Moved by the tragic events of Nov. 14, 1970, one of the
world’s most famous actors says it is a privilege to portray
By Mallory Haye
Most Huntington residents never imagined that their city would be the backdrop for a major motion picture. Even further from their minds was the idea that some of Hollywood’s most acclaimed actors would descend on the city while filming a movie.
But, ironically, on April Fool’s Day, 2006, that all changed. Huntington welcomed Hollywood to town as 150 cast and crew members from Warner Bros. checked-in for a three-week stay. It was time to tell the story of the Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash that claimed the lives of 75 people, including most of Marshall University’s football team, and the amazing recovery that followed.
The film crews started rolling in and so did the big names of Hollywood. The movie’s director, McG, and many actors including Matthew Fox, David Strathairn, Ian McShane, Anthony Mackie, Arlen Escarpeta and others were coming to Huntington to tell the story of Marshall’s rise from the ashes.
Of those associated with the movie, one name seemed to stand out. Actor Matthew McConaughey, People magazine’s 2005 “Sexiest Man Alive,” would call Huntington home for several weeks.
McConaughey already had an impressive resume as an actor. He has been a part of more than 30 films since 1992 when he began his career. His first role as an actor was not on the big screen. Instead, it came on the television series “Unsolved Mysteries.” His first major role on the big screen came in the cult classic Dazed and Confused, where he played high school hanger-on David Wooderson.
McConaughey continued with such movies as A Time to Kill, Amistad, U-571, The Wedding Planner and How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days. Some of his most recent films included his role as Brandon Lang in Two for the Money and Tripp in Failure to Launch.
With all of his success and box office clout, McConaughey was offered the role of Jack Lengyel, the head coach of the 1971 Marshall University Young Thundering Herd football team. Although it may have been a challenge to portray a real-life individual, McConaughey accepted the role after reading the script only once.
“There are two scripts I’ve read in my career – and I’ve made 37 films – that as soon as I finished the last page, I said, ‘I’m in no matter what,’ McConaughey said. “That was my very first film because, frankly, I needed the money. The other one was “We Are Marshall”.
“When I finished reading the script, I couldn’t get it off my mind. I had emotions that I hadn’t had in a while. I didn’t know the story and by the end of it, I was floored. I felt like this was something that was really well written and made me think about people in my life that I care about very much – people that are here with me today and people that are gone. It did make me want to go call my mom, it did make me want to go call my girlfriend, it did make me say ‘Hey, Foxy’ – my dog – and it also made me want to get out every day.”
McConaughey’s role was to illustrate how the young coach helped a city and a university rebuild following the tragedy of Nov. 14, 1970. His character had to convey the extreme difficulties that Lengyel faced as the head coach of the Young Thundering Herd. After all, Lengyel not only had to lead a football team, but lead an entire community through a difficult period.
“I thought I was rebuilding a football team, but as soon as I got there I realized it was much more than that,” Lengyel said. “That university is that community, and that community is that university. I’ve had about 12, 13 college jobs, and I’ve never seen any other place that has an affinity like Huntington and Marshall.”
McConaughey served the Huntington community well during his stay, and he seemed to be genuinely dedicated to making sure that the story was told correctly and remained true to real life.
While on set, McConaughey remained in character for the entire shoot. Even during breaks and between takes, he was Jack Lengyel. He kept his composure and overall tone for the role throughout filming. The rest of the film crew even referred to McConaughey as “Coach” while on set.
The actor seemed to truly embrace Marshall’s story and the Huntington community. He was seen around town on numerous occasions whether it was jogging down Fifth Avenue or stopping into Subway for lunch. He attended many of Marshall’s spring football practices and he and Coach Mark Snyder became fast friends. He even served as an honorary coach for the annual Green-White football game.
Many local residents were able to snap photos with the famous
actor, who often took the time to honor their requests. From his appearance
at the movie kickoff party on April 1 to his days off from filming, he was
polite and gracious to his many fans.
Though filming in Huntington ended on April 21, McConaughey returned to the city in the fall, attending the Marshall vs. Central Florida football game Oct. 4. He led the football team on its traditional walk to the stadium before the game and once again served as an honorary coach.
As McConaughey said on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” “It’s a privilege to tell this story. What do you do after a tragedy like that when the program has been decimated? Do you shut it down and bow out gracefully or do you strap on your boots, get up, dust off and make the next step forward? ”
Marshall University’s story of tragedy to triumph has always touched the hearts of the Marshall University and Huntington communities, but now it has extended to Hollywood and the stars that brought it to the big screen. Thanks to McConaughey and others who embraced the film, it is now time for the rest of the world to know that “We Are Marshall”.
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