‘It was hard coming back here’: A then-Marshall assistant returns

  • Chris Low, ESPN Senior WriterSep 12, 2023, 07:00 AM ET


    • College football reporter
    • Joined ESPN.com in 2007
    • Graduate of the University of Tennessee

GREENVILLE, N.C. — Dwight Flanagan can still see the faces. He has gone back through old game programs and racked his brain to put the faces with the names.

He simply can’t do it.

It’s been nearly 53 years since Flanagan walked to midfield for the coin toss as one of East Carolina’s captains that crisp Saturday afternoon. He shook hands with the Marshall captains, listened to the head referee’s instructions and returned to the home sideline.

“For 60 minutes, you go against those guys, knocking heads, doing everything you can to beat them, and we’re fortunate enough to win a tough, hard-fought game,” said Flanagan, his voice solemn but steady.

“And then you hear the awful news later that night, news that eats at you to this day, all these years later, that those guys get on an airplane and never make it back.”

Through that tragedy on Nov. 14, 1970, East Carolina and Marshall will forever be linked. All 75 people aboard a chartered Southern Airways DC-9 carrying Marshall players, coaches and fans were killed when the plane returning from a 17-14 loss to ECU slammed into a hillside surrounding Tri-State Airport in Kenova, West Virginia. It remains the deadliest sports-related air disaster in U.S. history.

“I was 6 when the plane crashed, just a couple miles from my home, and my cousins were first responders,” Marshall president Brad D. Smith said. “I remember the mountain glowing red and the sky kind of lighting up at night. And then, of course, hearing all the sirens and everything. It’s just incredible how personal the Marshall story is to everybody.”

On Saturday, the bond that endures between the schools evoked deeply rooted emotions and more than a few tears as 38,211 people gathered at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. After a weather delay of an hour and 41 minutes at halftime, Marshall scored 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter for a 31-13 win.

But the final score was almost an afterthought. More than 30 East Carolina players from the 1970 game returned to campus to pay tribute to their fallen opponents from more than a half century ago. (A similar ceremony had been planned for the fall of 2020, 50 years after the crash, but was canceled because of COVID-19.) Some of those players hadn’t been back in decades.

“I’m still not over it, not sure I ever will get over it,” said George Whitley, a senior co-captain and defensive back on the 1970 ECU team. “I think I’ve been back here for a game maybe one other time, but I wasn’t going to miss this one.”

Red Dawson, defensive coordinator of the 1970 Marshall team, shakes hands with former ECU player Greg Burke during ceremonies Saturday. Chris Low/ESPN

On the Marshall side, it was the first time Red Dawson had been back since the 1970 game. Dawson, the Thundering Herd’s defensive coordinator, didn’t get on the team plane that night and instead drove to Ferrum College in Virginia for a recruiting visit along with freshman coach Gail Parker, who had flown down with the team but traded seats with assistant coach “Deke” Brackett, who had driven to Greenville with Dawson.

Just as the rain started to come down Saturday, the 80-year-old Dawson gingerly walked out onto the field during a timeout in the first quarter. The players from East Carolina’s 1970 team presented him with a game ball they had all signed. Dawson pointed at each of them, nodded and mouthed the words “Thank you.”

Dawson, who still lives in Huntington, West Virginia, was a central figure in the 2006 film “We Are Marshall.” He and his wife, Sharon, drove to Greenville for the game last weekend after visiting the South Carolina coast. Dawson was only 28 when the crash occurred, not a lot older than many of the players he coached. For more than 30 years, he said, he was unable to escape the horror of it all and essentially went into a shell.

“Hell, I didn’t want to see anybody or talk to anybody, let alone talk about that game or remember anything about it. I just couldn’t,” said Dawson, who is still recovering from a stroke suffered three years ago. “I think I went to 27 funerals. You can’t imagine that kind of pain, seeing all those families who lost the people they love the most.

“It was hard coming back here. I didn’t know if I ever could.”

Dawson, wearing his green and white Marshall pullover, played over and over in his mind what it was going to feel like walking out on that field again. Some of the anguish he had purposely locked away came creeping back.

But not all of it. He maintained his razor-sharp wit throughout the weekend. Told that he was a lot better-looking than the actor, Matthew Fox, who played him in the movie, Dawson smiled wryly and said, “Now I know you’re bulls—ting me.”

Just before kickoff Saturday, Dawson stood adjacent to the end zone with Sharon at his side and gazed 100 yards in the other direction toward the visiting locker room. Just outside the stadium on that side is a memorial plaque that was installed in 2006 to honor the 1970 Thundering Herd. The plaque reads in part: “Their flight to eternity forever changed the lives of those who dearly loved them. … They shall live on in the hearts of their families and friends forever.”

The Marshall administration invited Red and Sharon Dawson to fly to the game with the team last weekend.

“But he said no, not this game and not here,” Sharon said.

As it turned out, Marshall’s plane had trouble landing at the Greenville airport on Friday before the game because of storms in the area. The plane circled the airport and was diverted to Richmond, Virginia, to refuel before returning to Greenville.

Dawson did stay at the hotel with the team, and when he and Sharon retired to the room that evening, they flipped on the television, and “We Are Marshall” was playing.

“We watch it every year now,” Sharon said. “Red usually makes it to the part where the screen goes black [when the plane goes down] before he starts crying.”

With the long weather delay, most of Saturday’s crowd had left by the time the second half resumed. Red and Sharon held out as long as they could, and Marshall coach Charles Huff reminded his players what this game means to so many.

“We talked to the team before the game that the way you honor someone is by how you do something,” Huff said.

Saturday’s win was Marshall’s first in Greenville in eight tries.

KEITH MOREHOUSE, WHOSE father, Gene, was killed in the crash, was also presented with a game ball during the ceremony. Gene was the radio voice for the Thundering Herd and the team’s sports information director in 1970. His son has followed in his footsteps, as Keith is the longtime sports director at WSAZ-TV, the NBC affiliate in Huntington.

It was only the sixth ECU-Marshall game in Greenville since the crash in 1970, and Morehouse had attended a few of the previous matchups. On one of those trips, he was able to go up into the old visiting team broadcast booth.

“The booths have all been redone with the stadium expansion, but they took me to the one Dad would have been in while calling his last game,” Morehouse said. “The footprint of the stadium is the same as it was in 1970, so as you walk onto the field, thoughts wash over you.”

Keith Morehouse, whose father was the Marshall radio announcer and was killed in the crash, talks with members of the 1970 ECU team. Chris Low/ESPN

A few years ago, some of the ECU players on the 1970 team sent Morehouse the original film from the game, and his colleagues at the television station spliced the audio of his father’s radio call with the game film.

Morehouse won an Edward R. Murrow regional award for best news documentary in 2020 with his report “A Change of Seasons: Fifty Novembers Ago.” He interviewed some of the ECU players for the piece and was struck by how it had impacted them.

“I guess we’ve all mourned in different ways,” said Morehouse, whose wife, Debbie, lost both of her parents in the crash.

Her father, Ray Hagley, was the team doctor and only 34 at the time of his death. Her mother, Shirley, was flying with her husband for the first time, traveling without their six children. Many of the fans on the plane were among the most prominent leaders in the community. There were 18 children who became orphans after losing both parents on the doomed flight.

Morehouse, 62, still has a picture from that game that shows part of the stands.

“You can pick out some of the family members, and you can see my wife’s father in one of the pictures,” he said.

Dawson, who never returned to coaching after the 1972 preseason, has blocked out much of what happened 53 years ago. Some of those memories he doesn’t want to recall, and others he’s relieved that he can’t recall because of the effects of his stroke.

What he does remember from that game 53 years ago, similar to the ECU players, are the faces of the Marshall players as they made their way off the field. He remembers some of the fans mingling around the locker room. And, yes, he remembers being peeved over the loss.

“We should have won the damn game,” Dawson said grimacing. “That’s what everybody was thinking.”

But a football game was the last thing on Dawson’s mind hours later as he and Parker hopped back in the car after visiting a prospect. They were listening to the car radio when they heard the news.

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“Shock, total shock,” Dawson said. “I don’t know where we were or even what time it was. I just know we stopped the car and sat there and stared at each other. Neither one of us could say a word. We just stared. I couldn’t tell you how long. It seemed like forever.”

Back in Greenville, ECU coach Mike McGee came barreling through the dormitory late that night yelling for everybody to gather in the student center for an impromptu meeting.

“A lot of us were downtown trying to find a beer like most college kids. We were celebrating. We didn’t win many games that season,” said Richard Peeler, an all-conference defensive tackle for the team. “When Coach McGee finally got us all together that night, we went to pieces.”

Rusty Scales remembers being summoned by a graduate assistant, and for him, the news hit especially hard. Scales, a fullback on that ECU team, played high school football in New Jersey against Marshall quarterback Teddy Shoebridge and running back Art Harris. Scales played at Passaic Valley High, Harris at Passaic High and Shoebridge at Lyndhurst High.

“I stood over there with Teddy talking for a few minutes, talking about coaches and people we knew in New Jersey, some of the high school teams,” Scales recalled. “We talked long enough that our coaches were calling us off the field to the locker rooms.

“And just like that, you hear he’s gone, all of them. You just couldn’t believe it.”

The ECU team held a memorial service early the next morning at the Wright Auditorium on campus. The Pirates’ season was over, but Marshall had one more game remaining against Ohio University that weekend.

McGee, who died in 2019, was in his only season at East Carolina as coach before moving on to Duke. He called Peeler into his office Monday morning after the crash to see what his thoughts were about ECU potentially filling in for Marshall in its final scheduled game as a way to honor the players and coaches who lost their lives.

“We were going to wear their uniforms and any revenue we made would have gone to Marshall, but the NCAA wouldn’t let us do it,” Peeler said. “We were just looking for ways to do anything we could to help.”

AS SATURDAY’S GAME approached, the players and coaches who played in that 1970 game were hardly the only ones who found their minds racing — and their hearts aching.

Shoebridge’s older brother, Tom Shoebridge, had to pause several times to gather himself when recalling his final telephone conversation with his brother. Tom, who spends most of his time now at the New Jersey shore, was unable to make the trip to Greenville, but he connected a few years ago with some of the ECU players.

“Give those guys a big hug. We don’t shake hands in Jersey. We hug,” said Shoebridge, who retired in 2019 after more than 40 years of coaching track and football at his high school alma mater, the same school his late brother Teddy starred at in both football and baseball.

On Sundays when Teddy was at Marshall, he would call home collect. Tom said he, younger brother Terry and their parents would pass the phone around to talk to him.

“It was that or writing letters. We couldn’t talk long, either, because those collect calls were expensive,” Tom said. “But I’ll always remember him asking me about one of our biggest wins in high school, wanting to know all about our game and how excited he was for me. It was never about him.”

His voice cracking, Tom added, “I didn’t know that would be the last time I would talk to him.”

Whenever Tom hears that Marshall is going to be playing East Carolina, he said it brings him back to the day of Nov. 14, 1970.

“It’s not a good place to be sometimes,” Tom said. “I think about many, many things. As a coach, I think about the kids on that plane. They’d just lost a tough game. As a brother, I think about Teddy and what he was thinking before he died.”

A plaque memorializing the plane crash victims from Marshall on the East Carolina campus. ECU Athletics

Senior defensive end Owen Porter is Marshall’s defensive leader and one of the top players in the Sun Belt Conference. Saturday’s game was his first trip to Greenville. His grandparents, Don and Joyce Hampton, lived less than a mile from the crash site in Kenova. From the time he was a little boy, he’d heard stories about that fateful night and how the community rallied to support each other.

“They lived in a little white brick house right there at the time,” Porter said. “When the plane hit the mountain, it shook the walls, knocked pictures off the walls, shook stuff in bookcases, and there was broken glass and stuff on the floor.

“Marshall is who I am. It’s part of me and my family … always.”

Julia Keller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, was born and raised in Huntington. Her father was a math professor at Marshall and kept statistics at the football and basketball games. Keller would tag along as a young girl.

“I thought I was the queen of the world getting to sit there on press row and in the press box, and oh my gosh, that I knew Gene Morehouse,” Keller remembered. “My father and I shared a love of sports, and I know that crash affected him so profoundly because he knew a lot of those players and had them in class, and he knew the townspeople who were killed too.”

Soon after taking a job with the Chicago Tribune, Keller talked her editors into letting her write a story about the crash in 1999. She spent more than a month working on it, and one of the things that sticks with her was a visit she had with Teddy Shoebridge’s mother, who was dying of pancreatic cancer.

“I was so moved and touched when I went there. She had not been out of her bed for months,” said Keller, who was 13 when the plane crashed. “She came out into the living room, and we sat around the table and talked about Ted. She essentially got herself up out of what was her death bed to talk about her beloved son.”

Shoebridge’s mother died a few weeks after Keller’s story was published. When Keller realized that Marshall was playing at East Carolina this season, she immediately thought of that rainy, foggy night as a frightened 13-year-old and the unspeakable grief that consumed her hometown.

“It does change, the grief,” Keller said. “It goes from a very, very sharp edge, but I wouldn’t say it ever lessens.”

Earl Taylor was a member of the drumline in the ECU marching band in 1970. His wife, Pam, who joined the flag corps the following year, was also at the game in the stands. Taylor went on to earn three degrees at ECU, and to this day, he struggles to wrap his brain around the fact that he watched those players exit the field, but they never made it home.

“I think everybody on our campus was thinking the same thing, ‘We just played that team, and now they’re gone,'” Taylor said. “We won the game, but they lost their lives.

“It just couldn’t be.”

When the last of the Marshall players came straggling out of the locker room toward the team buses Saturday, the rain had just about stopped. Caleb McMillan, a junior receiver from Orlando, Florida, walked outside the gate with his headphones sitting atop his head. He turned to his left and was facing the plaque memorializing his Herd football brethren from more than 50 years ago. He took a picture with his cell phone and gently placed his hand on the plaque.

“We won’t forget,” he said softly.

It was McMillan’s 75-yard touchdown reception — another tribute of sorts to the “75” — that turned the game in Marshall’s favor.

But on this rainy night, it was little more than a footnote.

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