Photojournalist Chris Spencer Had Special 'Role" in "We are Marshall"

by Tony Rutherford , HNN Entertainment Editor
Photojournalist Chris Spencer Had Special 'Role" in "We are Marshall"

Huntington, WV (HNN) -- With a little less than seven or eight seconds left on the clock in the MU-Xavier game, a young photographer had a “feeling” that he should snap the shutter. Acting on that impulse, Chris Spencer (current HuntingtonNews.Net photographer) captured on black and white film the winning touchdown as time ran out.  “I just remember the ball being snapped and Reggie [Oliver] coming back and throwing that pass,” Spencer said. “I just knew they were going to score.

Spencer’s photo of the winning touchdown in the 1971 game may be the only one left that captured the play and the excitement that followed. The picture and others were used by the Warner Bros. filmmakers as part of the “We Are Marshall” end credits.

“I was contacted by one of the co-producers who was interested in using some of the pictures I had taken in 1971 and 1969,” Spencer recalled. “I had a picture of the touchdown and the scene afterwards. I sent the negatives out there to be scanned so they would be high movie quality.:

Ironically, just as the filmmakers won the good will of Huntington, Spencer trusted them too.

I think that was the first time the negatives left my possession for any length of time. I made five or six different trips to Fed-Ex to get different negatives out that they wanted.”


Along with stringent photo quality, Spencer found that the permission process thorough. One of the photos, which eventually ended up on the cutting room floor, had the image of a cheerleader. “When they put people in the movie, they have to go out and trace them down,” Spencer explained about obtaining a clearance signature from Nancy Sheppe.

Photojournalist Chris Spencer Had Special 'Role" in "We are Marshall"
Photo by Chris Spencer


 Prior to the film’s release, Spencer found himself in an unusual position -- the man who normally shot the world from behind a lens found himself in the limelight.
“When I went over to the MU Alumni [Association] to do some work [in October 2006], Reggie saw me. The first thing he wanted to do was get my picture taken with him. That’s what made me feel so different. It sorta made me feel like a celebrity.”
But nothing prepared him for the “media” screening on Dec. 12. “The first time, it just brought tears to my eyes,” he said. Before the premiere showing that evening, Spencer headed home for a period of reflection.
“I thought the movie was outstanding, excellent, very emotional and very well done. It’s very uplifting dealing with things that actually happen in life.”
By premiere time, he “kept himself from getting [so] involved,” but enters a penetrating objection at what he termed “harsh” reviews by big city critics. “They did take certain liberties, it’s not the exact story that a documentary might portray.”
He particularly pointed to scenes which the “average American” and “average American city” could relate, such as the scenes in the diner. “They are in there eating pie,” Spencer recalled, adding how anyone can identify with eating in a restaurant where “you know everybody … and everybody knows you.”
Interestingly, critics from some of the larger cities -- where strangers remain strangers --- have been the most negative. “Maybe someone from a big city atmosphere just doesn’t understand,” referring to the collective community emotions detailed in the football flick.
“I guess the ultimate decision of who likes the film will be in the public’s hands,” he added. “It might not be a box office success the very first day, but in two or three months, it may be one of the best.”
At least some of our larger city brothers and sisters have already caught the chant. “We Are Marshall” has received praiseworthy reviews from the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the Los Angeles Times.
As for Spencer, who first began snapping pictures back when Gene Morehouse was Marshall’s Sports Information Director, you might notice him on the sidelines. If you look closely, you might observe his limp. During the time since he took the game winner and today, he’s endured diabetes, which claimed a portion of one limb. Despite the adversity, he to this day still “feels the strength” from the team’s first victory after the crash.
“I just knew it was going to happen and I knew I had to be ready,” he said before hurrying off to a basketball game.
When you watch the movie, the end credits overlap the actors with their real-life counterparts.
“Jack Lengyel’s in there, Jim McNally , one of the coaches, Russell Lee and a lot of other people. I’ve had a lot of people come up and say, ‘I was in that picture.’
Now that the movie’s full national release has arrived and its international release pending, I would anticipate many more people will be walking up to Spencer and discussing his photos which themselves trace the history of the Herd from a losing team to one playing for championships.

For a look back at the premiere of a lifetime, you can click on these links detailing the festivities that night and, or this link where HNN photographer Chris Spencer talks about taking the picture of the last second Xavier TD, and a brief conversation with a former athletic department employee at the time of the tragedy


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