until this past season that it was accomplished. A plaque memorializing those who died has been placed beside the gate where visiting teams enter the stadium.

There is a bond between the two schools because of the history between them, regardless of whether they are conference rivals. We Are Pirates, that’s for sure. But, forever together, We Are … also… Marshall.

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02/23/2007 02:44:50 PM

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