A Speed Merchant Takes Time to Reflect
Mentors, fleet feet carried Eddie Hicks
to an unforgettable ECU career
Photo: ECU SID
It was 1975 and the
Pirates were in Chapel Hill, facing the Tar Heels in a game that, if all
went as planned, the home team would win over their smaller neighbors to
the east. It was early in the game and, surprisingly, the Pirates had
jumped out to a lead. Then-coach
Pat Dye sent out a freshman, an
unheralded kid from Henderson, NC. What followed was a debut that few
Pirates fans from back in the day will ever forget.
On his first play from
scrimmage, a young Eddie Hicks took a handoff from quarterback Mike
Weaver, slipped the line of scrimmage, and glided down the field for a
68-yard touchdown. He appeared effortless and, on that day, there was
truly not a North Carolina player who could catch the blazing Hicks. He
followed with a three-touchdown performance to lead a rousing 38-17
shellacking of the Tar Heels and, in doing so, began to etch his name
into the fabric of ECU football. It was an unforgettable performance for
a sure-fire future Pirates Hall-of-Famer.
“Well… no doubt my
greatest moment (as a Pirate) was the first day I got a start,” Hicks
said. “It was against North Carolina. They put me in and the first play
from scrimmage was 68 yards for touchdown up the middle. I think I went
on to score three touchdowns and we did what no other East Carolina team
has done since (in beating UNC).”
The greatness of that
moment was a foreshadow to what would become four years of Pirates
rushing dominance as the Dye Wishbone piled up yardage at a rate
consistently among the nation’s top teams — and in the middle of it was
At First, It was Simply Speed
Growing up in Henderson,
Hicks was the youngest of three boys to father Grant and mom Lily
May, two very hard working parents. It was evident very early on that
Eddie had a gift for speed, but that speed was never harnessed in the
framework of organized sports.
“As a young kid, I really
did not start playing football until junior high school,” Hicks
recalled. “I always thought about playing sports (football
particularly), but you know, around where I grew up, you had to start
working at a very young age and we didn’t have the transportation to
take me to and from practice. (My parents) had to decide what comes
Though he was oblivious
at the time to the organized sports around him, there were men out
there who were paying attention to this youngster who could fly on his
feet. These men would become mentors that Hicks, all-too-soon, would
realize he really needed.
“There was a man named
Lonnie Davis, at my junior high, who used to talk to me about football
all the time,” he recalled. “Davis saw me in PE classes and knew that I
could really run. I was running track in junior high. Then a man named
Tony Oaks (the high school coach at Northern Vance at the time) was the
man who really pushed the issue for me to play football.”
With their prodding,
Hicks went to his parents to make his case for playing football.
“When I talked to them,
they said ‘OK,’” Hicks recalled. “So I went out.”
|Irony in the Numbers:
Pirate Time Machine No. 28 is, appropriately enough,
on an ECU great that wore jersey No. 28, Eddie
Hicks, admittedly, was a
little nervous as a freshman at Northern Vance High School, where he
would start his career as a wide receiver.
“I actually played on the
varsity my freshman year and it scared me to death to be out there with
all the talent I’d seen there,” Hicks said. “I didn’t think I could
start on that level during my first year. We had a guy named Steve
Parham at running back and Michael Davis at middle linebacker…these were
really great athletes at Northern Vance and I started at wide receiver
So elusive was the
freshman speedster that he quickly gained the reputation as a guy who
was very hard to tackle, which prompted a position change to wing back
as he progressed in his prep evolution.
“I could really slip and
slide and I could really run the ball,” Hicks said of his talents.
“Running the ball was a joy for me. When I played wing back and was
getting the ball, it was very exciting, or after intercepting the ball
and getting a chance to run with it in the open field… that was
While just beginning high
school, life dealt Hicks an unexpected blow when his father passed away.
In the wake of his father’s death, life became very hard for Hicks, who
found himself in a situation where three boys, pressed into being men,
were having real difficulties in establishing who was the man of the
house. And being the youngest proved an especially rough hardship.
“Honestly, my two older
brothers and I fought all the time like cats and dogs,” Hicks said. “I
was going through a lot of difficult situations back then.”
Enter a family friend,
noting Hicks’ need for stability.
“There was a great, great
man, Hamlet Wilkerson, who, along with his wife Catherine, took me into
their home like a foster son,” Hicks said. “He was a teacher and he
played a very important role in my life. He had followed my football and
was a very close family friend. I used to go over to his house all of
the time. To this day, his family is like my family and Catherine still
plays a role in my life. They really put me in the right direction.”
Throughout his time with
the Wilkersons, Hicks maintained a close relationship with his mom and
“The situation with my
brothers was as long as we see each other, but are not under the same
roof, there was no problem,” Hicks laughed. “It was a man of the house
issue, I guess.”
With his home situation
stable, Hicks pursued what turned out to be a wonderful prep career that
begat plenty of options for him as an athlete. And despite opting to let
track lie as a prepster, his speed on the track actually played a role
in his matriculation to East Carolina.
“You know, my freshman
year in high school, everyone was like, ‘You can run, so you could
choose track or football,’” Hicks said of his choice to pursue success
on the gridiron.
“I had the choice and I chose football because I just loved the contact
and the challenge of it. I have a saying I really believe in, ‘If you’re
going to talk the talk, you had better walk the walk.’ I felt that
playing football was ‘walking the walk.’”
ECU Zeroes in on Multi-talented Athlete
The usual suspects came lurking around the
campus of Northern Vance, looking for a few minutes with Hicks as he
tried to figure out where he would go to college.
“Well, we looked at North
Carolina State and North Carolina and it was a toss up as far as those
two schools go,” Hicks recalled. “And then Coach Oaks sent films to East
Carolina. They invited me up and I went to talk to Coach Dye and to
coach Bill Carson (track). I was interested in (both sports). Believe it
or not, they gave me a half-football, half-track scholarship as a
That lasted all of a
couple games into the football season when it was apparent that Hicks
was going to be a gridiron star at East Carolina.
“Yeah…after a few games,
they gave me a full scholarship for football and wouldn’t let me run
More than the opportunity
to run track, it was Coach Dye that lured Hicks to East Carolina.
“Really, I just wanted to
be at East Carolina,” Hicks said. “Pat recruited me as a tight end,
which I knew I didn’t want to play. But he was just a great man and I
wanted to play for him. When I got there, I said, ‘Pat, you run a
Wishbone, and I don’t want to play tight end. I want to play running
“Now, we had seven
running backs at East Carolina who could have played anywhere, and I
mean that, and Coach Dye still gave me a chance to play running back.”
At East Carolina, Hicks
found the same mentorship that he had craved and needed as a youth in
men like Dye and running backs coach Ken Hutchinson as well as longtime
ECU assistant coach Henry Trevathan.
“Coach Hutchinson (knew)
I was a running back from the beginning,” Hicks said. “Ken and his
family were outstanding to all of us (running backs) and the rest of the
team, too. It was amazing.”
And Hicks, when recalling
his running backs coach, couldn’t go without saying that things were a
little different back then when you were running the Wishbone.
“Back then, we had a very
small offensive line that did a great job,” he said. “The backs had to
run and block. That’s right, block. If you couldn’t block as a
running back, you simply couldn’t play back in my day. Now, today, backs
basically just run the ball, but in the Wishbone, I’m telling you, in
Pat Dye’s Wishbone, running backs had to block and block well.”
Hicks attributes the
Pirates’ successes, playing against more established programs, to the
ability the coaches had to leverage the family atmosphere for extreme
“I look at these Pirates
and I think, ‘We didn’t have near the quality of athletes they have or
the facilities, or the comforts — why can’t (the current Pirates) win?’”
Hicks mused. “I think over the past several years it comes down to
coaches knowing how to motivate kids. You have got to motivate as a
coach. If you want to know what motivation is about, you gotta talk
about a guy like Henry Trevathan. Now that was a motivator. I’m telling
you, he would get out in practice and get it done. I remember one day, a
huge fight broke out between a couple of guys and Henry got right in
there between them to break it up. You don’t expect that from a guy that
would get blown away in a light wind… all of 160 pounds, maybe. But when
he got in there, he broke that thing up because (the players) respected
“And Coach Dye… when he
told you to do something, you just did it. He had a great, great staff
who brought it from the beginning of a meeting, right out onto the field
describing a typical Dye-era practice session.
“We might run a half-line
against a defense with an extra linebacker or two — unblocked,” he
described. “And we would run a play 20 times with the defense knowing
exactly where the ball was going. Pat would say, ‘If you can get three
yards against a defense that knows where you are going with the ball,
then imagine what you can do against a team that doesn’t know where it’s
going.’ When you played for Pat Dye, you were going to be prepared
mentally, that’s for sure.”
And it wasn’t always
motivation through shear force.
“Pat knew how to get to
players individually, too,” Hicks said. “He really could. He could
always keep you laughing. I remember one time; he brought Bear Bryant up
to see us. Now, the Bear, that’s a legend you’re talking about… right
here, in front of us. Coach Dye did things like that.”
There was more to the
“Most of all, Pat was
very loyal,” he said. “His door was always open and what you told him,
stayed with him. Being on that football team was really like being part
of a large family. People you could really trust.”
Among the “family” were
some players that hold a piece of Hicks’ heart to this day, though he
admits that he has probably forgot to mention many in his recollections.
“You know, we had great
games against North Carolina State and North Carolina and we beat them,”
he said. “Back then, they really were powerhouse programs with all the
advantages, but we beat them with speed and a whole lot of heart. Those
are the kind of guys we had on that team.”
Hicks thinks back on some
of his former teammates and friends.
“Take a guy like (Mike)
Weaver,” he said of his former quarterback. “He was a little man with a
heart like a lion. He would take the ball looking for the hit and then
pitch as he was getting (whacked) and I’d be gone.
“We were a very close
team. Cary Godette,
Zack Valentine, Harold Randolph, Jimbo Walker,
Leander Green, Sam Harrell, Gerald Hall… there are so
many. Yeah, no doubt we were very close. Everything on the field and in
the locker room stayed there. We were all very disciplined and Coach
didn’t treat nobody differently. It didn’t matter if you were an
All-America candidate or a walk-on."
Dye even structured
practice on this premise.
“We used to have ‘Purple’
backs and ‘Blue’ backs,” Hicks explained. “The purple backs were the
starters and the blue backs were the second stringers. If you didn’t
perform in a game, come Monday, you’d be the one wearing the blue
jersey. It happened to me. I remember one practice, Wayne Bolt (OL) turned
around and looked back at me and said, ‘Hey, where are the purple
“That wasn’t funny.”
Of course, come game time
throughout his career, Hicks was always a purple back, but the point was
deep and long lasting with Hicks and his teammates. And he and those
teammates were part of a four-year run of success (33-11-1) that
included wins over UNC-CH and State, a Southern Conference Championship
(1976), and an Independence Bowl victory (35-13 over Louisiana Tech in
For Hicks individually,
he notched himself as one of an elite group of outstanding Pirates
backs. He still holds the longest rush from scrimmage for a TD with his
95-yard gallop against William & Mary. Though he has a plaque that
states it was a 99-yarder, he won’t dicker about those four yards. For
his career, Hicks piled up 2,101 yards (at a 6.4 average per carry) and
scored 23 touchdowns.
Moving on after Graduation
As expected, in the 1979 NFL draft, Hicks
was selected, though lower than he had thought he’d be.
“Believe it or not, I had
broken my hand playing basketball and it never really healed right,” he
said of his condition pre-draft. “I was taken in the sixth round by the
New York Giants.”
Hicks was the 158th
overall pick in the annual collegiate draft and there were high hopes
for him in the pros. But, the broken hand was just the beginning of a
series of injuries that cut his promising career short after three
“You know, you learn real
quick that the pros is a job… it’s a business,” he said. “It requires
more discipline and more hard work. If you can get through July… get
through training camp, then the games are a piece of cake. And it is a
totally different world… a first-class world that I would never, never
trade for nothing in a lifetime.
“And the Giants, they
were no doubt a family, too. Everyone on that team pulled together. One
of my greatest friends on the Giants is Harry Carson, who played middle
linebacker. I still keep up with him to this day. This is a man who
played for 16 years and dominated the game… yet he is not in the Hall of
Fame. Can you believe that?”
appreciates every minute of his stint as a professional ball player,
but he accepted the end when it came.
“I played 3½ years, but
when I snapped my back and pulled my groin and was never able to be at
100 percent, New York traded me to Philly to play for Ray Perkins,”
Hicks said. “But, I was in pain and when you play in pain, it isn’t
doing anyone any good. So, after the exhibition season, I gave it up.”
No Place Like Home
After the NFL, Hicks knew exactly where he
needed to be.
“No doubt, I was going to
be back in North Carolina,” he said. “I knew a lot of people in
Henderson and (the town) was very good to me, so I wanted to go home.”
Home was a bit hard on
Hicks to begin with after landing a job with CVS; he was laid off just a
few months into it. Thinking that football may be the only short term
solution, he headed off to Canada to try and pick up his career, but the
injuries were too much to overcome and he added a dislocated shoulder to
go with his pre-existing conditions.
So, back to NC he went.
“I came back (from
Canada) and called the man who had hired me at CVS and asked if there
was anything available and he said, ‘no’,” Hicks said. “But, then he
called me back and said he had a job, so I took it. Ended up there for
20 years. I was a shipper, coordinator, supervisor… all the way up to
receiver. You know, football taught me discipline… to focus on doing your
job and that is what I did and it made things happen for me.”
Though his career was
with the popular pharmacy chain, his passion also was rekindled in a
different way when he
moved home to Henderson.
“I got involved with
(Vance County) Recreation through a guy named Ralph Peace,” Hicks said.
“Ralph was the man who started me on a weight program when I was young.
He took me under his wing and trained me. He helped me get around when I
was older, letting me use his car… he was one of those people that I
called when I was in college. In fact, one time I had a collapsed lung
while I was at East Carolina and he came up to see me. The love was
really there. And the Director of Recreation, Chuck Grubbs gave a lot
and helped me a lot. I wanted to get involved… I had to give back to the
people who gave me so much in my life.”
As he has for many years,
today Eddie Hicks is working with kids through the recreation
department. He still works in the pharmacy world, only now with Kerr
Drugs (for the past two years).
He teaches tennis and
he’s coached junior high football with his old mentor Lonnie Davis. He
even spent a dozen years coaching on the staff with the Henderson High
Bulldogs. But, it hasn’t been without a little disappointment that comes
from a changing world.
“I was brought up to
always look out for kids and your elders,” he said. “They are the most
important things on Earth. You can’t just push your elders to the side.
I teach tennis and I coached junior high football and then at Henderson.
It seems that the parents today — not all of them — but enough of them,
do not want to discipline kids. So when you volunteer for kids and you
are out there trying to share things that you hope will help them
understand the value of discipline, it can be frustrating. You know, I
never had a kid that played sports, so for me to be out there working
with other kids — because that’s how much I love the game of football — takes a lot.
“I see kids coming late
for practice, not showing up and sometimes, I think, ‘Why waste your time
unless you really want to do this?’ But, it is in me to coach even
though most of the time you don’t get any credit. Now at my young age
(49), I try to enjoy life and I can never turn a kid down. I’ve taught a
lot of other kids and adults how to coach and I’ve worked with some kids
who are playing now at colleges and it makes you feel good that you are
part of there life and their successes. That you had something to do
with them getting out and going to college… that is the reward for coaching.
Let the Pirate Echoes Be Heard
These days, Hicks is pretty occupied doing
those things he loves most. He is a big football fan… a big Pirate fan
that “rarely misses a home game.” And, he has some things to say about
ECU in relation to his era.
“As a fan, I am generally a quiet critic,”
he said. “I watch and I might analyze how (the team) did something and
how I might have done it differently. Look, East Carolina’s got a great
program… they really do. As far as I’m concerned, since 1975 to now they
are the finest university in the country and I mean that. But there are
some things that concern me.
“My dream for East Carolina is for them
(the institution as a whole) to get back to treating folks right. I
believe everything is in God’s hands and when you mistreat some one,
things get bad, but when you treat people right, things turn around
quick. They’ve got to clear up a dark cloud that is hanging over them
right now. I’m talking about giving Pat and his athletes their due.”
Hicks gets very serious and focused when it
comes to his coach and his teammates and there has been a burning issue
with him since his days as a Pirates star.
“I became a Pirates Club member when I got
drafted and am so to this day,” he said. “I’ve put money, sweat, and
blood into East Carolina… gave back like I should, like we all (former
players) should. But ECU has got to give back as well. There are
guys from ECU playing in the pros today that don’t give a dime back to
the program, but are sitting in that (ECU) Hall of Fame, while a coach
like Pat Dye isn’t in.”
Eddie Hicks on his beloved Harley
Hicks cannot hide his emotions on this
“It’s like what I was saying about Harry
Carson not being in the (NFL) Hall,” he continued. “It’s been the same
at ECU. (Those in charge) insult Coach Dye by not inducting him. It’s
not just an insult to Coach Dye and his players, but to ECU itself. Are
they waiting for (Dye and his athletes) to be dead? I really hate to
judge here, but Pat’s record and work at ECU stands for itself. Why he
is not in the Hall of Fame is mind-boggling… it is an insult to
Though he would not say it, Hicks is just
as confused as to why he and his teammates seem to be ignored when it
comes time for induction.
“There are a lot of players from my time
that should be considered,” Hicks said.
He is aware that there are some, like
Leander Green, Zack Valentine, and Wayne Inman that have been enshrined, and he is very, very
thankful that one in particular was inducted… Cary Godette (Hall of Fame class of
“Honestly, there was not a man on a
football field (during Godette’s years) who could handle that man,”
Hicks said. “Nobody, nobody wanted a piece of him. I thought I was great
running back but I’ll tell you that in practice, I never went over near
Cary… no way was I fooling with him. If I had to, I’d try to screen him
off, but I’m not crazy enough to try and go after him.”
Still, he feels strongly that the era was
huge in the development of ECU football.
“In our years, we put East Carolina on the
(football) map with leadership, character and class,” he said. “And
after all of these years, you know, after what we did, the teams that
came behind us, looked at our accomplishments and said, ‘We can do the
“We were the inspiration to a lot of teams
after us. Where (ECU) has lost it in the last few years is that either
the kids are not listening to the coaches or the coaches are not
listening to the players.”
Hicks gives an example from his past.
“I remember once Pat came to me and said,
‘Eddie, do you like me?’ And I said, ‘Why do you ask?’ Then he said,
‘Because if we don’t win these games, I won’t have a job here any more.’
So I told him to not worry about nothing. We knew we had running backs
and an offensive line that could do whatever we wanted to… really. But
with all of that talent, we still had to be together on the same page
with the coach and each and every guy.
“ECU has talented athletes… they have to be
on the same page. They have to be motivated for success.”
He knows what he’s talking about, he lived
“Pat Dye had a lot of athletes with
character and class,” he said. “Look around now at all of the successful
athletes that he pushed out (as a coach). I would never be as successful
as I am today or as I was as a player without him and his (style).”
Still Speeding Along in Life
All of that said, Hicks is still a Pirate,
through and through, and cannot wait for the program to rise again. He
feels every bit a part of its past and its future as he did as a player.
And, he’ll keep giving, because ECU gave so much to him through the
people that were the program in his days.
Hicks does his job and works with the kids,
but he also takes his time to take in his surroundings in the only way
he knows how: with the freedom that comes with speed.
He and his wife, Jackie, are prone to
taking off on weekend excursions on the love of his life, his pristine
Harley-Davidson. He really does simply need the speed.
“I rode motorcycles in college,” he said.
“(Jackie) says I love it more than her. That Harley-Davidson, it is my
love. It’s the same thrill I used to get when I ran with the football.”
many of us shared as we watched him do it.
Send an e-mail message to Ron Cherubini.
Click here to dig into Ron
Cherubini's Bonesville archives.