What is it about American football that is so compelling? Is it the preparation… the planning? The beautifully executed “set” play that works to perfection? The shocking turnabout that a turnover can cause? The athleticism? The physical energy expended? The pain endured? The victories? The losses? The “locks?” The upsets? The many ways to score? The variety of offensive and defensive schemes?
Its ability to serve as a metaphor for our lives, here in America?
Baseball, long “America’s game” and oft used to teach us about life, falls short of capturing us, because in the end, it is not so much a team sport, but simply a collection of individual efforts. We may be compelled by the late inning comeback, or a Bill Buckneresque moment, but baseball does not parallel life nearly as much as football.
Hockey and basketball were ruined by Gretzky and Jordon. Not by the Great One and Michael, but by the selfish ball and puck hogs who followed, posers and imposters who attempted to shine in the same light, but never measured up. While the fluidity of each game provides a certain grace and beauty, they are compelling only for rabid fans, and teach us little about life.
I’ve never played organized football. I play, and have coached, hockey. I am drawn to football because of its tactical AND strategic nature. I am drawn to football because of its athleticism and brutality. I am most drawn to football because of its structure. The setting of plays, allows each of us a moment to project our hopes out onto the field, for the coaches to adjust, and for the players to dig down for more effort. This setting of plays is what sets football apart from all other games. As much as I love hockey, it is not football.
Life is a lot like football. We all run set plays sent in by the coaches. Grade school, middle school, high school, college maybe, work, family, joy, happiness, tragedy, and finally death. Set plays.
Perfect execution often, not always, produces outstanding results. We emulate successful set plays…high school graduation, college degrees, marriage…and we execute according to the play book, we score in the game of life. But sometimes there are fumbles, interceptions, blocked kicks, botched plays, and career ending injuries. These miscues often send our lives into different directions, re-shape us, or re-enforce our successes.
Sometimes, tragically, there are broken plays, broken bones, and broken lives. Some lives are not lived as the playbook designed. They are beset by illness or injury. They are burdened with continuous and repeated challenges that never reveal the goal line. They are cut short by death.
We Are Marshall, is such a story.
On November 14, 1970, the Marshall Football team, less the freshmen and four starters, were killed in a plane crash while returning from an away game. It was my fourteenth birthday. The Detroit Free Press had a picture on the front page the next day of a helmet adorned with an “M” in the foreground, and the wreckage in the background. Its image forged into my memory by the unimaginable tragedy.
It is impossible to imagine a wound as deep as instantaneously removing seventy-five members of a community. It produces a scab so fragile that the wound itself is in jeopardy of remaining into perpetuity. It is a scab that is torn at by the simple living of life, by the fragilities the mind, and by the mere breathing of air. It is a pain that is deep and lingering. It produces sorrow, lethargy, apathy, confusion, listlessness, and bitterness. It is impossible to envision a time when such a wound may be healed.
Tragedy is a unique human experience. It is usually mortal and created by the unexpected. This combination of factors challenges the human spirit, which is what makes tragedy a classic literary form. It is a compelling human experience, yet it produces myriad of results…some sad, some compoundingly tragic, but sometimes tragedy produces glorious redemption, a strengthening of will, a shaping of character.
Such it is with the town of Huntington, West Virginia; Marshall University; and the Thundering Herd Football team. We Are Marshall is a powerful, yet gentle, retelling of their stories. It is a story of grief, of coaching, of personal growth, of overcoming challenges, of losing, of winning, and of football.
I don’t pride myself in being a good movie critic. In fact, I am probably a lousy one. I get too caught up with the characters in most movies…I fail to notice artistic flaws, cinematography shortfalls, lack of avant-garde scene sculpting. I fail to notice the actors have the wrong accents, or that costumes are slightly out of sync with the period of the picture…I miss all that. But I don’t miss when a movie pulls me into its considerable substance. I don’t miss when a movie artfully exposes the nature of life, complete with its maddening unfairness. I don’t miss when a movie gently handles the fragile psyche of a town still in scab from a tragedy thirty-six years in the past, and shows us the glory of all things that make us human…our fragility, our toughness, our resiliency, and our indomitable spirit. I don’t miss that.
You shouldn’t miss We Are Marshall.
What you’ll find is a superb movie that puts you on the path, via football, to discover that We Are all Marshall.
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