A Melancholy Rivalry
by Brian North

East Carolina and Marshall's football teams will always be linked to the most tragic day in North American sports history. On November 14, 1970, a chartered Southern Airlines plane, transporting Marshall players, coaches, wives, boosters and officials from a Southern Conference game against East Carolina, crashed and burned into a wet, foggy hillside two miles from the runway of the Tri-State Airport. All 75 passengers aboard the DC-7 plane were killed instantly upon impact, five of whom were doctors, which was almost half of Huntington's registered physicians. The fiery furnace that once was a plane was so severe that the bodies of six players were never identified and were buried in a common grave site. The exact cause of the crash was never determined.

It has been 35 years but the scars remain, especially for those few team members who were not on the plane. Red Dawson was a 27 year old assistant coach. Dawson drove to East Carolina, making some recruiting stops along the way. He heard news of the plane crash on his car radio during the drive home. Red arrived in Huntington in the middle of the night and found himself among the searchers gathering scattered bodies in the darkest night of his life. He saw the dead and later met with their families.

Dawson was in charge of rebuilding the program and fielded a varsity team in 1971, but he left coaching one year later, never again attending a Marshall game until seven years ago. Yet according to newspaper reports, he is still haunted by that November night. "Every day something comes up and you have a flashback," remarked Dawson.

There are many reminders around Huntington of that tragic day. The memorial fountain outside the Marshall Student Union has 75 strands representing the 75 passengers killed on Nov. 14, 1970.

Up on the hill at the Tri-State Airport, a flame of stone burns atop a monument like a lightless beacon with the 75 names who perished in the crash. On the Marshall campus, water flows from the top of a fountain shaped in 75 strands of steel that resembles a giant flower. It's a memorial fountain outside the Student Union building that honors the dead. Each year on November 14, a memorial service is held at the spot. A bugler blows taps, wreaths are laid, a prayer is recited and the water is turned off until the following spring.

The Thundering Herd football program has risen from the ashes. Marshall hasn't had a losing season since 1983; they won I-AA national championships in 1992 and 1996; and the Herd has been to seven bowl games in the last nine years (including a 64-61 double overtime thriller against ECU in the 2001 GMAC Bowl in Mobile, Alabama).

This will be the third meeting between the two schools since the plane crash, but that has done nothing to reduce the pain for those affected by the tragic events of November 14th, 1970. None of the players playing in Saturday's game were alive, but hopefully they will be educated this week on how precious life is, and learn not to forget those who came before them.

Brian North