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A half-century later, Marshall football still galvanized by tragedy

"The plane crash is 50 years ago and a lot of people think it's like ancient history. But in (Huntington, W.Va.) it's like it happened last year."
Former Marshall football assistant Red Dawson (center) and current Thundering Herd coach Doc Holliday (75) lock arms before walking onto the field prior to Marshall's Nov. 10 home game against Charlotte in Huntingon, W. Va. (Photo provided by Marshall Athletics)
Published Dec. 14, 2018

TAMPA — The Herd will come out thundering for the Gasparilla Bowl, as it does for every blessed bowl played. Oh, sure, some years Marshall may be injury-maligned or overmatched, but it's never, ever flat.

Chisel that in stone. How do we know? Because of everything already chiseled in and around Huntington, W.Va., where football really is about life and death. The home to Marshall football is replete with shrines, cemetery markers, even memorial fountains.

And when you sign on to play for the Herd, a few things also get chiseled in your psyche: history, tragedy, pride and those 75 souls immortalized from Huntington to Hollywood. When you're representing something that much greater than yourself, flat just doesn't come into play.

"The plane crash is 50 years ago and a lot of people think it's like ancient history," said USF defensive tackles coach Sean Cronin, who served three separate stints as a Herd assistant. "But in that town it's like it happened last year."

That well-chronicled crash remains the deadliest affecting any American college sports team. Seventy-five passengers — players, coaches, staffers, boosters and flight-crew members — were returning home from a 17-14 loss at East Carolina aboard a chartered DC-9 the night of Nov. 14, 1970.

On the plane's descent, it collided with some treetops about a mile west of the Tri-State Airport runway and burst into flames. No one survived.

Yet no one perished, either. The folks of Huntington, once a blue-collar bastion of steel manufacturing situated on the edge of the Ohio River, wouldn't allow it.

"It's something that is a sad situation when you look back on it," 76-year-old Red Dawson said in his dark-roasted south Georgia drawl. "But nobody's gonna ever forget it."

A half-century later, they still haven't.

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Each June, ninth-year Marshall coach Doc Holliday leads his team on an inclined mile run to Spring Hill Cemetery, where six of the crash victims are buried and where a stone monument bears the names of all 75 victims.

He also presents a screening of We Are Marshall, the 2006 film depicting the tragedy's aftermath and program's resuscitation. Among the primary characters: Dawson, an assistant on the '70 team who went on a pre-planned recruiting trip to Virginia after the East Carolina game, and heard of the crash via his car radio.

"And then we have Keith Morehouse, who lost (his dad) in the plane crash, he comes in and explains to 'em how important it is," Holliday said. "Or we get Red or somebody to say what football means to that community and school and fan base."

It doesn't end there. As the de facto curator of Marshall football's proud, somber history, Holliday and his entire team annually attend the school's Fountain Ceremony at the campus' epicenter.

The Memorial Fountain, weighing more than three tons and standing 13 feet high, features 75 points aimed skyward. On that day, its water is turned off until the following spring, when another ceremony is held to recognize the 1971 team ("Young Thundering Herd") that helped the school and community pick up the pieces.

"I'm amazed every year when they have the memorial on the 14th, how many people are there, and a lot of 'em are students," said Morehouse, a local TV sports anchor whose dad, Gene, served as the play-by-play voice of Herd sports.

"Not to say that they don't have a grasp of history, but they've got a lot of other things going on in their lives. And for them to stop and pause and partake in the ceremony, I think it's really nice to see."

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On the poignance barometer, even the fountain ceremonies struggled to top the Herd's Nov. 10 home game against Charlotte. At the behest of Holliday, Dawson walked with the team — arm in arm — onto the field. Marshall rolled to a 30-13 triumph in that "anniversary game."

"Very emotional," said Dawson, who for decades after the crash couldn't bring himself to come around the program. "Tears in my eyes."

In Huntington, it just means more. While some conferences stick that four-word phrase at the end of a hashtag, the Herd put it at the end of a heartstring.

"You try to explain to guys when you're recruiting them," Cronin said. "But you can't really understand it until you've been there for a year and have kind of lived it."

There's a reason Holliday is 5-0 in bowl games at Marshall. There's a reason Bucs defensive end (and former Marshall standout) Vinny Curry insisted on wearing No. 75 when he first entered the NFL. There's a reason Miami (Ohio) is still reviled by Herd faithful (It ran up the score, 66-6, on the '71 Marshall team).

And there's a reason USF had better brace itself Thursday.

"When the Herd runs out of the Shewey Building (onto their home field), people are there and appreciate it," Morehouse said.

"I think they appreciate the wins a little more and maybe take the losses a little harder. It's a fan base that's certainly connected to the school, and vice versa, for those obvious reasons. And I think that's why it's a little different in Huntington and at Marshall."

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

Gasparilla Bowl
USF vs. Marshall, Thursday, 8, Raymond James Stadium
TV/radio: ESPN; 820-AM, 98.3-FM

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