Forty years ago from this Sunday, Marshall assistant coach Red Dawson and graduate assistant Gail Parker hit the road to head back to Huntington, WV. They had already visited a recruit on the way to East Carolina and planned to visit him again on the way back. As the two left, the Marshall football team along with some school administrators and fans boarded a Southern Airways DC-9 to fly back home. It was the last time Dawson would ever see them.
On that night, Nov. 14, 1970, 75 people — 37 players, eight coaches, 25 fans and five crew — died when that Southern Airways flight clipped some trees during its landing approach to Huntington and crashed. To date its the worst sports-related air tragedy in U.S. history.
Dawson and Parker first heard the news on the radio while they were driving through North Carolina. They stopped as soon as they found a pay phone to learn more but by then the worst was already realized: everyone had died. Dawson and Parker drove back the rest of the way, mostly in silence. The two were so distraught they kept getting lost and arrived in Huntington four hours late.
Upon arriving in Huntington, Dawson helped in the search effort, gathering the scattered bodies from the wreckage. Things would only get tougher. In the days following the tragedy, Dawson and other various personnel at Marshall were tasked with speaking with the families of the young men who were lost.
Said Dawson in a 2006 interview with Yahoo! Sports: “I went to work. I didn’t have to call any [families]. The phone was constantly ringing. And it went from bad to worse when the families started showing up. It was easier over the telephone.”
In the 2006 film “We Are Marshall,” Dawson was played by Matthew Fox and in the script, Dawson was spared at the last minute because he gave up his seat to another assistant coach. In reality, it was Parker who gave up his seat and Dawson actually pleaded to be on the flight.
He didn’t know it at the time but Dawson was suffering from survivor’s guilt and the mixture of guilt and shame he felt on a nearly nightly basis ravaged him. Yet through that internal pain, Dawson kept a brave face for the community at large — in one week he attended 27 different funerals. As the town continued to grieve, Dawson realized that there was a football program that had to be rebuilt and he agreed to help start the process.
Under new head coach Jack Lengyel, Dawson along with returning players who didn’t make the trip, members of the freshman team and various walk-ons plucked from campus went to work rebuilding the program. The NCAA allowed Marshall to play freshmen, which allowed the program to collect a few more players.
And then-little known West Virginia coach Bobby Bowden allowed the Marshall coaching staff to visit and study all the film they wanted to learn Bowden’s veer offense, which would help the young team with little depth or heft along the offensive line.
In just the school’s second game back the following season in 1971, Marshall won its first football game after the tragedy. As the The Herald-Advertiser said at the time, “Marshall University’s Young Thundering Herd stunned Xavier, 15-13, here Saturday and it’s doubtful any Marshall team ever won a bigger game or a more dramatic one.”
The game was won on the final play, a misdirection play where quarterback Reggie Oliver rolled one way to draw the defense and then lobbed a screen pass to an open Terry Gardner in the opposite direction. A key block from tackle Jack Crabtree sprung Gardner for the 13-yard score.
The play was called by Dawson.
But after that ’71 season, Dawson ended his coaching career, saying he was fed up with football.He also didn’t have the stomach to recruit anymore.
Said Dawson years later: “I didn’t think I could recruit anymore. How could I go to a family gathering and promise parents I’d take care of their boys?”
He went into business and eventually opened up his own construction business, Red Dawson Construction, in Huntington, WV.
But even after leaving Marshall, the guilt of being one of the few members of the coaching staff remaining haunted him. He even had nightmares, nothing vivid that he could recall, but nightmares that resulted in him waking up feeling terrible.
“I went through some hellacious times. But I didn’t know anything else to do. I kept it penned up,” Dawson told Yahoo! Sports.
It would take over 30 years before Dawson truly got the help he needed and it came in the most unusual way — reliving the events that took place. Dawson was one of many consultants for the movie “We Are Marshall.” The result of all the talking and all the reliving of those events over 30 years ago began to make him feel better.
“The movie has already done me a lot of good. I can’t see how it can be a negative thing. If the nightmare comes back one more time, what the heck? It’s so much easier for me to talk about it now,” said Dawson in his Yahoo! Sports interview.
Dawson still resides in Huntington, WV, and he’ll be among those associated with the 1970 team who will be at Marshall this Saturday to commemorate the 40th anniversary of this tragic event. He is no longer paralyzed by the survivor’s guilt he carried for over 30 years.