In 1970 a plane crash took the lives of 75 people including most of the Marshall football team, its staff and program boosters. Fifty years later a community renews its pledge to never forget those lost on that tragic November night.
To just see the words Nov. 14, 1970, in print can evoke deep, visceral emotions around here. If you’re a follower of all things green and white the date needs no explanation. Most anyone who’s lived where West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky meet know exactly what that date signifies. That night we lost 75 souls in the worst tragedy in American sports history.
Marshall’s football team, along with staff, boosters and the flight crew, was returning from a gut-wrenching 17-14 loss at East Carolina in Greenville, North Carolina, earlier that day. On a rainy, dreary night, the Southern Airways DC-9 crashed into the hillside just short of the Tri-State Airport. There were no survivors, unless you count a football program, its fan base and a city and state in anguish.
Fifty years later, Marshall Head Football Coach Doc Holliday wears with pride the number “75” on his sweatshirt. He exudes it every June when he has his players run from the stadium down 20th Street and then up the hill to Spring Hill Cemetery, where a tall memorial marks the final resting place for the six football players whose bodies could not be identified in the crash. He asks the players to try and understand what the memorial means, and by the time they leave the university they know that monument, and the football program, are forever connected.
“We make sure our young people know this story as soon as they get to campus,” Holliday said. “The 50th anniversary of the plane crash is very special to our team.”
Every football season since 2013, Coach Holliday has designated the closest home game to the anniversary of the tragedy as the “75” game. The players strap on helmets with a “75” decal, wear special uniforms and use some heartfelt motivation to go out and notch a win. The Herd has never lost on that significant game day, going 7-0 since Holliday started the tradition.
“Nobody in college football has our story,” Holliday said. “It is woven into the fabric of our community and throughout our program. We always play for the ‘75’ and appreciate the Young Thundering Herd for never giving up and bringing the football program back.”
Red Dawson will always be identified with the Young Thundering Herd, but he’ll be the first to tell you he’s not so young anymore. Any conversation about the tragedy makes his eyes narrow. He becomes wistful at the thoughts of 50 years of horrific memories.
“That was the worst point of my life,” Dawson confesses.
The former Florida State honorable mention, All-American tight end was an assistant coach for Rick Tolley during the 1970 season, but he didn’t fly home on the team plane after the East Carolina game. Instead, he and graduate assistant Gail Parker had made plans to set out on a recruiting trip by car. Parker heard a news bulletin on the radio that a plane had crashed. Not long after, their worst fears were realized.
“We pulled into the first pay phone at a filling station and I called my wife,” Dawson recalled. “I told her to tell our families that we’re still here. Going home was eerie and silent. Neither one of us knew what to say.”
Even with his broad shoulders, what a burden to bear for a 20-something football coach. How difficult it must be to go on when you’re always thinking of the players you recruited and coached, the staff you worked with, the boosters you had come to know. He sadly counts 26 funerals he attended in the days and weeks after the plane crash.
Dawson never ran and hid from the tragedy — though he could have — and who would have blamed him? He could have closed himself off, maybe left the coaching business and disengaged from a university and a program that had suffered an unimaginable loss. There was no roadmap for how to navigate the road back from such a tragedy.
Dawson did what he knows best — he kept coaching football. When the school hired Jack Lengyel from Wooster, Ohio, Dawson decided to stay on board as an assistant and help with a most inconceivable comeback.
Then on Sept. 25, 1971, came the most important victory in Marshall football history. In only the second game after the plane crash and with time literally ticking down to zero on the clock, the Herd beat Xavier 15-13 on a pass from Reggie Oliver to Terry Gardner, and the celebration began.
“Oh Lordy, that place went crazy,” Dawson remembers. “It was the first home game after the place crash. It was turning dark because it was an afternoon game. The dressing room was crazy. A huge crowd of fans was still on the field an hour after the game. I remember driving home and wondering, ‘How did we do this?’”
We Are Marshall
“Those were not welcome days. We buried sons, brothers, mothers, fathers, fiancés. Clocks ticked, but time did not pass. The sun rose and the sun set, but the shadows remained. When once there was sound, now there was silence. What was once whole, now was shattered.”
— Annie Cantrell, from the motion picture We Are Marshall
With a discerning eye, Huntington and Marshall welcomed Hollywood to town in the spring of 2006. Warner Brothers had committed to producing a major motion picture about Marshall’s comeback after the plane crash. The movie had a big budget cast with Matthew McConaughey, who later won an Oscar, playing the part of Jack Lengyel, the coach of the Young Thundering Herd in 1971. Matthew Fox would play Red Dawson during his tortuous season after the tragedy. David Strathairn was cast as acting president Donald Dedmon, and Anthony Mackie brought Nate Ruffin’s character to the big screen.
Director McG, producer Basil Iwanyk and screenplay writer Jamie Linden took great measures to gain a foothold in Huntington. They wanted to assuage concerns some had about making the movie, and that reassured the community they had no plans to “Hollywood-ize” the story. They talked with media members who covered the tragedy and family members who lost loved ones in the crash. Their pledge was to tell the story with dignity and respect, and they wanted to do that by learning the story from the inside out.
“Jamie Linden and I started showing up in Huntington over and over again,” Iwanyk said. “Not just one trip and forgetting about it, but coming back and coming back and following up. I think the town, the people, the survivors and everyone affected by what happened at Marshall sensed that we were being sincere and they trusted us.”
The cast and production crew felt strongly that it was time for the story to be told, for Huntington’s sake. Warner Brothers shot for two-plus weeks on location in and around Marshall and Huntington, and the film was released in December of 2006. The movie grossed $43.5 million dollars at the box office, but more importantly, it showcased the Marshall football journey to the world.
“That movie more than any other movie I’ve ever done shined a light on how much a retelling of a time, even if it’s tragic, can help and be cathartic,” McConaughey said. “Not just a person, but a whole town.”
The movie struck a chord among the community and beyond, and has become a lasting big-screen tribute to Nov. 14, 1970, and the subsequent climb back from the ashes.
“I had the world by the tail, living in an apartment behind our house. I loved my life,” Heath recalled.
Then Nov. 14 happened.
Heath remembers the night before the tragedy he had some friends over to his house and Frank James, a football player who didn’t make the trip, was one of his guests. The next evening is a little blurrier in his memory.
“Saturday I was out with a friend when we heard the news,” Heath said. “I rushed to the airport and of course they wouldn’t let me up. I came back home and every light in the house was on. My brother and sisters were in the house with the neighbors trying to console us. My whole life changed that night.”
His parents, E.O. “Happy” and Elaine, were lost in the accident. The Heaths are one of six families to lose both parents in the tragedy.
“My dad always had a smile on his face, always had a funny line,” Heath said. “My mom was one of those pretty ladies that always stood out. She had the white gloves on, was a stay-at-home mom and raised us very well.”
How hard that must have been for a 19-year-old college student to be thrust into a situation where he was forced to become the de facto father figure for his three younger siblings. His sister Kathy was 18, Holly 15 and Kevin 11 years old at the time. If Jeff Heath became a responsible, mature college sophomore, it was only because he had to.
“I was the eldest in the family, I’m the guy who had to change my life substantially,” Heath said. “I became the head of the family. Thanksgiving was a blur that year and for Christmas we didn’t even buy a tree. A friend of our family noticed we didn’t have one, so he brought one to the house.”
Life, and time, have a way of softening the memories. The Heaths are still big Thundering Herd fans and when the 50th anniversary occurs, they will be at the annual memorial and gaze upon the Memorial Fountain as its waters are turned off. No doubt they will reflect on how much their mom and dad never got to experience, but also proud that the family name, and legacy, live on.
Kyle Powers was 6 years old and on his way to a youth football game some 15 years ago. He remembers his father taking a turn onto a gravel back road in Wayne County and wondering where they were going.
“He goes up to this road I’d never been to,” Powers said as his voice quivered with emotion. “It was the plane crash site. For 50 years it’s shaped Huntington and it’s shaped the community. It’s instilled in me.”
Kyle is now the student body vice president at Marshall. His dad, Mike, is the chief videographer for the university. Their ties to the school go well beyond their work duties. One of the accomplishments Kyle is most proud of is the interactive touch screen that hangs in the lobby at the newly renovated Memorial Student Center. It catalogs the victims of the air disaster on a large video screen. You touch the name of a player, a coach, a staff member or a booster, and a picture and bio appear.
“I wanted people to get to know the individuals and put a face with a name,” Powers explained.
Now Powers’ main concern is to help spearhead Student Government’s responsibilities in planning the fountain ceremony for the 50th anniversary in November. The size and scope of the event are not yet completely known in this, the year of COVID-19, but Powers embraces the responsibility that’s been passed down and the tradition still resonates all these years later.
“We have to continue the legacy,” Powers said. “New freshmen every year come to this campus and they’re coming from other places around the country and around the world. Let’s write the book and have them read it.”
The most visible, most photographed, most iconic symbol on Marshall’s Huntington campus weighs 6,500 pounds and stands 13 feet tall. It was Oct. 18, 1972, when Harry Bertoia’s bronze sculpture was dedicated on the student center plaza. It immediately became a gathering spot, a focal point, and every November, a source of reflection. As painful as it is to remember, it remains a striking, poignant reminder of all we lost a half a century ago.
About the author: Keith Morehouse is the sports director at WSAZ NewsChannel 3 in Huntington. He is a 1983 graduate of Marshall University where he earned a B.A. in broadcast journalism. He is a two-time Emmy winner and five-time West Virginia Sportscaster of the Year. In 2019 he was inducted into the W. Page Pitt School of Journalism Hall of Fame. Keith was 9 years old when his father, legendary local broadcaster Gene Morehouse, perished in the Marshall plane crash.
Photos: (Top left) Closeup of the Memorial Fountain on the Huntington campus by longtime University Photographer Rick Haye.
(Top right) The 1970 football team and coaches.
(Continuing from second from top)
- Coach Doc Holliday has designated the closest home game to the anniversary of the tragedy as the “75” game. The players wear special uniforms and helmets with a “75” decal. The Herd has never lost on that significant game day, going 7-0 since Holliday started the tradition.
- Red Dawson was assistant coach during the 1970 season. He and graduate assistant Gail Parker drove home from the East Carolina game, planning to recruit on the way. They learned of the plane crash from a news bulletin on the car radio.
- (Fourth from top, left) Arlen Escarpeta (right) played former Marshall quarterback Reggie Oliver (left) in the movie We Are Marshall.
- (Fourth from top, right) In the first home football game after the 1970 tragedy, Oliver threw the most important pass in Marshall University history to running back Terry Gardner (26) who made a touchdown, winning the game 15-13 against Xavier.
- In 2006 Warner Bros. decided to make a motion picture about the Marshall plane crash. Filming began in the spring of that year on Marshall’s campus and around Huntington. Local students and residents were used as extras in the movie. In this pivotal scene Director McG instructs the extras to chant “We Are Marshall” outside of the Morrow Library.
- Matthew McConaughey played Jack Lengyel, the coach of the Young Thundering Herd in 1971, in the movie We Are Marshall. This scene shows the locker room celebration immediately following the team’s win against Xavier. Assistant Coach Red Dawson remembered, “That place went crazy.”
- This Christmas card sent in 1966 by E.O. and Elaine Heath shows all their children at the time and is signed “The Happy Heaths.” Both parents died in the plane crash, leaving (center back, then clockwise) Jeff, Kathy, Kevin and Holly. Not pictured is Shannon, who was born in 1970.
- The brainchild of Kyle Powers, student body vice president, an interactive touch screen hangs in the lobby of the newly renovated Memorial Student Center. It catalogs the victims of the air disaster. When a viewer touches the name of a player, a coach, a staff member or a booster, a picture and bio of that person appear.
- The football program has come a long way since the dark days following the plane crash. After recording the longest streak of losing seasons in college football, the program rose from the ashes. In 1990 the team moved to a brand new football stadium. Two years later they captured the first of two NCAA I-AA national championships. The program has produced two Heisman Trophy finalists and has been ranked in the Top 25 numerous times.