48 Years Later. Hope from An Unthinkable Tragedy.
November 14th, 1970.
36 members of the Marshall University football team, 9 coaching staff, 25 prominent community leaders/spouses and 5 flight crew members died in a flash as their plane crashed into a hillside seconds before it was to touch ground in Huntington, West Virginia.
75 people from one town, gone.
You may remember the movie “We are Marshall”. It documented this tragedy and the story of rebuilding the football program. From the moment this movie was released in 2006 it captured my attention. Matthew McConaughey, football and a triumph from tragedy story? I’m in.
But it was 10 years after the movie was released that I started watching it again. And again. And again.
I really began to ponder this movie and watched for the angle not as visible in the movie. The real story. The story of those left behind: At least 100 parents, 13 widows and 70 children. 18 children lost both parents and 52 others lost one. There were countless people deeply impacted: team members that didn’t go on the trip, girlfriends of the players, grandparents, cheerleaders, friends, fellow students, neighbors, faculty, and the list goes on and on and on. How did life go on? How have they made it through?
The reason this movie caught my attention again 10 years later is because I was experiencing two large scale tragedies myself. The Sandy Hook Elementary Tragedy and the Boston Marathon Bombing. In the case of Sandy Hook Elementary, I was helping bring comfort in the recovery efforts in the school each week and in the case of the Boston Marathon bombing I was there. Running the race, stopped ½ mile from the finish line with my family nearby waiting for me.
In the ensuing years, I’ve watched as deeply hurting people in these communities feel unnecessary pressure to “move on”. 6 years should be adequate time to be “over it”, right? And I am witnessing how far away from reality this thinking is.
My eyes were opened.
And so, I felt compelled to research the Marshall University tragedy to help us learn from 48 years of recovery from an unthinkable tragedy. Did they ever get past it? Are they “over it”?
I’ll give you the quick answer. They aren’t over it. They will never “get over it”. Every November 14th brings them all back to that moment. And the same pain comes again. Every Year. It is always with them. But there is also hope. Read on.
My quest led me to the amazing Craig Greenlee who authored the book “November Ever After” A memoir of tragedy and triumph in the wake of the 1970 Marshall football plane crash. Craig waited 40 years to tell his story. He knew most of those who were on the plane that night. He was on the team the previous two seasons, left the team for personal reasons and came back for spring practice in 1971 to help rebuild the football program.
Craig has a southern drawl and deep commitment to preserve the memories of his beloved teammates and all those affected by this tragedy. Most of the reflections I discussed with him centered around the struggle of living in a world where no one could possibly understand what they were going through. How could anyone possibly understand? They wanted to be strong, but there was no roadmap. And so, they learned as they went.
48 years later, here are some wise takeaways from Craig:
- Be patient with those experiencing trauma & crisis. “When you are so deep in pain there simply are no words. Don’t expect people to open up and talk about it. Be patient. We consoled each other in silence. The pain was so profound. “
- We need each other more than we want to admit. “You help yourself helping yourself. Don’t underestimate your emotion. Don’t think “I’ll get over it”. Seek help. Find people you trust and open up.
- Helping others helped us.“Joe Bundy was a freshman student who was assigned to assist the father of one of the players who died. In the book, Bundy recalled “Rather than thinking about how bad I felt about losing a homeboy, my focus changed. I began to think about what it must be like for the parent in the situation. It allowed me to be strong.”.
- Everyone will respond differently. “A loss of any kind is a matter of the heart. It’s something we all have to understand because we will all deal with it at some point in our lives. And how people respond to crisis, trauma and loss are as different as our fingerprints.” You can have no expectation of how people are dealing with their trauma other than they have not forgotten it.
- Things will be said that would otherwise never be said. Hurtful things. Shocking things. Angry things. Clueless things. With so much pain around you, it’s unavoidable. Craig recalls vividly things said that were anything but helpful:
“It’s about time that you move on from that plane crash”
“People die, and they’re buried, and you just move on,”
- Memories of the event don’t fade to black. When we think about the fact that we still have vivid memories from our childhood, how could we expect that those suffering from trauma don’t have flashbacks of what they experienced with exceptional clarity and detail? Craig recalls his memories like he’s watching them on film. They are that clear to him.
- Craig closes his book with this:“What we can say is that we endured. And during that process, we wept, and we agonized. And we continued to celebrate the lives of those who perished.
The Marshall students from the early ‘70s are senior citizens now. We’ve established ourselves in our careers, raised our children and are having a ball as grandparents. Along the way, we’ve lost loved ones, which includes parents, siblings, other relatives and in some cases lifelong buddies. Even with all of that, we cannot erase the memories from over 40 years ago, memories that are forever etched in our psyches. True enough, it was so long ago, but it’s still just like it happened yesterday.”
“It’s always with you.”
There is hope.
With so many large-scale tragedies happening around us and countless small-scale tragedies that have a similar impact on lives, we owe it to ourselves to learn from those who’ve been there before us. If we learn that people don’t “get over” traumatic events, then maybe we can think twice before assuming they are “back to normal”. And maybe then we can be open to reaching out and being there to care for them better.
The examples are all around us every day. That veteran having a hard time keeping a job? He’s not “over it”. The co-worker who recently had a miscarriage? She’s won’t just “have another baby” and get past it. The high school classmate who lost a son to a drug overdose? She will never “get back to normal”. The student whose friend committed suicide? It will always be with him.
The movie “We are Marshall” ended with a great football “win” the year following the tragedy. And then the credits rolled as we saw Matthew McConaughey flash his smile one last time.
But that’s not where the story ends in real life. The real-life story gives us hope. That even though traumatic events stay with us, we can learn that life will blend together the past, present and future so that the cherished memories stay cherished.
When we remove “getting over it”, “moving on” and “getting back to normal” from our thought process and replace our thinking with “it’s always with you”, we change everything.
“Getting over it” puts up a big dark wall, denying most reflection and conversation on the topic; “always with you” breaks that wall down and opens a beautiful door for preserving memories, accepting & providing comfort and building relationships based on the memories and pain.
“Moving on” discourages looking back, marching blindly forward; “always with you” takes the past and seamlessly weaves it into the present and future. Using each day, the bad days with the good days, to bring together the full story.
“Getting back to normal” is sometimes mistaken for finding a way to go on; “always with you” allows for true resiliency by identifying and accepting a “new normal” and living life as it is now.
Life is hard and messy. And in the crazy busy world we live in today, we sometimes find ourselves at a loss when it comes to knowing how to help those who are hurting.
We can do better.
We will do better.
We are all Marshall now.
Jen Marr is Founder & CEO of Inspiring Comfort LLC. Learn more about how you can comfort better at www.inspiringcomfort.com
Recommended further reading / watching:
Craig Greenlee – Book/Blog – November Ever After: http://novembereverafter.blogspot.com
Video - Surviving teammate Dennis Foley shares his first interview in 47 years on this video. Let that sink in for a minute… He didn’t share his story for 47 years.
Article – Chicago Tribune Pulitzer Prize winning writer Julia Keller, grew up in Huntington WV and wrote a beautiful piece “It’s Always With You” - https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1999-09-05-9909050375-story.html
Video - Nate Ruffin, Thundering Herd Co-Captain who missed the game due to injury pays tribute: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ivf6q_CHgQ