Rising from the ashes

I have written enough about death these past few days. I have thought enough about it as well. I have relived Jane’s last weeks, days, and hours almost as though they were happening all over again.

Last night I watched “We are Marshall” because it is not about death, but about the aftermath of death—about the living rising from the ashes and beginning again—about building things up again with worn out tools, to quote Kipling’s poem.

The film is based on the events following a plane crash in November 1970 that killed nearly all the players and coaches of the Marshall football team. Marshall is a small college in a small town in West Virginia on the banks of the Ohio River. To say that its football team was the center of town life would be an understatement. It was so central that after the crash the college was on the verge of eliminating the program because rebuilding it might be upsetting to that community.

Only a handful of players and a single coach remained after the crash. The coach was on a recruiting trip and did not get on the plane. And injured players did not travel with the team. Even the coach was so consumed with his grief that he was willing to let the program die in the plane crash.

But one of the players refused to give up. He put together a huge demonstration outside the Board of Trustees meeting where the football decision was going to be made. It is one of the most moving scenes in a film filled with moving scenes—at least for me—at least last night.

Marshall kept its football team. In fiction, they would have risen from the ashes in a single season to become a power in the conference and a power in the country.

The truth is they won just two games the following season. Under their new coach they won just nine times in 42 games through the end of 1974. They had the worst record in college football in the 1970s.

There are coaches who say the only thing that matters are the victories in the record books. But for the kids at Marshall, every time they set foot on the field was a victory. For them, the game was not about the score—especially in that first year. Each game was a test of character and a test of heart. It was also about pouring another pig of steel, baking another brick, setting another girder as a community figuratively reshaped and rebuilt itself through its college and through its football team.

This past year has been about the same things for me—a test of heart and a test of character—an amassing of the moral and spiritual materials and capital necessary to the life and the work ahead.

In the 1980s, Marshall won six conference titles, four national championships and emerged as one of the major NCAA powers. But not one of the victories earned was as important as the victory that never showed up on any stadium scoreboard—the victory of one college student that resulted in rebuilding a community.

The days ahead are not the days Jane and I envisioned. That future is gone. The future that will be is yet to be shaped. But the heat and cold of this year has formed the brick and steel from which that future will emerge.

Posted by walking with jane on December 10, 2011

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