It has been 27 years. On Nov. 14, 1970, a plane carrying 37 members of the football team, five coaches, 21 boosters, seven university employees and a crew of five back from Marshall's 17-14 loss to East Carolina crashed on approach to Tri-State Airport near Huntington. The plane tore a 95-foot gash in the hillside, disintegrated, left a wake of fire. Dawson, a 27-year-old defensive coordinator at the time, had driven to East Carolina so he could make some recanting stops en route. He heard the news of the crash on his car radio during the drive home. When he arrived in Huntington in the middle of the night, searchers were gathering the scattered bodies. For a time Dawson was put in charge of the football program. He saw the dead. I le met with their families, it was devastating," he says.
A year later Dawson left coaching forever. He still lives in Huntington, where he runs a construction firm. But he has been to only a few Thundering Herd games since the crash, and he was plagued by a low-level horror on each occasion. Now and then he goes to the stadium parking lot to tailgate. Once, thinking himself "insulated," as he puts it, by a few beers, he let someone talk him into walking into the stadium. He lasted only a few minutes. "Ask people who've survived any catastrophe: They have guilt feelings," Dawson says. "I did. That's what my problem was, and is."
Dawson isn't alone. The Tri-State crash wasn't the typical air disaster, unknown victims dying on unfamiliar ground. Thundering Herd football had been the emotional core of this corner of West Virginia for decades, drawing players from families who had been in the state for generations. The program's boosters were the town's elite. The crash, says retired Marshall professor of geography Sam Clagg, was the region's "great immense event," savaging the 60,000 residents in a way few outsiders understand.
When a new athletic director was appointed in 1971, he tried to get the school to move on. "He said, 'Forget all this...put it behind you.' Just like that," Dawson says, eyes widening, moistening. "The son of a bitch is dead. I wish he hadn't died. I'd still like to cuss him."
Ten days after the crash the official grieving period ended, but "you could say it never stopped," Clagg says. "A lot of people are still carrying that cross." So much so that the crash has even come to define the seasons in Huntington. Every year on Nov. 14 a ceremony is held on campus in front of a fountain built in memory of the dead. The surrounding plaza fills with students, teachers, survivors. The captains of the football team lay a wreath. A prayer is said. A bugler plays taps. Just as the last lonely notes cut through the midday air, the water pouring out of the fountain slows, then stops, leaving everyone standing in a well of silence. Winter begins. The water does not flow again until the first day of spring.
"I'd have people coming in and saying, 'I'm a orphan from the plane wreck,' and afterward I'd have to sit back for four or five minutes and catch my breath," athletic director Lance West says of his first days at Marshall, in 1995. "There's always a real sense of that plane. We're not trying to bring it up. It is this community."
In such a place someone like Randy Moss is almost mystifying. Dawson knew two people on the plane who, he believes, were on their way to greatness. Loria, the defensive coordinator, would have been a superb head coach, Dawson says, and a running back named Joe Hood would have made the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Dawson would like to talk to Moss. "It's hard for me to understand how somebody with his talent is on the verge of throwing it all away," Dawson says.
Still, Dawson is a football guy, and he loves the way Moss plays. Meanwhile, time has eased Dawson's discomfort enough for him to use the word we again when he talks about Marshall. He has even made plans to go to Morgantown for the West Virginia showdown. He can't believe how far the program has come.
As Dawson talks about the '60s, when Marshall lost so often that it was a national joke, a door bangs open at the opposite end of the room, and a coach enters with a cameraman and a sportscaster. Dawson stops. The men continue talking among themselves, and Dawson nods and says, "Yeah. That guy right there." It is confusing. What guy? Dawson's voice drops into his chest and he mumbles, "Keith Morehouse." Still it doesn't sink in. Outsiders can be so dense. Morehouse, the team's play-by-play announcer, host of the coach's TV show and sports anchor on the top station in town, has for years been the voice and face of Marshall football. Dawson repeats the name, softly.
"His dad was on the plane," he says.