Dadeville coach reflects on mass shooting and the loss of star player Phil Dowdell

Published 8:00 am Friday, July 14, 2023

WEST POINT — Valley native and current Dadeville High head football coach Rog McDonald was the guest speaker at Thursday’s noon-hour meeting of the West Point Rotary Club. The year 2023 has been a very difficult year for him, and he talked about that at the Thursday meeting.

He lost his mother, Ellen, a few weeks ago. She passed away after a lengthy illness on May 21. A little more than a month before that, on April 15, he experienced a community tragedy in Dadeville that made national news. According to published reports, four people were killed and 32 injured in a mass shooting at a Sweet 16 birthday party in downtown Dadeville.

McDonald said he could not get into any details of the shooting. In May, a Tallapoosa County Grand Jury handed down indictments against five defendants in the Dadeville mass shooting on charges of reckless murder as well as new assault charges related to the 25 shooting victims who survived. It’s possible a trial could take place this fall.

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One thing about this horrible incident McDonald wanted to get across was that it was not a situation where Dadeville people were shooting at other Dadeville people. 

“We are a close-knit community where everyone loves each other,” he said. “Dadeville is a small town, and like most small towns, many people are kin to each other, and everyone gets along.”

One of the people killed, Phil Dowdell, had been the star player on the Dadeville Tigers football team coached by McDonald. He was just 18 years old and was excited about taking his game to the college level. He had signed to play with Jacksonville State University. He was also excited about the birthday party he was attending. It was his baby sister who was turning 16.

McDonald said he would never forget that Saturday night the shooting took place. He was at the family’s Still Waters home with his wife, Vicky, daughter, Jamey, and son, Will, when Jamey, a Dadeville High senior, noticed on social media that a mass shooting had occurred at the birthday party.

“I went to the downtown square as fast as I could,” McDonald said. “When I got there, it was total chaos with police cars, ambulances and fire trucks everywhere.”

McDonald was able to get to the door where the party had been taking place. He saw an unbelievable scene of many shell casings scattered on the floor and several bodies covered with sheets.

“There’s no way you can ever be prepared for something like that,” he said. “It seemed like I was in something you see on TV.”

One positive takeaway for him was the professionalism shown by the police officers and paramedics on the scene.

The loss of Phil Dowdell was especially hard for McDonald and anyone who knew him. 

“He was a special, special young man,” McDonald said.

According to reports, Dowdell went to the party to alert people that he’d heard a rumor that someone was coming with a gun. His mother, who attended the party, had gotten word of the same rumor. She turned on the lights and demanded that anyone who had a gun had to leave. No one left, and she turned the lights back off. The DJ said the party stopped when a person carrying a gun was turned away at the door. The shooting inside the building broke out about an hour later, at approximately 10:34 p.m. CDT.

“It was such a terrible day,” McDonald said, “but the town came together. There were candlelight vigils with hundreds of people. The building was at full capacity for Phil’s funeral. There were 750 people there, and many more were turned away. The national media was there for several days. The BBC was there. I was scheduled to have an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN.”

McDonald said he sensed that the national media assumed it was a case where Dadeville kids were shooting at other Dadeville kids.

A number of those wounded in the shootout were Dadeville High students. Some were football players.

“One of my linemen was wounded in the backside,” McDonald said. “At first, they told him the bullet would not have to be removed. He had to have it taken out later because they needed it for evidence.”

One of the girls at the party was wounded in the head. She miraculously survived and is on her way to recovery.

It was a tense scene when the three accused men were brought into the Tallapoosa County Courthouse in Dadeville for their arraignment. 

“They had them in bulletproof vests,” McDonald said.

The shooting occurred before Dadeville High’s track team could compete in the region and state finals. Sadly, Phil Dowdell would not be there to defend state championships in the 100 and 200-meter runs.

“Without Phil, there was just no way for us to do well, or that’s what everyone thought,” McDonald said.

It seemed that Phil’s spirit was there, inspiring the team to perform like champions.

“We got points from people who had never gotten points before,” McDonald said. “A ninth grader came from nowhere to have strong finishes in the shot put, and Antoine Woody, Phil’s counterpart at wide receiver, won the 100 and 200 meters. He’d never won in those events before. When we asked him after the races why he did so well, he told us it was like some force was moving his feet. There had to be an unseen hand in this.”

McDonald said he was very proud of the mature way his Dadeville kids had been dealing with the tragedy.

“They have moved on, but they will live with it forever,” he said. “We’d never had any training to handle something like this. We appreciate so much the support we have gotten from other communities and other schools. It means so much to us.”