VALDOSTA — For more than 30 years, “Red” Dawson couldn’t talk about it.
Who could blame him? The Valdosta native had lived through a thing of nightmare, a terror that lurks beneath the subconscious. What would you do if almost everyone you worked with, people entrusted to your care, were suddenly killed? And you weren’t there? You survived?
That’s what “Red” Dawson has had to endure.
On Nov. 14, 1970, 75 Marshall University football coaches, players, a few parents, fans and the crew died in a plane crash in Wayne County, W.Va. Less than a handful of players weren’t on board. One assistant coach was on the road recruiting when the plane went down.
That assistant coach was “Red” Dawson.
Now, the aftermath of the Marshall University crash is the subject of a movie, “We Are Marshall,” which opened this weekend, starring Matthew McConaughey as Coach Jack Lengyel and Matthew Fox as “Red” Dawson.
Dawson, who grew up in Valdosta, played football for Valdosta High, and still has family here — mother Lucille White and sister Lucille Sineath — spoke to The Valdosta Daily Times by phone a few days before his scheduled Christmas visit to Valdosta.
The Crash has always been a very public tragedy, but Dawson’s very private pain is now being portrayed by the actor best known for his role in the television show “Lost.” How difficult has it been to have The Crash resurrected as a Hollywood movie?
“It was a healing process,” says Dawson, who participated deeply with Warner Brothers on the film. “I can’t tell you how much. For 35 years, I didn’t talk about it. I kept it all inside. I didn’t address the issue. Emotionally, I just couldn’t talk about it. But it seems to me since the movie started, it’s been easier to talk about it. The more I’ve talked about it, the easier it’s become.”
At first, Dawson was reluctant to see Hollywood make a movie about The Crash and Marshall’s struggles to continue a football program. He was reluctant to participate in the project. At first.
Dawson figured, though, a movie would be made with or without his blessing. He decided to participate in its development to ensure that it paid honor to his fallen friends and players. Since he had been written into the script as a major character, Dawson also wanted to ensure the movie remained true to him.
“I’m sure I could have raised enough hell I’m sure nobody would have wanted
anything to do with me in the movie,” he says. “But I decided to participate and make sure they represented a positive view of Marshall University. Once filming started, I wanted to make sure that Warner Brothers was sensitive to the families. And I wanted to see that they made a positive film and that they portrayed what happened and myself in a way that was true.”
To learn if he believed Matthew Fox was the right person to play him, Dawson would have to overcome more than not talking about what happened. He would have to do something else he had refused to do since The Crash.
“Red” Dawson would have to fly.
Fox was in Hawaii filming “Lost.” For Dawson to visit him, he would have to fly to Hawaii. Dawson steeled himself for the journey with a principle he repeats several times: “I’m too old to die young.”
He flew to Hawaii and has flown several time since. That flight also led to a friendship.
Dawson and Fox hit it off. They met several times. Dawson met Fox’s wife and children. Fox steered Dawson and brother Rhett Dawson through the rigors of the movie’s Hollywood premiere. They have stayed in touch and have discussed a possible fishing trip together.
“We had a lot in common to start with, but we hit it off real good,” Dawson says of Fox. “I’ve got a friend for life.”
As for the movie, Dawson has seen it several times. Warner Brothers gave him a copy to watch privately, which he did, twice. He attended the premiere in Huntington, W.Va., the home of Marshall University, and he attended the Hollywood premiere. Watching the movie was difficult each time, he says.
But Dawson feels the movie is “true” to what happened.
“It’s not exactly factual,” Dawson says. “I tell people if they want to watch a movie that is factual, they should go back and watch the documentary. And there is a little bit of Hollywood fluff. I mean Matthew McConaughey, the Sexiest Man Alive, playing Jack Lengyel ... that’s Hollywood fluff. And Matthew Fox playing me, maybe, too. But the movie is told very well and it gets to the truth of it.”
Dawson and Lengyel have spent much of the past several weeks being interviewed. They were both featured on ABC last week. Dawson is tiring, however, of the interviews and attention.
For the movie’s release this weekend, he decided to get away and come home to Valdosta for Christmas. He will spend time with family here and get in some quail hunting with lifelong friends Buddy Coleman and Frank King.
With the movie released, the interviews will subside. The media glare will fade again. But “Red” Dawson has the satisfaction of knowing he can talk about The Crash.
VALDOSTA — For more than 30 years, “Red” Dawson couldn’t talk about it.
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