Few sports themes are as compelling as the rise of the underdog. This theme has certainly driven numerous football movies, providing inspiration for Rudy and the recent Invincible, to name just two. Compared to the 1971 Marshall football team, however, the protagonists of those films—an undersized young man who wants to play for Notre Dame, and an industrious Everyman who earns a spot with the Philadelphia Eagles, respectively—seem like two-touchdown favorites.
The circumstances surrounding the ‘71 Marshall team are so unbelievable that no director would dare to touch them unless they had actually happened. As it is, they have inspired multiple films, including most recently We Are Marshall. Before hitting Hollywood, though, the Marshall story captivated the imaginations of John Witek and Deborah Novak, a pair of filmmakers who wrote the documentary Marshall University: Ashes to Glory, which was recently released as a Docurama DVD.
For most college football programs, a national championship or an important bowl win is the greatest achievement imaginable. The Marshall program, however, achieved its most significant victory simply by stepping onto the playing field at the beginning of the 1971 season. Such an action was, at the time, almost unthinkable. On 14 November 1970, the Marshall football program was all but erased when a chartered plane carrying community leaders, athletic supporters, coaches, and all but a few players crashed, leaving no survivors.
Ashes to Glory opens with scenes of Marshall football culture as it is today: vibrant, fan-supported, and successful. No one better represents the success of Marshall football than alumnus Chad Pennington, the current starting quarterback of the National Football League playoff-contending New York Jets. Pennington appears at the end of the documentary and says, “Every time you step out on the field, you’re not only playing for yourself, for your coaches and your teammates, you’re playing for those guys that were on the plane crash . . . and the whole community in general.” The greatest strength of Ashes to Glory is that it manages to illustrate how Pennington’s statement rings true throughout the Marshall community.
Ultimately, the Marshall story is not really about football at all, and the makers of Ashes to Glory succeeded by understanding that fact. To be sure, the film is full of football lore and video footage, but the documentary’s real story is how the members of a community in West Virginia banded together after a life-shattering event. The documentary makers succeed in telling this story by allowing those people who lived it to speak out.
The range of people whose lives were touched by the accident is almost unfathomable; 75 people perished in the plane crash, but the victims of the tragedy number in the thousands, including all those who lost supervisors, colleagues, teammates, family members, and friends. In Ashes to Glory, many of these people share their stories. A wife tells about losing her husband and struggling to keep her family together. Children reflect on losing one, or both, of their parents. Players who, for various reasons, stayed behind while their teammates and coaches boarded the doomed plane share their undeserved guilt and incomprehensible heartache.
The one common point in all the individual stories is a description of the night of the accident. The presentation of the crash is located directly in the center of the documentary, and it is the strongest, most stirring part of the film. A rapid succession of clips shows personal testimonies interspersed with video footage shot inside a plane’s cockpit on a stormy night. This barrage pauses when a clip of The Newlywed Game that played in West Virginia on the night of the wreck appears on the screen. As viewers watch giddy young couples, a message in white letters declaring that a plane has crashed begins to roll across the bottom of the screen.
Fortunately, the documentary doesn’t become bogged down in the ashes of the crash. Although it includes heartbreaking stories and emotionally scarred people, it steers clear of overbearing sentimentality or awkward scenes of personal devastation. Many interviewees blink back tears of sadness, but the camera always leaves before they completely lose their composure. The filmmakers treat the subjects and their stories with utmost dignity, and this respect is one of the documentary’s strengths.
The Marshall story would be significant if it ended at the plane crash; it is astonishing because it did not. In the year following the accident, a new coaching staff came to the university, and, along with the few players remaining from the ‘70 season, led a campaign to bring Marshall football back to prominence. The documentary tells the story of a ragtag team, many members of which had been imported from other campus sports such as baseball and soccer. The last third of the movie, which details Marshall’s comeback season and its eventual rise to becoming a well-established division I-A football team that has produced numerous NFL stars, moves briskly and carries the documentary to an uplifting conclusion.
Because of certain limitations, Ashes to Glory is not a perfect movie. The film was produced for West Virginia public television, and the obvious lack of funds rears its head at a few points in the production, most notably the soundtrack. Viewers will probably find themselves wishing that the producers had been able to purchase the rights to some copyrighted songs or hire live musicians to perform the accompanying music, instead of turning to synthesized instruments. The movie also suffers from time limitations; it shows many members of the Marshall community, but it cannot spend too long going into all the details of each personal story.
But the small problems with Ashes to Glory don’t really mar the final product. Although the documentary is not entirely comprehensive, it does have an impressive scope. The film definitely gives new insight into the fervor of Marshall football fans. More than that, though, it shows that the plane crash in ‘70 affected a whole community, not just a football team. In order to understand that community today, one must understand the tragic events that shaped its collective identity. Ashes to Glory facilitates such understanding, and in so doing, achieves its greatest success.