HUNTINGTON — Red Dawson clearly is not a doctor.
So why was the construction business owner and former football coach asked to speak to a room full of doctors, nurses and other medical professionals about post-traumatic stress disorder?
Dawson asked himself that very question Sunday in his keynote speech during the last day of the Family Medicine Weekend and Sports Conference at the Pullman Plaza Hotel.
“I know absolutely nothing about post-traumatic stress disorder. Do I believe I have it? No, I don’t,” he told the audience. “I considered researching it on the Internet before I gave this speech, but I decided not to. I figured there’s nothing I could tell you that you didn’t already know.”
For the next 40 minutes, however, Dawson told his audience about the emotional roller coaster he has experienced in the 37 years since the Marshall University football plane crash.
Dawson was only 27 at the time of the crash — an assistant coach who had a stellar football career at his alma mater Florida State. Rather than fly back with the Marshall team on that foggy, rainy Nov. 14, 1970, night, Dawson, who had been recruiting players, drove.
He joined the Marshall team in Greenville, N.C., the last place he would see his players and friends. The chartered DC-9 jet crashed just short of Tri-State Airport on the way back from Marshall's game against East Carolina in Greenville, killing all 75 aboard.
Dawson spoke of his macho attitude in his younger years and how he was raised to believe that whatever life threw at him, it could not affect his toughness. Then the Marshall plane crash occurred.
“I cried for days,” he said. “At one point, I thought I had dehydrated myself with all the tears I shed.”
Dawson said he initially wanted to run back to his hometown of Valdosta, Ga., rather than face the tragedy. After deciding to stay in Huntington, he began to resent Marshall for the way he was treated after the crash, he said.
His resentment was rooted in him being passed over for the head coaching job and a 1976 newspaper article that implied he had tried to undermine Young Thundering Herd coach Jack Lengyl’s rebuilding efforts, he said.
At the same time, he said he suffered from survivor’s guilt and horrifying nightmares. He also stopped watching football.
“I didn’t start watching football again until 1981 or 1982, but I still refused to go to Marshall games,” he said.
The resentment against Marshall began to crumble during the head coaching tenure of Jim Donnan, Dawson said. Donnan made Dawson feel welcome, as have former coach Bobby Pruett and current coach Mark Snyder, he said.
But it was the movie “We Are Marshall” that helped Dawson cope with his feelings about the plane crash, he said. Long conversations with Matthew Fox, the actor that portrayed Dawson in the movie, were especially helpful.
“The more I talked about the past, the easier it was to talk about,” he said.
Dawson also has learned that humor can be a soothing stress reliever.
“The cure for me was working to the point that you are so tired you can finally go to sleep, Red Man chewing tobacco and the occasional Miller Lite,” he told the audience. “Well, every now and then it was more than occasional. Sometimes you have to increase the dosage. That’s something you doctors should know about.”
During the healing process, though, Dawson said there’s still one question he has not been able to answer.
“I never understood how the good Lord let this happen,” he said. “I intend to ask him that when I get home.”