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The Morning Show
Ed Carter, former Marshall football player, tells why he was not on the fatal plane that crashed 30 years ago.
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The Morning Show
Ed Carter recalls hearing about the crash and his relationships with other survivors.
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The Morning Show
Being one of few surviving members of the football, Ed Carter talks about his return to the Marshall campus.
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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Marshall football: From tragedy to triumph
By Lou Sahadi
Special to ESPN.com
When Marshall won its opening game of the 1970 season, the townsfolk of Huntington, West Virginia looked with anticipation at the possibility of the college's first winning season in five years, during which time it absorbed a winless streak of 27 games. Instead, a week before the final game of yet another losing year, the school and the residents of this quiet town on the Ohio River became bonded forever by the biggest tragedy in American sports.
On November 14, 1970, a chartered Southern Airlines plane, transporting the 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 the town'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 gravesite.
Amazingly, the exact cause of the crash was never determined. The entire state was shocked by the tragic event and suddenly the 3-6 record of another losing season didn't mean anything. A day after the crash, over 7,000 people, which was more than attended a football game, gathered with heads bowed in the Marshall Fieldhouse praying for the strength and courage to go on. The Today Show televised the memorial tribute that solemn day, a eulogy that has continued now for the last 30 years.
For Huntington, a town of some 80,000 residents back then, Marshall football was what they lived for on Saturday nights in the fall. The Thundering Herd played in Fairfield Stadium, a rickety structure that could seat only 10,000 on a sellout, and was also the playing field of the city's two high school teams, Huntington Central and crosstown rival, Huntington East, on Friday nights. It was an antiquated stadium barely adequately illuminated, which housed a wooden press box that tightly accommodated 20 people.
It has been 30 years but the scars remain. None more so than for Red Dawson. The herculean task of rebuilding the football team fell briefly to the 27-year-old Dawson, an assistant coach. He had escaped from being on the doomed plane by driving 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. Dawson 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.
"It was devastating," exclaimed Dawson.
So much so that he left coaching one year later, never again attending a Marshall game until seven years ago. Yet, he is still haunted by that November night.
"Every day something comes up and you have a flashback," remarked Dawson.
It was up to Jack Lengyel, the current athletic director at the Naval Academy, to build the foundation of Marshall football 10 months after the tragedy that had remained an open wound. The NCAA granted Marshall permission to play freshmen and Lengyel labeled his green squad the "Young Thundering Herd." President Nixon sent Lengyel a letter of encouragement saying, "Friends across the land will be rooting for you, but whatever the season brings, you have already won your greatest victory by putting the 1971 varsity on the field."
Miraculously, Marshall won two games that season, the first one coming on the second game of the schedule, a 15-13 win over Xavier on the last play of the game. Sadly, the film of that milestone, can't be found. And, understandably, futility set in after the '71 season and Lengyel left after three years of restoration. Finally, in 1984, Marshall finished 6-5, its first winning season in 20 years. The Herd hasn't had a losing season since.
George Chaump, who later coached at Navy, brought Marshall its first national exposure on Division I-AA level with two playoff appearances as a member of the Southern Conference in 1987 and '88. Marshall emerged as a I-AA powerhouse under Jim Donnan, who coached for six years before leaving for Georgia. The Herd was 64-21 under Donnan, appearing in the Division I-AA championship game four times.
That was only the beginning of Pruett's and Marshall's national prominence. In 1997, Marshall's first year in Division I-A, the Herd thundered to its first of three consecutive Mid-American Conference championships, led by Moss and 1999 Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Chad Pennington.
As a result, Marshall earned a spot in three straight Motor City Bowls. They lost to Mississippi, 34-31, in the 1997 Motor City Bowl, but went on to drub Louisville, 48-29, in 1998. In last year's appearance, Marshall dominated Brigham Young, 21-3. In the final college poll of the season, Marshall ranked 10th, the first time in school history that it ever cracked the Top 25.
Beginning in 1990, the Marshall football program rose like a Phoenix from the ashes. Marshall had the winningest football program in America in the decade of the '90s with a 114-25 record! Remarkably so. It was achieved after a recruiting scandal in the 1960s that banished the school from the Southern Conference as it was shedding its image as the losingest team in the country - 22 wins in 10 years during the 1970's. Marshall football was so horrible that a petition was circulated around campus to drop football. If it was enforced, the tragedy would have deepened and closure would never have occurred.
"Seventy-five people would have died in vain," pointed out Keith Morehouse, the school's play-by-play announcer, whose father, Gene, ironically Marshall's radio announcer back then, was a crash victim. "I was nine years old at the time and all I knew was that I had lost my father."
Never did Marshall fans think they'd be rooting for the success that is Marshall football in the 1990s - 114 victories and three straight MAC championships under Pruett. In his first four years as head coach, he has produced a remarkable 50-4 record which hasn't gone unnoticed. Last spring, he turned down a five-year, $8.9 million dollar offer to coach the University of Houston, three times the money he was getting at Marshall.
"It's hard to leave," Pruett said. "I didn't want to leave Marshall, the state and my players."
It all goes back to that dark November night in 1970 which Pruett acknowledges.
"I think I speak for a lot of people when I tell you that on that day, the bottom of my heart fell out," remarked Pruett.
The heart has healed and so has Marshall football.
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