Published: Sunday, December 24, 2006
Kokor lives in 'We Are Marshall' film
By JOHN KOVACH
BROOKFIELD Carl Kokor of Brookfield has a very small role in the recently-released film, "We Are Marshall," that opened at area theaters Friday.
In fact Kokor, who was an assistant coach for the Marshall University football team that was devastated by a plane crash on Nov. 14, 1970, was unable to spot himself in the film in a cameo role as a sportswriter on the sidelines during the second game of the team's comeback season in 1971 at home against Xavier.
And Kokor barely was able to recognize actor Mike Moretti, who played Kokor as an assistant coach on the Marshall sidelines in the Thundering Herd's 15-13 win over Xavier the team's first victory in 1971 after almost the entire team was killed in the plane crash while returning from a game against East Carolina in Greenville, N.C.
"I wasn't able to see myself in the film. The sideline camera goes pretty fast. It shoots down the sideline quickly. Some people said they saw me. I did not," said Kokor, a native of Niles who along with other assistant coaches Mickey Jackson and Red Dawson were the only members of the Marshall football team not killed in the plane crash. The tragedy claimed the lives of 75 players, coaches, flight crew, numerous fans and supporters.
The plane was returning home to Huntington, W.Va., and was approaching the Huntington Airport in poor weather conditions of mist and light rain with broken clouds at 500 feet at about 7:30 p.m. But for some reason, the aircraft descended below the Minimum Descent Altitude and struck trees on a hillside about one mile from the runway, then crashed and burned.
"I did see Dawson on the sidelines for Xavier [in his cameo role]," Kokor said. "It was our first victory with the new team in 1971. I didn't notice or catch where Jackson was. They slowed [the film] down on Dawson because he was one of the main characters. He [had been] interim coach [after the crash]."
Has seen film twice
But, "I did spot the guy playing me [Moretti] a couple of times," said Kokor, who has seen the film twice already, both times on Dec. 11 in Huntington. He saw the first screening with coaches and players from the comeback 1971 team during a matinee, and the second showing later that day during the premiere that was followed by the gala for everyone in the movie.
"Matthew Fox played Red. Mike Moretti played me. [Moretti] and I talked quite a bit before shooting of the movie," said Kokor, who had been with Jackson on a scouting trip that fateful day to Penn State to scout the Ohio University team that was playing the Nittany Lions, and thus escaped the tragedy. They heard the news of the plane crash on the radio while returning home from University Park.
Dawson, meanwhile, had driven to East Carolina for the game with another assistant, Deke Brackett, stopping en route to scout potential recruits. But while Dawson returned home by auto, Brackett elected to replace another assistant, Gail Parker, on the flight home, and perished in the crash.
But although Kokor had only bit parts in the movie, he became a major player in the history of the tragedy as one of only three survivors from the team. Kokor, Dawson and Jackson regrouped along with the school after the plane crash to keep the football program going during those trying times.
Dawson served as the interim coach until Jack Lengyel was named head coach in March of 1971. Lengyel is played by Matthew McConaughey in the movie.
Filled a temporary void
"After the crash, someone had to take over the program. The plane crash was in November. [Red Dawson] was interim coach for a couple of months. They needed someone to keep track of the program until Fred Lengyel was hired as head coach," said Kokor, who coached only the two seasons at Marshall.
"We were key people to keeping the program going. I was in charge of [distributing game] films. Families wanted films of their sons. So I and Red and Mickey were very busy. We were trying to do what more people had been doing [before the crash]."
But Kokor, for some unknown reason, was omitted from the film's official list of cast members, while Dawson and Jackson were not and made the credits. Jackson was played by L. Warren Young. In fact, Kokor and Moretti are not listed anywhere in the casting credits.
However, Kokor tries not to let that bother him, because he knows his role in the team's comeback was important and because he has so much respect for the value of the film and its importance in history, and the message it sends to the world about having perseverance to overcome adversity.
"I'm not worried about it. I have good and bad memories. If something ended up on the [film's] cutting room floor, that's how it happens. I know they had to make a lot of adjustments [in the film]," said Kokor, who didn't have any lines in the movie, but neither did Dawson nor Jackson.
"I want to honor the people and the parents of the victims. Whenever I speak to groups, I tell them that there should be someone around to remind people how people can recover from tragedy. [This film] is not basically about football, but how someone can recover from a tragedy, how someone can bounce back from adversity."
Mobbed by players
Kokor has no idea why he was omitted from the cast list, but thinks it was just an inadvertent oversight. "I don't know [why], but I [know I] was there," said Kokor, who was mobbed by players from the 1971 team during the gala that followed the premiere of the film.
"We were at the table with Mickey Jackson and his wife. I have never been hugged and kissed by so many football players in all my life, and I could understand it because we had done so many things together."
Kokor said that he also is part of a new DVD release called, "Return of the Thundering Herd, " that now is on sale at Wal-Mart.
"In [the DVD], they talk about the background of filming the movie. They were at my house for five hours. They interviewed me, Jackson and Dawson and a couple of players on the 1971 team, mainly quarterback Reggie Oliver, who was a freshman in 1970.
Kokor said Oliver was from Tuscaloosa, Ala., and had joined three other Tuscaloosa players already on the Marshall team in 1970, but as a freshman he was not eligible to play and didn't make the ill-fated trip to East Carolina.
"These four players from Tuscaloosa took care of me," said Kokor, sadly referring to when he suffered a broken ankle in an accident during spring practice in 1970 when he first came to Marshall. He said the four players visited him and looked after him and three of them were killed in the crash.
Returned to Brookfield
Kokor left Marshall after the 1971 season.
"I came back to Brookfield. The tragedy affected me. I wanted my kids to grow up in area with all of their relatives," said Kokor.
He and his wife, Rose Mary, a native of Vienna, have three children: Valerie, Lisa and Robert.
Kokor went on to become a Brookfield High teacher and assistant football coach before joining the Westminster College coaching staff in 1976, staying there 24 years before retiring from coaching and teaching in 2000.
Kokor also coached at Leetonia High and served as an assistant coach for the Youngstown Hardhats in 1972.
What did Kokor think of the movie?
"When I first saw the movie, I was looking at it how it affected all of the people of Huntington and the state. Marshall has taken the tragedy and made it into a stepping stone and building block not only for the college but the state," said Kokor, who is aware of his prominent role in the tragic story and history.
"I am a link and I want to be and I'm proud of it," he said.