We Are Marshall, Too

by Jeramie McPeek
VP, Digital
By Steven J. Koek, Suns.com
Posted: Dec. 22, 2006

The title of a new motion picture about the aftermath of a plane crash that wiped out an entire college football team, We Are Marshall, helps to display the unity of a university and community forced to come together in the face of human tragedy.

“We Are Marshall” can also be used to describe the connection between two current Suns coaches and the consequences of that horrific accident in the fall of 1970.

Both Suns Head Coach Mike D’Antoni and assistant coach Dan D’Antoni have strong ties to the small West Virginia school. Mike was a sophomore on Marshall’s varsity squad at the time of the accident, while Dan was serving as an assistant for the school’s basketball team.

“I think it was a trying time for everybody,” Mike recalled. “I was involved in basketball, but we were all groomed in the same dorms and interacted daily. I was there a year and a half before it happened, and I got to know them pretty well. It was devastating to everybody and the aftermath was very emotional.”

Both D'Antoni brothers knew most of those lost on the flight, which also included the majority of the athletic department administration, as well as school boosters. But it was Dan who took the accident the hardest, having lost a close friend and mentor in Dr. Ray “Doc” Hagley, the team physician. Dan had worked closely with Doc, even having lived in his house and, in fact, was watching Doc’s children on that fateful night.

“Doc was living his life through me with sports,” Dan said. “It was one of those things. He was training me in boxing and wanted me to be a boxer when I finished. The plane crash happened during the middle of the training.

“After the accident, my main focus was on those kids. I really wasn’t out in the community with everything else going on.”

The Marshall basketball season went on as planned in the fall of 1970, even if the school’s heart was not fully in it. As difficult as it must have been for all parties involved, playing sports again was a necessary step in the healing process.

“You lost a lot of leaders, not just basketball but for the entire program,” Dan said. “There was a lot of confusion, but finally you start resurrecting everything and getting focused on what you’re doing, which for us was basketball.

“Throughout the basketball season, they were trying to decide what they were going to do with the football program and we were kind of like the healing part, I guess. The sporting arena was a way to get behind the program, but it just wasn’t the same. It changed everything.”

Mike recalled an especially tough tournament the basketball team played in that season, one which intensified the feelings of loss for the program.

“We had an invitational tournament that Dr. Hagley and a couple of other doctors had started,” he said. “When the crash went down, they renamed it as a memorial tournament, so it was super emotional. Everybody was crying and there was no way we were going to lose. But it was an emotional time for everybody – the community, the school. It was just tough.”

By the time the following football season came around, Dan had left Marshall, relocating to South Carolina where he began to put his life back together, becoming a highly successful high school coach in his own right.

“Dan was right there at that juncture where you’re going from being a star athlete at school to getting out in the real world and making a go of it,” explained Mike. “On top of all of that, he was close to Doc Hagley and the kids. There were so many emotions that he had to go through and deal with. You just bury them and go on, you just do it.

While it took Dan years to talk about that dark period in his life, he always had his younger brother to go to when there was nowhere else to go and no one else to talk to.

“We talk about everything,” Mike said. “It was a tough time for him. Every once in a while the emotion will come back up. We kind of had the same experience and it was pretty devastating.”

The plot of We Are Marshall, a Warner Bros. release which opened on Dec. 22, centers on that next football season, and the difficult task of getting on with life for the people of Marshall and the community of Huntington, W.Va.

“I don’t remember all of it,” Mike said. “I do remember the first time we won it was emotional. It was 36 years ago so I can’t remember everything, but the emotion is still there.”

The significance of simply playing Marshall football again overshadowed any importance in the games themselves, a unique situation for a competitor as fiery as Mike.

“We didn’t really care if we won or lost,” he said. “When we won the first game afterwards there was a surge of emotion. But just to be able to compete was emotional and no one was worrying about the outcome.”

The film, which stars Matthew McConaughey (Failure to Launch, Two for the Money) and Matthew Fox (Lost) is an emotional mixed bag for the D'Antoni brothers. While it is painful to relive the tragic event that had such a great impact on their lives so many years ago, they are pleased that it paints the university and community in a positive light under dire conditions.

“I don’t think you could ever recreate it exactly the way it was, but it was a good story to be told,” Mike said. “A lot of new generations didn’t even know that it did happen and I was just hoping they’d do a great job with the town and the school because it was a great school and was great for me.

“I understand they did a good job of showing the community. I’ll see it somehow. I don’t know if I’ll go out to a theatre to see it, but I’ll see it.”

Dan was relieved to hear the film would revolve around those who mourned together, rather than the gruesome story of those lost in the crash.

“I thought they were going to do it on the crash itself and I wasn’t really happy,” he said. “But then I heard that was a small part of it. I’m not going to see it, but from what people tell me, it’s very uplifting at the end and makes you feel good.”

In a business where air travel is a regular occurrence, it would be almost impossible to have never thought of that horrific crash that wiped out the Marshall football team and decimated the community so tied to it.

“You do, but you don’t,” Mike said. “I remember the first time the basketball team flew off after the crash, it was pretty emotional and we had guys who were pretty scared.

“The crash did touch our lives, but it really affected other people more. I didn’t lose any family members, but so many other people were devastated by the whole thing. In a certain sense, we were lucky. Somebody said 65 kids lost one or both parents. For a small community, that’s pretty devastating.”