A TRIUMPH OF WILL

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Even without knowing its significance, a visitor would be mesmerized by the fountain on the campus of Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. Water flows from the top of 75 strands of steel shaped and forged to look like a gigantic flower. On this particular autumn Saturday morning, the steady trickle is the only sound on a campus that will soon shake with cheers.

They love the Thundering Herd in Huntington. Stand anywhere in this Rust Belt, Bible Belt city of 60,000, twirl around, and you will see at least one green-and-white GO HERD sign. Young and old are wearing shirts and hats with the Heisman Trophy symbol and MARSHALL 88 on them--acknowledging the presence among them of wide receiver and Heisman Trophy candidate Randy Moss. Last year the Herd went 15-0 to win the national championship of 1-AA. This year, in its 100th season of college football, Marshall is playing in Division 1 for the first time in a long, long time, and it has a chance to go 11-2 and win the championship of the Mid-American Conference (MAC), the conference that once expelled it. These are great days to be one with the Herd.

There is a day, however, that Marshall would like to forget. Last week the water in the fountain was turned off until next spring, the football players gathered for a solemn ceremony, three wreaths were placed at the foot of the fountain, and taps was played one more time. Under a cloudy sky, people close to Marshall recalled Nov. 14, 1970. But then they remember that date on an almost continual basis. As Marshall football coach and former Herd running back Bob Pruett says, "I think I speak for a lot of people when I tell you that on that day, the bottom of my heart fell out."

High above James F. Edwards Field, Keith Morehouse, the play-by-play man for the Thundering Herd Network, and color commentator Ulmo ("Sonny") Randle are calling third-quarter action for viewers of Marshall's game with visiting Eastern Michigan University. Actually, the broadcasters are gently chiding Marshall fans for being too quiet.

"Seems like a fog of lethargy has fallen on the crowd, Sonny."

"They might be spoiled by all this success, Keith. Or else they're worried about turning their clocks back tonight."

"First down, Marshall...and there's some polite golf applause...It wasn't that long ago that these fans would cheer louder for a long incomplete pass."

Indeed, Marshall has the winningest football program in America in the '90s. But in the '70s, Marshall's was the losingest team in the nation--22 wins in 10 years. The Herd had one 12-game losing streak and two 10-game losing streaks. A petition was even circulated around campus to drop football. Had Marshall done that, though, the tragedy would have deepened. "Seventy-five people would have died in vain," says Morehouse.

On Nov. 14, 1970, Marshall lost a 17-14 heartbreaker at East Carolina--its sixth defeat in nine games. Still, as the players, coaches and boosters boarded the Southern Airways DC-9 in Greenville, N.C., there was the feeling of promise, as well as of escape from the winless seasons of '67 and '68 and a subsequent recruiting scandal that had got Marshall thrown out of the MAC.

It was a rainy, windy night, and none of the crew members had ever landed at Tri-State Airport, which is located on a tabletop plateau close to the Kentucky-West Virginia-Ohio border. At 7:42 p.m., as it was about to land, the plane clipped the tops of the trees west of Runway 11 and crashed into an Appalachian hillside with a full load of fuel. Onboard the plane were 37 players, 25 supporters, eight coaches and five crew members. None of them survived the fiery crash, the worst ever involving an American sports team. One of the victims was sportscaster Gene Morehouse, who was also the school's sports-information director and the father of six children.

"I was nine years old at the time," says Keith. "All I knew was that I had lost my father. I didn't think about all the doctors and civic leaders and coaches and players, all the other children who lost parents in the crash, all the parents who lost children."

The force of the blow to the city of 60,000 and the college of 9,000 was immeasurable. Among those lost in the crash were head coach Rick Tolley and athletic director Charles Kautz, four physicians, a city councilman, a state legislator, a car dealer and several prominent businessmen. And the pain wasn't confined to Huntington alone. Four of the players--including Ted Shoebridge, the starting quarterback, and Arthur Harris Jr., the team's leading rusher and pass receiver--were from northern New Jersey. As fate would have it, Arthur Harris Sr. was also on the plane because he had been offered a seat by assistant coach Deke Brackett. And as fate would have it, assistant coach William ("Red") Dawson was not on the plane. It had been decided that he, along with graduate assistant Gale Parker, would drive back from North Carolina in the car that Dawson had been using for a recruiting trip.

Parker and Dawson heard about the crash on the car radio. Keith Morehouse was home watching The Newlywed Game with his mother and his twin sister when the bulletin flashed across the screen. "My mother shrieked and started making frantic phone calls," Keith recalls. "People started coming over, and it was a blur after that." Longtime Huntington residents can tell you without hesitation where they were when they first heard the news--at the drive-in movie theater, in a restaurant, at a dance. Jack Hardin, a police reporter for the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, rushed to the airport not knowing what plane had gone down. When a Baptist minister, who had got to the crash site before him, showed him a wallet and asked him if he knew the name Lionel Theodore Shoebridge Jr., Hardin thought, "Oh, my God."

The task of identifying the bodies was both excruciating and excruciatingly slow. A wake was held in Lyndhurst, N.J., for Teddy Shoebridge even before his body was positively identified. Six victims were never identified; today, those six bodies are buried in adjacent graves next to a monument in Spring Hill Cemetery, which overlooks the Marshall campus.

The task of rebuilding the football team fell briefly to Dawson, then to new coach Jack Lengyel. Thankfully, a few of the players from the 1970 squad had not made the East Carolina trip because of injuries, and the NCAA gave Marshall special permission to play freshmen. President Richard Nixon sent Lengyel a letter of encouragement, writing, "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 squad on the field."

The "Young Thundering Herd," as Lengyel labeled it, did win two games that season, the first a miraculous 15-13 win over Xavier in the second game of the year. But Marshall settled into a perfectly understandable futility after that '71 season. Sonny Randle, the great NFL receiver, arrived in 1979 to breathe fire into the program, and while he did lay the foundation for the future, he left Marshall after winning 12 games and losing 42 in five seasons. In 1984 the team had its first winning season in 20 years, and the Herd hasn't had a losing season since. In 1992 host Marshall defeated Youngstown State, 31-28, to win the Division 1-AA championship.

Covering that game for WOWK-TV in Huntington was Keith Morehouse. "I don't think I was consciously trying to follow in my father's footsteps," he says, "but that's the way it turned out." He enrolled at Marshall in the fall of '79 as a broadcast-journalism major and covered the football team for the school newspaper. By then, he had already met his future bride. The summer after his senior year in high school, Keith was in Myrtle Beach, S.C., when he ran into Debbie Hagley, a girl from a different Huntington high school. "I knew immediately who she was because the names of the victims are emblazoned in the minds of all the survivors," says Keith. Her father and mother, Dr. Ray Hagley and Shirley Hagley, were on that plane, and left behind six children. "I didn't have it easy," says Keith, "but she had it much tougher than I did."

Bonded by the tragedy, Keith and Debbie Morehouse were married in 1985. They have a 6-year-old son, Lake, who is already an avid Thundering Herd fan. "He's got a football autographed by coach Pruett," says Keith, "and one of those big foam No. 1 hands. Debbie also decorated his room in green-and-white wallpaper."

Over lunch at a steak house outside Huntington, some men are talking about Randy Moss, the wonderfully gifted wide receiver whom Marshall inherited after 1) Notre Dame turned him away because of a battery charge, and 2) Florida State kicked him out when he admitted to having smoked marijuana. In the eyes of Marshall boosters, however, Moss's biggest crime is insensitivity. It seems he was quoted earlier this fall as having said the plane crash was "nothing big" to him.

"Give him a break," says the tall, impressive-looking man in work clothes. "I'm sure he didn't know what he was saying. People around here don't like the way he wears his hair in braids or the rap music he plays. Heck, I used to get kidded for wearing a crewcut and listening to Hank Williams. 'Course, I wasn't as good a receiver as he was."

Red Dawson--the speaker--was pretty good though. And like Moss, he was a blessing to Marshall from Florida State. Dawson arrived in Huntington in 1968 after a brief stint as a tight end for the Boston Patriots. He was an All-America at Florida State, the "other end" down the line from legend Fred Biletnikoff. "Freddy used to say one of the hardest times he was ever hit was when I ran the wrong route and collided with him," says Dawson. "I'm here to tell you, it was Freddy who ran the wrong route."

Dawson is president of the successful Red Dawson Construction Co. in Huntington. He loves his work, he loves his family, he loves his golf, he loves West Virginia. "The Old Master's blessed me real good," he says.

Some people might disagree. Dawson was handed an almost unbearable burden the night of Nov. 14, 1970. The assistant coach, all of 27 years old, had been with those 75 people that day. But when they boarded the plane, he got into his car. He might have been with them. He might have been spared the pain, the guilt.

Red doesn't like to talk about that night. Who would? But he remembers. Here is a man, after all, who casually mentions that the play he called from the press box to beat Xavier in the second game of the '71 season was a "2-13 bootleg screen" from quarterback Reggie Oliver, clear across the field to Terry Gardner.

Dawson left the Marshall football program after that season, partly because he could sense that he was reminding others of the tragedy, partly because he wanted to get away from football. "I love this area, so I never thought about moving," he says. "I just got a job with a friend's construction company as a trainee. Basically, it was hard labor, and it was the best thing for me. Took my mind off things."

Dawson is not a morose man or one given to introspection. But in an unguarded moment, Red does reveal a little of his anguish. "The worst part," he says, "was trying to tell the parents of players I recruited, people who had welcomed me into their living rooms, how sorry I was that their sons were on that plane." When he says that, his eyes seem to want to cry, but can't. It's as if they're tapped out.

From his distant vantage point, Dawson has watched over the 1970 Marshall football family. When the son of one of the crash victims got himself into some trouble a few years back, Dawson became his unofficial guardian. When the parents of Ted Shoebridge came down from Lyndhurst for the induction of their son into the Marshall Hall of Fame in 1990, Dawson was there to meet them at the airport.

The last two Marshall coaches, Jim Donnan and Bob Pruett, have made it a point to make Dawson feel welcome. Red was on the sidelines when the Herd won its national championship in '92, and this year Pruett invited him to be the honorary assistant coach for the season opener against West Virginia--the first time the two schools had met since 1923.

"We lost 42-31, even though we had the lead after three quarters," says Dawson. "Coach Pruett later said that he let me coach the fourth quarter. But I had a great old time on the sidelines. I was yelling so loud that I thought the referees might penalize me. Never thought I'd be yelling on the sidelines of a Marshall game ever again."

At a kitchen table in Lyndhurst, Yolanda Shoebridge presents a pile of newspaper clippings, programs and magazines to a visitor. They all sing the praises of quarterback Ted Shoebridge Jr. "He is a bright, intelligent young man and an excellent playmaker," the 1970 Marshall football program said of the junior quarterback. Indeed, Shoebridge set 18 passing records at Marshall, and his stats compared favorably with other star college quarterbacks at the time--Terry Bradshaw, Joe Theisman, Jim Plunkett, Dan Pastorini. His path seemed headed for the NFL.

"He was a great kid," she says. "We'd drive down to Huntington for his games, and he would always be looking for us to arrive. And when we did, he'd run over to us, pick each of us up in his arms and twirl us around. I once said, 'Teddy, aren't you afraid of showing affection in front of your teammates?' and he said, 'Nah, I'm the starting quarterback.'"

The Shoebridges didn't travel down to Greenville for the East Carolina game. They watched their second son Thomas play for Lyndhurst High that day, then came home to scan the TV for the Marshall result. "We couldn't figure out why there was no score," Yolanda remembers. "Then came the knock at our door. It was our parish priest." Somebody at Marshall, knowing the Shoebridges were devout Catholics, had asked the priest to deliver the news.

Yolanda and Ted Sr., an auto mechanic, had their two other sons to raise: Tom, who became a teacher and track and football coach at Lyndhurst High, and Terry, a former Milwaukee Brewer minor leaguer who is now an accountant. But the loss of Teddy took so much out of them. "People say it gets better over time," says Yolanda, "but it only gets worse. My husband stopped going to church, and for years he refused to go with me to Teddy's gravesite. He bought all of Teddy's game films for $1,200 but then couldn't bear to watch them. The films are still in the basement, unopened." When Marshall decided to induct Ted Jr. into its Hall of Fame in 1990, Yolanda and Ted Sr. flew to Huntington--but only at the urging of their sons. "It was a good thing to do," she says. "Seeing Red Dawson again, talking to people who knew Teddy eased the pain a little."

Ted Sr. died last year, and now Yolanda lives with Tom. Their living room is filled with pictures of the whole family, but the most prominent keepsakes are Teddy's old Marshall helmet and an oil painting of a handsome young man in a green No. 14 jersey.

During Saturday home games at Lyndhurst High, Yolanda sits under the scoreboard dedicated to her son and watches a quarterback who could have been his son. She goes home and looks for the Marshall score on TV; these days she usually smiles at the result. At bedtime she performs her nightly ritual of reading a Mother's Day card that Ted Jr. once sent her.

Hers is a fountain that flows every day, keeping the memory alive.