The house looks the same as last year – same tree, lights and decorations – but it feels different.
Before long I remember why – Dad is not around anymore.
Christmas without a loved one can be a bittersweet time, full of happy memories and quiet moments of sadness. Just when you think you can’t cry any more, another batch of tears show up during a favorite Christmas film or song.
I suppose I could stop watching movies or football games that remind me of Dad, but then I would be denying myself the things that I really enjoy. Perhaps it’s best to remember the many blessings from Dad that enriched my life. With those happier memories in mind, it is easier to live forward without regret or sadness.
The residents of Huntington, West Virginia must have felt this same way as they struggled to live forward after the entire football team of Marshall University, along with university staff and 25 prominent citizens, perished in a plane crash November 14, 1970. The story of how the school, the students and the entire town struggled with this tragedy is depicted in the new film We Are Marshall.
It’s the same struggle that the town of Evansville, Indiana faced when 29 people, including the 14-member University of Evansville basketball team, perished in a plane crash December 13, 1977. My wife Linda was a student at U of E when it happened.
“I remember the silence, the somber atmosphere around campus after we heard the news,” Linda said recently. “We all shared a common grief. It was such a small campus that you knew all the faces. After the crash, we really missed their faces. For the rest of the season, as each weekend rolled around, we were reminded again and again that year – there’d be no basketball.”
In the film We Are Marshall, university president Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) was faced with the decision of either suspending the football program or keeping it going. Many in the town wanted football to stop because they couldn’t bear to be reminded of those who perished – sons, boyfriends, husbands, mothers, fathers, neighbors and friends.
But the students rallied together and convinced the administration to continue the program. Football was important to the students, to the town. It helped define who they were.
To get things started, the president was charged with the difficult duty of finding a head coach. Fortunately, he found the right man in Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), the former football coach at the College of Wooster in Ohio.
Since Lengyel was an “outsider,” he could be compassionate and also detached, respectful of the community’s shared grief but not be hampered by it. Since he wasn’t previously connected to the team, he had the freedom to start the rebuilding process.
In an emotional scene in the film, Coach Lengyel meets the team at the cemetery before the team’s first home game. He reminds the players that while they will always remember the individuals who are gone, it’s time to end the grieving and honor their memories by playing the game.
“When you take that field today, you’ve got to lay your heart on the line,” says Lengyel. “And if you do that, we can not lose. The plane crash is our past. We can’t forget that. This is where we have come from. This is how we got here. This is who we are today. We are…Marshall.”
“Life happens,” states Matthew McConaughey in the film’s production notes. “The choice then becomes how you deal with it, how you heal and move on. Everyone does it differently but the important thing is to take that first step.
“You may not be sure where your foot’s going to land, but you still have to take that step. That’s why this is such a powerful story; there is pain and loss, but then, just to get back onto that field, just to put your shoes on in the morning and go back to school or work is a way to start healing.”
So as we celebrate this Christmas season, as we strive to live each new day despite our loss, we pause to remember Dick, Roman, Norbert, Mary, Scott, Whitney, Jim, Stephanie, Megan, Mollie, Lloyd, Joe, Jimbo, Charles and Lucille, Peter, Duel, Nancy and all our dearly departed family and friends.
We take comfort knowing that they are enjoying an everlasting holiday in the company of angels and the love of our saving Lord.
They are where we came from. They are how we got here. They are who we are today.
For knowing them, for loving them, for them loving us, we are…blessed.
First published in the December 29, 2006 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2006 Christopher Fenoglio