Saturday, September 6, 2008

We are Marshall -- Is winning everything?

In November 1970, after losing an away game, the 37 players of the Marshall University Thundering Herd football team, along with their coaches and a number of boosters, boarded a charter plane bound for home. They never got there. Amidst a lightning storm, the plane crashed; there were no survivors. The team was decimated. Only four players remained -- those who did not make the trip.

We are Marshall tries to answer two questions in this true story. First, at a time of such great tragedy, with the team gone, the town in mourning, how do you honor the dead? Is it better to drop a program, the football program, or to try to continue knowing winning is virtually impossible?

The second question comes from the mouth of the head coach. After the defeat, and before the flight, he tells his beaten team, "Winning is everything!" So, the bigger, more fundamental, question raised by Marshall becomes is winning really everything? In sports even in life, is winning the most important thing? the school board determined to honor their dead by disbanding the program, the students rally together to persuade them to let it continue. But who will be their coach? President Dedmon (David Strathairn) leads the search. After all prospective candidates turn him down, Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) calls and applies for the job. A charming father of three, he wins the head coaching position. But that is the only beginning of his obstacles. no team, recruiting is tough indeed. But Jack's optimism and hopeful attitude is contagious. He persuades assistant coach Red Dawson (Matthew Fox, seen recently in Vantage Point), to come back for one year to assist. Jack perseveres when others give up. He sees possibilities where others see dead ends. He creates his own possibilities, asking the "impossible." Jack's perseverance and approach to life is exemplary of how a Christ-follower should live -- with joy and hope and faith in the God of the impossible!
As the season opens, Marshall has a team, but one that is young and inexperienced. Before the second game, Jack takes the team to the cemetery where the six bodies (the only remains from the crash) were buried. Giving a strong motivational pre-game pep-talk. Jack says, "When you take that field today, you've got to lay that heart on the line, men. From the souls of your feet, with every ounce of blood you've got in your body, lay it on the line until the final whistle blows. And if you do that, if you do that, we cannot lose. We may be behind on the scoreboard at the end of the game but if you play like that we cannot be defeated."

In this inspiring speech, Jack answers the second question. Winning is not everything. Sometimes being there, just playing, is victory enough. If all you can do is show up, then giving your best is a winning effort. And that's all that should be expected of you. When you walk off the field of life and you've done all that you can, given every last ounce of effort and shown you have a mighty heart, you are a winner. That is not only Hollywood, it's biblical. As a follower of the Lord, if you do this in the strength of the Spirit, you will hear Jesus say, "Well done, good and faithful servant."

We are Marshall is as predictable as Portland rain in winter. It moves into the sentimental stratosphere. And yet. It's a fun and inspiring movie, a heart-warming movie, an against-all-odds movie. A key reason is McConaughey's portrayal of Jack Lengyel. At first he seems to be a country hick, full of odd and quirky sayings. But Jack is actually a smart character. A good listener, he connects with people. Then, instead of telling them what to do, he tells stories and lets them come to their own understanding. This is a key characteristic of a keen motivator. And a key characteristic of a good coach is the ability to motivate his players. This reminds us of the greatest teacher and motivator-coach of all time: Jesus. Jesus told many stories and left his hearers to come to their own understanding, often using parables (confer Matthew 13). If we want to be better motivators, even better parents, perhaps we need to learn to listen and then tell stories instead of simply giving commandments.

As Marshall comes to its conclusion, it answers its first question. If they had dropped the football program it may have remained dropped, never to return. Despite the losses and defeats experienced during the necessary rebuilding following the tragedy, like the mythical phoenix the Thundering Herd rose from the ashes to attain glory. Eventually, they won a national championship. Did the losing team bring honor to the dead team and coaches? Perhaps not initially, but eventually they brought immense glory to the memory of those lost in the crash. Sometimes we have to look to the long-term understanding it will take time, effort and perseverance to attain. The grief of the town did transform into glory, a glory that would not have happened if the program had been shut down.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

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