Blessed with a Lifetime of Football
Wheeler just found out he has cancer.
There… it’s out there now.
Wheeler, who was a tenacious defensive tackle at East Carolina from
1966-70, it’s just the way it is and it’s something he will take on the
only way he knows how — directly.
the only person to have had (cancer),” he said. “And I’m not the only
one who will beat it.”
that’s all Wheeler had to say about that.
George Wheeler, it seems, is to know true determination and an immense
love of the game of football.
(Henry) VanSant recruited me out of a very small mill town in the hills of
the Shenandoah Valley,” Wheeler said. “I saw this steely-eyed, stern
military (type) guy. He was very attractive and I could tell he was a
he stood just 6-1, at 230 pounds Wheeler was recruited as a down
lineman. What he lacked in size, he made up for in toughness — a
byproduct of his prep environment.
“Football was my life… really,” Wheeler said. “In my small town, football
was everything… everything. You played high school football and
then a select few went on to college. The others went right to work.
(High school football) was the zenith of our lives.
L-R George Wheeler, Jamie Lewis, Jim Gudger, and Walter Adams.
(From a 1969 Daily Reflector.)
the old days. You couldn’t take your headgear off until after the game
was finished. I remember all the old mill workers and winos would bet on
the games and afterwards, they would line up on either side of the bus —
we rode a bus back and forth from the school to the municipal stadium —
and if we won, they would stuff half their winnings in our headgear. Of
course, if we lost, they would rock the bus back and forth. It was the
way of life for everyone.”
a scholarship was a huge deal for Wheeler and his family.
was a plumber and I’ll never forget that time,” he said. “My dad was on
workman’s compensation after breaking his leg at work. It was my senior
year and, as it turned out, I broke my ankle after just two games. I
thought all my dreams of playing college football were gone. My dad went
up to the drug store and got me a ‘Reader’s Digest’ that had a story
about all of the different options on how to go to college. He knew he
couldn’t afford to send me, but he still wanted me to go.”
Wheeler’s injury healed in time for him to play in the last two games of
his final prep season. His prep coach had been in touch with East
Carolina and when VanSant came by the high school to watch the team
practice, “it was the first major college coach to come by our high
school in many years.”
Mugshot from a 1969 game program
took film back with him and after some review, East Carolina offered.
(Sam) was a little scared that I would outgrow him,” he recalled. “I’ll
never forget what he told me. He said, ‘I want you to know, you are as
good a (person) as the president of the United State, but I also want
you to know that you are not any better of a person than the poor
homeless person down the street. Be a total person. I want you to go
far in life, but don’t ever forget where you come from. You can get
knocked down in a fight, but the last man standing is the winner, so
don’t be afraid of being knocked down.’
was an old mountain man and a good one. And (the day Wheeler signed the
scholarship) my mother (Francis), was a
proud lady… very proud.”
Wheeler rejoiced inside that his dream would come true. And when he
visited the East Carolina campus, the excitement was driven home.
“Campus… it was the biggest place I had ever been in my life,” Wheeler
said. “To tell you the school (at ECU) was bigger than my home town,
would not be too much of an exaggeration. It was just such a big-time
place. I just loved it. I got to meet the coaches and some of the
players. I had more fun than a barrel of monkeys that weekend of the
Overwhelmed with his new surroundings, Wheeler was equally impressed
with his new coach.
(Clarence Stasavich) Stas? I was mesmerized by him. He was a legend,”
Wheeler said. “He was a very distinguished looking gentleman, everyone
called him the 'Silver Fox'. I thought he was somebody very important,
beyond being a coach. And, he was.”
Carolina assistant coaches
Henry VanSant and Harold Bullard
(From a 1969 game program.)
But it was
the impact that VanSant first had on Wheeler that established the
beginnings of what would be a stellar career. And, it started from Day
freshmen) were all sitting in the room, about 120 or us,” he recalled.
“All of a sudden, we heard these wingtip shoes coming down the hall on
those hard tile floors. ‘Pop! Pop! Pop!’ It was like the opening scene
of ‘Patton’ — and in walks Coach VanSant.
said, ‘How many state champions do we have in here?’ A guy jumps up here
and then another there. Then he asked, ‘How many of you only lost one
game last season?’ Finally, he looked at us and said, ‘Take a look
around this room because in a month, that guy in front you, the one to
your right, the one to your left and the one behind you. They won’t be
there long.’ I looked behind me, in front of me, left, and right and I
see all these big stallions and thought, ‘They all think I’ll be the one
who is not here.’ But I had nowhere to go and had to find a way to
fear of VanSant instilled in the young Wheeler, it became abundantly
clear very quickly that the diatribe was not mere lip service.
these two GAs (graduate assistant coaches),” Wheeler said. “Corey
McCray… he was supposed to be a real player and he had some serious guns
on him and I looked at him and was thinking, ‘Who is this guy?.’ And they
had another guy, the darndest fella I ever seen in my life, with these
big Coke bottle glasses, John McFall. He was the meanest, nastiest,
quickest outside linebacker I’ve ever seen in my life. (One practice) he
grabbed me by the facemask and was chinning himself on the facemask.
Lord have mercy, what a man. These were my coaches and this was every
day life as a freshman.
always so hot and that first week, like Coach VanSant said, we had some fellas leave in the middle of the night
— literally. The ones that
stayed, we became the closest knit people I’ve ever known in my life.
Guys like Butch Colson who was the toughest guy on that (freshman) team.
Playing beside Don Tyson, who was going to do anything he had to, to win
a scholarship. Guys like Stu Garrett, whose mom and dad worked at a
bakery, he kept us all fed. These were tough guys and these were the
closest friends I ever had.”
freshman team goes down in ECU history as one of the most talented teams
fielded at East Carolina and formed the foundation of the school’s
ascension in Division I football.
to go against the varsity all the time and we were better than they were
at that time. We had tougher and nastier players and we made it awfully
tough on them,” he said. “Coach Stas would get all mad and fuss at his
guys and tell them how we meant business. So going through winter
conditioning and before spring ball, we had a freshman versus the
varsity track meet — and we whipped them there, too.”
is quick to point out that the varsity Pirates were not slouches with
players like Kevin Moran, who was "as good as any ever to play” and Jim Flowe who was a “fantastic player.” Also, guys like tailback Neil Hughes,
whom Wheeler considered as simply “the best player, pound-for-pound, that
I ever saw in my lifetime” and Billy Whiteman who was “another
just that the freshmen all “meshed” perfectly together, as demonstrated
by their last game in 1966.
truly a great team,” Wheeler said. “I’ll never forget that last game as
a freshman. Coach VanSant was so nervous that he told the secretary that
he would gladly take a 3-0 win. We ended up winning in the 60s against
some junior college.”
success carried forward for Wheeler and he came to know, firsthand, the
fire in Stasavich.
sophomore year, we opened at William and Mary,” he said. “I’m from
Virginia and the quarterback there was from my hometown, so I was really
excited. It was during Hurricane Camille and we pull in and they got all
these Coca-Colas there. Well, we were sponsored by Pepsi and Stas made
them take all of the Coca-Cola out of there. He also wouldn’t let us eat
the steak (for pregame). Instead, he gave us pancakes. We ended up
winning in that hurricane and after the game; the press asked coach,
‘you think the weather made a difference?’
said, ‘It rained on them Indians, but it didn’t rain on our Pirates… and
that’s just a shame, huh?’”
was what he said to Wheeler on the bus ride home that got the sophomore
pushing himself even harder.
looked at me and said, ‘Boy, did you make a play out there today?’ I
said, ‘I think so.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s a start.’ (Stas) was
something else. He was a great man. I had great coaches and great people
Wheeler (Center in striped tie) and
fellow Pirates on the road.
how it was with those (coaches). I remember our freshmen team, couldn’t
nobody control us… we were like a bunch of renegades, but when Henry’s
car came around the corner, everyone would scatter back to your little
cubby hole. One time, he came to our room. My roommate, Bill Tucker, who
is a lawyer now, was studying and I grabbed a book to look like I was
doing school work, and VanSant looked in and said, ‘How you doing?’ and I
said, ‘I’m just studying coach.’ And he looked at me and says, ‘I’m
proud of you… but you might learn more if you turn that book upright.’”
it is obvious how much Stasavich and VanSant influenced the young
Wheeler, it was another teacher that, perhaps, set him on his true
really owe a lot to the swim coach, Ray Martinez,” he said. “This guy
raked me over the coals during a freshman tennis class. I would hang out
in the back all the time, trying to conserve energy for football
practice. I was goofing off and he comes back there and pulverizes me,
telling me if I didn’t like the class, I should take my butt out of
there. He told me if I chose to return, I better treat his class as if
it was the most important hour of my life.”
Martinez’s words had a profound impact on Wheeler’s psyche.
to come back. Martinez is the reason I went on to graduate school. What
a motivator. He was a true teacher and he showed me I could do it… he
knew how to challenge me. I really owe my academic success to him.”
Martinez helped Wheeler identify his ability to be more as a student,
it was Coach Stasavich who forced him to become a man.
to say this, but I failed out of school as a freshman,” he said. “I was
chasing women, drinking beer, and playing football. I remember I needed
to complete five hours of Bs and an hour of an A in order to maintain
eligibility. I had no money for summer school, so, since I was the man,
I walked into Coach Stas’ office and asked him if he would pay for
wasn’t the man.
looked at me and said, ‘You’re a dummy,’” Wheeler said. “I always would
stand up to him and I said, ‘I’m your starter, coach.’ And he said, ‘No,
you’re my flunked out lineman. Boy, you can’t make it here… you need to
go to Vietnam.’”
Stasavich shook Wheeler up with that one and went on to tell his player
that he had half the summer to work and earn enough money to pay for
second session and then earn the grades.
worked on this steel roof crew and ended up with blisters from elbows to
hands,” he said. “I worked hard for six weeks and saved every penny I
made so I could go to summer school. I remember getting to the Registrar
and had just enough money to pay for tuition. I had just 35 dollars left
over. I mean, tears rolled down my cheeks. I remember thinking, ‘That
man (Stas) is right, I am a dummy. Now I am buying what I was getting
for free.’ But, I made six hours of A’s and I was eligible. From then
on, I was on either the Honor Roll or Dean’s List the rest of the way.
brought me by his office when I was in Graduate School and I asked him
one day, ‘Coach, if I didn’t come up with the money for summer school,
you’d have paid, right?’ And he said, ‘No boy, you had to do that
yourself. There would have been somebody to take your place on the
Wheeler as an assistant
at South Carolina State.
(Photo from SCSU SID.)
graduated in 1971 from Graduate School and couldn’t resist the lure of
coaching. And, ending two years ago after retiring, Wheeler has had some
amazing experiences as a 29-year coach.
retired in 2000 after a decade at South Carolina State University, where
he coached the likes of Robert Porcher and Chartric Darby.
path to his final coaching assignment contained a number of great
experiences, starting with a stint at North Carolina A&T University.
really nervous about that job,” Wheeler said, recognizing that if he
were to commit to A&T, he would be the first-ever white coach at the
predominantly black school in Greensboro. “I called Coach Stas for
advice, and all he would say is, ‘It’s a college coaching job, right?’
And, I’d say, ‘Yes sir.’ And Coach Stas would say, ‘You want to be a
college coach, right?’ And, I’d say, ‘Yes sir.’ And Coach would say,
‘Then, what’s the problem?’
trying to get me to say that I was worried about being the only white
coach. I got the point and I took the job.”
success at A&T, Wheeler headed for an interview at the University of
Arkansas with then-head coach Lou Holts, where fate would intervene in
my wife (Florence Shaffner) on the flight to Arkansas,” he said. “She
was a flight attendant.”
Florence, who is now the rock of support for Wheeler in his battle to
beat cancer, has her own place in history. Florence was a flight
attendant on one of the most famous flights in American history. Though
it was just another day of work for her, to history, it was the day that
D.B. Cooper leapt from the commercial airliner with a bag of dough,
never to be heard from again.
to Wheeler, it becomes quickly apparent that he and Florence have a
special marriage. Even in recounting his career, she is clearly an avid
fan — of her coach, if not the sport he loves so much.
Wheeler instructs his players at S.C. State. (Photo from SCSU SID.)
and Arkansas were just too good to turn down, so Wheeler made the play.
Holts is the greatest coach I have ever had the pleasure to work with,”
Wheeler said. “He is an educator and a excellent tactician. It doesn’t
surprise me one bit (the success his former mentor went on to have at
Notre Dame and now South Carolina). He is a great friend and that staff at Arkansas
was one of the greatest I have been around.”
then moved, in 1978, to the Midwest to join Warren Powers’ University of
Missouri staff where he coached until 1982, before giving the
professional ranks a try.
Wheeler went to the USFL to coach the defensive line for friend Chuck
Fairbanks with the New Jersey Generals, where he got the pleasure to
help mentor former Georgia great Herschel Walker.
didn’t really coach him,” Wheeler laughed. “Coach Fairbanks always would
say, ‘You don’t coach Herschel. People are coming to the stadium to see
him run, not you coach.’”
with coaching great players, the New Jersey Generals also gave Wheeler
his first taste of the worst of football when Manhattan mogul Donald
Trump bought the team.
know, the season had ended and the team owed me a month’s pay and I went
to go collect it,” he said. “I guess if I had known who Trump was, I
wouldn’t have said what I did, but when they told me that Trump had
bought the team, I said he better pay me or I’ll get a lawyer. Well
Trump was standing over there and came over and said, ‘You tell me who
your lawyer is, and I’ll buy him.’ That Trump is a classless fellow.”
enough to make Wheeler yearn to be back in the college ranks, so he
returned to Missouri and coached on Woody Widenhofer’s staff.
Eventually, he landed in South Carolina, where he joined the staff at
South Carolina State and decided to make his permanent home.
Wheeler paces along the sidelines at S.C.
State. (Photo from SCSU
retired two years ago and is now a sales executive for TNT Fireworks,
Inc. But, he will always be a coach by title and trade. It was, after all,
coaches who most affected his life.
been probably one of the most demanding football coaches who ever
coached,” Wheeler said of his style. “As a player, I always wanted to
make every play. As a coach, I demanded that same mentality from my
players. I wanted my players to give me all they had at all times. Coach VanSant had a great handle on that formula. It’s not much different than
a business deal. We got to make this a good
thing for both of us. Football is no different. The coach has to deliver
on what he promises and the player must deliver his own. That’s
honesty… those principles must be there. Then you never have to worry
credits his players and his former coaches and teammates for ALL of his
has been like a piece of driftwood going down a stream,” he said.
“Everytime I get washed ashore, somebody picked me up and put me back in
the stream. There have always been good people always there to show me
the right way. I don’t know, maybe I’ve attracted those kinds of people
in my life. People have cared about me. I owe my life to other people,
from my mom’s kindness and my father’s toughness to my teammates — a
group of guys who would give me the shirts off their backs. They have
always come through for me.
football… football has been a God-send to me. It has been a blessing all
despite his diagnosis, Wheeler still feels he has been blessed. And,
like a true Pirate, he believes.
“I’ve just started the
long haul with this chemotherapy,” he said. “With the grace of God, good
doctors, and the strength of my family and friends, I have the will to
win and beat this thing.”
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