Marshall football heroes welcomed to church
In town to see a premiere of the new Warner Bros. movie “We Are Marshall,” more than 30 players and coaches from the 1971 Marshall University football team received a heroes’ welcome at the Norway Avenue church in Huntington, W.Va.
“Your story is going to be told all over the world, and millions of people will be inspired,” minister Jeff Garrett told the special guests in a sermon titled “The Hall of Faith.
The PG-rated film, which opened in theaters nationwide Dec. 22, stars Matthew McConaughey as a young coach named Jack Lengyel.
Lengel, who attended the Norway Avenue service, rebuilt Marshall’s football program and helped heal the community after the team’s chartered jet crashed in 1970, killing all 75 players, coaches, athletic staff, fans and flight crew aboard.
The Young Thundering Herd — so named because the NCAA granted Marshall special permission to play freshmen in 1971 — has a special connection to the Norway Avenue church. Allen Meadows, a freshman defensive tackle on that team, leads the small-group ministry at the congregation and helped organize the special service.
The church itself is across the street from Spring Hill Cemetery, site of a memorial honoring the plane crash victims. Six players whose remains could not be identified are buried there. In the movie, the coach brings players to the memorial prior to a game and talks to them about the challenges ahead.
Before filming that scene, the producers asked to use the Norway Avenue church as a staging ground — allowing extras to assemble in the auditorium, actors to change clothes in classrooms and the crew to eat in the fellowship hall.
“I called a couple of the elders and what they said to me was, ‘To tell this story to the nation, it would be our privilege to let them use our building,’” said Jeanie Meadows, the church secretary and Allen’s wife of 33 years.
AN OVERWHELMING TRAGEDY
For Allen Meadows, the crash changed everything.
The 6-foot-4, 195-pound lineman from Scott High School in Madison, W.Va., had planned to play college football for West Virginia and then-coach Bobby Bowden.
In fact, he made a recruiting visit to West Virginia and watched the Mountaineers beat Syracuse, 28-19, on Nov. 14, 1970 — the day that Marshall’s plane went down.
But after the crash, he found himself drawn to Marshall, the pride of Huntington, an Ohio River town of about 50,000.
“It was a combination of a lot of things,” Meadows said.
For one thing, Marshall offered instant eligibility at a time when the NCAA banned most freshmen from playing varsity ball. For another, he could be “a big fish in a small pond,” as assistant coach Red Dawson, played in the movie by Matthew Fox, emphasized to him.
But on a deeper level, the opportunity to help rebuild Marshall’s shattered team appealed to him.
“The thought of the tragedy … was very overwhelming,” recalled Meadows, who grew up 75 miles from Huntington. “Everybody, even people who didn’t know anybody, was overcome with grief.”
Meadows’ name and jersey No. 73 can be seen a few times in the movie. He started all four seasons at Marshall and captained the 1974 team.
When production started, the costume designers asked for authenic team apparel from that era. Meadows mailed his varsity letter jacket with a big green “M” to Hollywood. It became the prototype for the letter jackets seen in the movie.
“Then they asked me to be an extra in a few scenes as a college professor,” said Meadows, now 53.
While his scenes did not make the final cut, he enjoyed the experience, he said. And he has almost nothing but praise for the film itself.
“There were some inaccuracies and things that I know were just Hollywood embellishments,” said Meadows, who saw the movie in a players-only showing and at the Huntington premiere. “As far as the story itself, it’s outstanding. It’s not about football, although football is a big part of the story. It’s really about life and overcoming adversity.”
A CHANCE TO SHARE JESUS
Before the Norway Avenue service, Meadows and the Young Thundering Herd conducted a private memorial ceremony at the cemetery. A Marshall band member played “Taps,” and the former players and coaches released seven green balloons and five white ones in tribute to the 75 crash victims. The balloons floated into the blue sky and over the Marshall campus.
Afterward, the church hosted a special breakfast for the 1971 team before the Sunday morning assembly, which drew a crowd of about 350, more than 100 of them visitors.
Garrett showed a trailer of We Are Marshall during his sermon and likened the triumphs of the “heroes of faith” in Hebrews 11 to the Young Thundering Herd’s 15-13 victory over Xavier in the 1971 home opener.
“It’s sort of like what you men felt when you won the game over Xavier,” Garrett said. “It was like all those people who died in the plane crash were cheering you on to victory.
That’s the image that comes to mind. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who are cheering us on.”
Garrett credited the success of the special service to Allen and Jeanie Meadows and their influence in the community.
“Allen was our link to the Marshall players,” Garrett said. “I just can’t say enough good things about Allen. He’s like a spiritual giant.”
Meadows, who was baptized between his freshman and sophomore years at Marshall, said the service provided a glimpse of the role the Norway Avenue church hopes to play in Huntington.
“I don’t want us to be the church on the hill that’s got the truth and nobody knows it but us,” Meadows said. “I want us to be the church that’s out in the community and sharing Jesus.”