Former Marshall Wide Receiver Brian Dowler Talks 75-Yard Touchdown and Its Link to the Tragic 1970 Plane Crashby Sam Gordon November 14, 2019 1 comment
On this day in 1970, Southern Airways Flight 932 was on its final descent to Runway 11 when it collided with treetops and crashed on a hillside, killing all 75 people on board.
Among those lost were 37 Marshall University football players, eight coaching staff members, including head coach Rick Tolley, 25 team boosters, and five flight crew members.
The accident left the town of Huntington, W.V., in tears, the football program in tatters and on the brink of shutting down after the biggest sports-related air tragedy in American history.
But with the persistence of the team’s surviving players, fans, and coaches Jack Lengyel and William “Red” Dawson, Marshall University knocked off Xavier at Fairfield Stadium in a stunning upset on Sept. 25, 1971, less than 11 months after the tragic accident.
20 years after that victory, the Marshall University football team christened a new home in Joan C. Edwards Stadium. In a magical moment, with his future wife cheering on the sideline, senior wide receiver Brian Dowler scored the first touchdown in the stadium’s history.
“For some strange reason, I had the feeling that I was going to be the first one to score a touchdown in the new stadium,” Dowler told Prime Time Sports Talk. “Don’t ask me why, but I believe it was a feature of the relationship I had established with the quarterback Michael Payton and all the work we had put in over the summer leading up to that season in 1991.”
A 75-yard score in tribute to the 75 who lost their lives that fateful day 49 years ago.
“The feelings just don’t change. I live in Atlanta, Ga., now, but on this day you just get chills,” Dowler said. “Understanding what happened in 1970, having been a part of that community even as a young man 21 years after it happened, it’s very powerful in that community [because] there were several boosters of the Marshall football program who had lost parents in that plane crash.”
These boosters were among the 70 children who lost at least one parent that night with 18 of them becoming orphans as a result.
“They were around the football team, we would spend time with them and talk to them before a game,” Dowler said. “It was very real.”
The crash and rise of the Marshall football team has been further immortalized by the film, We Are Marshall, which Dowler says is a historically sound film.
“The movie was very accurate,” Dowler said. “Some of the ones who lost family members in that plane crash made cameo appearances in the movie and if you were to talk to some people there now, they would have the same confidence about it.”
One of the main struggles labeled in the film was getting a full team on the field. Lengyel and then-Marshall vice president Donald Dedmon petitioned the NCAA to let them play freshman at the varsity level. They also filled the team with many athletes from other sports who had never even played football in their lives.
The team adopted the name the Young Thundering Herd as a result of the number of freshmen and people playing the sport for the first time on the team.
Marshall lost more games than any other college in the country in the 1970s, but it did not matter to the fans and students as long as they still had football.
The team, coached by Stan Parrish, had their first winning season in 20 years in 1984 with a 6-5 record.
Marshall lost the Division I-AA championship in Dowler’s senior year, but his head coach Jim Donnan brought them back the next year in 1992 to capture the I-AA crown.
The school also has had numerous Heisman Trophy finalists including Chad Pennington, Byron Leftwich, and Randy Moss, who Dowler coached in 1996.
“It’s hard to pick one [most memorable] thing,” Dowler said. “The thing that resonates the most is the brotherhood you develop with the teammates and coaches that you worked with on a day-to-day basis. We stay in touch, there have been several of my teammates who have fallen in recent years. I’m sure a lot of schools have it, it’s not just a Marshall thing but the brotherhood and camaraderie you develop is unmatched.”
On the campus of the school stands a memorial fountain that runs every day but today. For 24 hours on this day, the fountain stands dormant and quiet with the splashes of water replaced with silence in honor of the 75.
A community that stands together and is one of the many things Dowler will not forget about his time in Huntington, W.V.
“This time of year, what separates and makes it much more special is that [this community knows] it can all be taken away from you so quickly,” Dowler said. “[We will all never forget] the young men and women who died in that plane crash.”