Soul survivor

More on Marshall – "We Are Marshall" on Yahoo! Movies

He was trying to get this man-eater named Mantooth – Billy Joe Mantooth – because the struggling football team of Marshall University needed a linebacker in the worst way.

Red Dawson figured the junior-college star in Virginia could solve that, and for the only time in his coaching career, that November weekend in 1970, the Marshall assistant coach didn't fly with the team to a game.

The road from the Marshall campus in Huntington, W.Va., to the game at East Carolina darn near ran through Mantooth's dorm, and Dawson drove so he could pay his prized recruit a visit before meeting up with the team.

After ECU beat Marshall, Dawson and grad assistant Gale Parker decided to pay the kid another visit on the drive back. Somewhere in North Carolina, a radio report claimed that the Marshall team plane had crashed. There was no word on casualties.

They found the first pay phones they could see and called their wives back in West Virginia to get the news.

"The worst," Dawson said.

He had to stop for a few seconds.

"I mean devastating."

Seventy-five people were killed when the plane crashed into a ravine about a mile from the Huntington airport. Tuesday is the 36th anniversary of the crash. In December, the major motion picture "We Are Marshall" about the tragedy and the team's revival will be released.

Thirty-seven players – many of whom Dawson personally had promised their parents he would look after – died that day. So did five coaches, all of whom were like brothers to Dawson, considering all the hours they spent together. There also were school administrators and their spouses, major boosters, local officials and the plane's crew. Almost all were friends.

It was a near complete disaster, not just for Marshall football but also for the university and the small coal-mining town on the Ohio River that it calls home.

He was a 27-year-old, 6-foot-4, 240-pound linebacker fresh from his playing days with Florida State and the AFL Boston Patriots.

Nobody considered the possibility of counseling, especially for a tough guy like Dawson living in a tough town like Huntington. No one asked if he wanted to talk about his feelings. Dawson, Parker and two other assistants who had been scouting an opponent were the lucky ones. That's what everyone kept saying. And who could argue? Mantooth had saved their lives.

Only it never felt like that. Dawson wasn't going to admit that to anyone; hell, not only did you not talk about your feelings, you never even acknowledged them. Huntington men just pushed on. He and Parker just got back in that car. They talked a little about what had happened, but not much. They mostly drove in silence, so distracted that they kept getting lost and arrived four hours late.

Dawson went home, hugged his wife, showered, changed and went to campus to the Old Main administration building. There was this huge hole in the program, in the school and in the community. He tried to help fill it.

Red Dawson

Red Dawson coached one more season
in 1971, then quit football for good.

"I went to work," he said. "I didn't have to call any [families]. The phone was constantly ringing. And it went from bad to worse when the families started showing up. It was easier over the telephone."

He didn't know what to say. Moms and dads had lost their sons. Sons and daughters had lost their moms and dads. Every phone call was another nightmare. Every new visitor was beyond consoling.

The whole thing was incomprehensible, too great a loss to conceptualize. Seventy-five dead? His entire world seemed in shock. Dawson himself had lost dozens of close friends, lost dozens of young kids he loved, yet he barely had time to cry. He was supposed to be the rock – the big, strong linebacker's shoulder for all these other people who had it far worse than he did.

"If you tried to walk across campus, just get some air in your lungs, just to get away for 10, 15 minutes, everywhere you looked there were people crying," Dawson said. "It was complete devastation. I mean, it was just awful."

So he found a little old bench behind Old Main, hidden a bit, and he'd go out there in the cold November air, have a dip of tobacco and try to figure out how in the hell he was going to face the next hour, the next phone call, the next funeral.

"The funeral list, I still have it," he said. "I did 27 in one week."

But mostly out on that bench, he kept trying to figure out why he was feeling the way he did. He understood the sadness, but there was more. There was shame. There was guilt. There was a sense of unfairness. He hated himself for even thinking that stuff, thinking selfish stuff, thinking at all.

Wasn't he supposed to be the lucky one?

"I did not understand," Dawson said. "I had an awful guilty feeling. Then somebody [years later] – I didn't have any counseling – said, 'Hell, it was shame.' And it was. It was shame I was feeling. I was almost ashamed I wasn't with the other coaches.

"I can't explain it. It was somewhere between guilt and shame."

He paused again. Red Dawson still is a tough guy. He owns his own construction company in West Virginia. At 63, he still is up at 4:15 every morning. But this is 2006. He isn't 27 anymore. He understands now that he has feelings.

"I didn't know anything then about – what do they call it? – 'survivors' guilt?' "

He had it big time, and the nightmares started soon and didn't stop. Actually, it was one nightmare that just kept recurring. Dawson never can remember the details, only the sick feeling it woke him with. It lasted for four, five years. He never told anyone about it. You just didn't back then. It would sound selfish.

"I went through some hellacious times," he said. "But I didn't know anything else to do. I kept it penned up."

Dawson hasn't seen "We Are Marshall," the Warner Bros. film due out Dec. 22 that details the tragedy and subsequent rebirth of Marshall football the following season, in which Dawson was an assistant coach before quitting football for good.

He said he had turned away from the commercials. He didn't read many press accounts. But already it had changed his life.

Dawson never got counseling back in 1970, and he hasn't gotten it now, at least not professionally. But a strange thing happened through talks with the screenwriter, the director, the producers and now the media.

All those terrible feelings that have haunted him all these years have slowly faded. All that guilt and shame has started to wane.

It wasn't what he thought would happen. When the movie talk came up again, so did the memories. One night, he was up at his hunting cabin, where these days he mostly drinks beer and watches football, and for the first time in years he had that same old nightmare again. All of a sudden it was 1970.

"I thought, 'I'm not talking. We're not going to resurrect this crap.' "

But he did wind up talking and talking and talking out of respect for the memory of the dead. The movie would immortalize them. It was important. And then, who would have thunk it, but a big tough guy like Red Dawson found solace in talking it out with these Hollywood people, these movie people, including a director named, of all things, "McG."

"Since I've been asked a lot of questions, talking with the people associated with Warner Bros., talking to a lot of people, it has really been very healthy," Dawson said. "The making of the movie has been very healthy. I'm addressing it.

"The movie has already done me a lot of good. I can't see how it can be a negative thing. If the nightmare comes back one more time, what the heck? It's so much easier for me to talk about it now."

He's wary of that, too, of course. This whole "feelings" thing is all new and not entirely comfortable. He's worried it comes off all wrong.

"When you write this up, it's going to sound like I'm seeking some kind of sympathy," Dawson said. "I'm not. I'm just telling you."

Warner Bros. has rented a motel room in Huntington for Dawson where he can watch the movie alone, as many times as he wants. He expects to cry. He expects to feel a tidal wave of emotion. He expects, well, he expects the worst. And the best.

He's hoping after about three viewings he'll be able to give a speech at the memorial site Tuesday, his first ever, without crying.

"Before there was no way I could get through it," he said. "I might be emotional. I don't know. But I've got my speech with what I need to say."

The old linebacker went back to pausing, thinking about how a movie has changed so much about the event in his life that changed so much. Those 75 people never are coming back – good men, good women, good kids. That tragedy never will wash away.

But one old victim finally is healing.

"I'm going to be OK," he said, confidently now. "I'm going to be OK."