Pirates helping Pirates is a phrase that is often used among the East Carolina rank and file. It happens all of the time. The network works for those who are part of the extended family.
Jobs, fundraisers, business-to-business, the theme plays out over and over again.
And then there are those special moments that happen because of the bonds made on a field of play.
Similar to the emotional outpouring for our beloved baseball coach Keith LeClair, this is also another inspirational story about Pirates sticking up for Pirates.
It is a current story about an ailing hero from another era and the lengths his friends and others would go to ensure that he be not forgotten at a moment when conjuring up the past is so important.
Lettermen’s Weekend has always been a highlight event for the ECU family, but it is doubly-important to those athletes who use the weekend to rekindle friendships that were forged on the field.
As was revealed earlier this year as a part of Bonesville.net's Pirate Time Machine series, a tough, gritty lineman from days gone by, George Wheeler, is waging a valiant battle against cancer. As a member of the famed 1966 frosh team and subsequent Clarence Stasavich squads, Wheeler has an extra special bond to his teammates and it is reciprocal down to the last man alive from that era.
And so it was, as this fall's Lettermen’s Weekend approached, it became apparent that Wheeler’s condition would prevent him from joining his teammates. To his former comrades-in-arms, this was unacceptable. So, as has always been the recipe of Pirate gumption, some of his former teammates decided to ensure that George would be in attendance.
“You know, I thought, I have a buddy in Asheville who has a plane, so I called him,” former standout end Jim Gudger said. “He said he’d help out and told me that the flight would be about two hours. He told me that he would fly down to Columbia (SC), pick George up, fly him to Greenville and then on Saturday, fly him to Spartanburg to see his boy play football and then take him home.”
The plan was hatched and Gudger began to phone teammates to let them know that they were needed to make this happen. And all responded. But there was more — much more — and it is clearly illustrative of the types of people that have come through East Carolina University.
As Lettermen’s Weekend approached, Gudger began to get nervous as he had not heard from the pilot. Fearing that it was falling through at the last minute, he decided a Plan B was necessary.
Enter Pirate Clubber Matt Maloney.
“I called Matt and told him about the situation,” Gudger said. “I asked him if there was anyone in the Pirate family that could fly a plane. He told me to give him some time and he’d get back to me.”
Maloney did call back with a name and a phone number. Jim Steele.
Maloney, the assistant director of the Pirate Club, called another Pirate alum, ’89 grad Robbie Strickland, of the Strickland Insurance Group, to see if he could help out.
“It’s Purple Passion, brother,” Maloney said. “Our hearts really went out to George and his family. We had to get it done. There was no question about it, we had to get Coach Wheeler up here to be with his teammates for that wonderful weekend.
“Jim called me and, of course, Dennis Young and I know a few Pirates who have planes. I called Robbie and within a few minutes, they made it happen.”
Maloney was quick to minimize the PC contributions.
“It was George’s teammates who rallied and it was the Stricklands that made it happen,” Maloney said. “It is hard to describe how it all came together. I think it was divine intervention. George had just had (a round of) chemo but found the energy to make the trip.”
Strickland, who along with his father owns the Strickland Insurance Group, has a private corporate jet. And, he was eager to help, so he checked to see if the plane would be available and then passed along to Maloney the phone number of his top pilot, Steele, a late 1970’s grad of ECU.
“Matt called me to see if there was a way to do this,” Strickland said. “We do these things quite often and have done it for cancer patients (before). We love to do stuff like this. We do business around the country and that is why we have the jet.
“The Good Lord has blessed my family and he’s blessed us with opportunities to help. When we have the opportunity to help, we like to do that.”
Strickland was very adamant about saying that he and his father prefer to go anonymous on events like this, but in this case, was willing to comment because of how impressed he was with the Pirate community coming together to help one of its own.
“My dad got a very wonderful letter from George,” Strickland said. “It brings a tear to your eyes. He was very grateful and we were very grateful to be able to help. He is a very positive person.”
With a plane lined up and a pilot ready to go, all that remained was the flight.
“When George got off that plane, he says, ‘Jim, that’s the nicest plane I’ve ever been on,’” Gudger said. “We told him, ‘George, not too many guys other than Bill Gates or the Sultan of Brunei, have been on planes like that.’”
For the record, the plane was a Cessna Citation Excel — a nine-seater with all of the trimmings.
Wheeler was flown in for the Letterman’s golf tournament and dinner, and then Steele flew him to Spartanburg, SC, so that Wheeler could see his son play football at Wofford.
“Everyone involved went out of their way to help,” Gudger said. “I called Jim Ayers (Wofford’s coach) and explained to him what was happening. He called the Terrier Club members and they set up a round of golf for the pilot while he was waiting for the football game to be played. The Athletic Director at Wofford set it all up, no questions.”
Meanwhile, back in Greenville, after George had already departed for Spartanburg, his former teammates took up a collection to ensure that they could pay for the fuel — the only cost associated with using a plane that normally rents for $11,000 a day.
“Of course, we had money from all of the (1966) team, but people, ECU people, started coming up and chipping in money,” Gudger said. “It was wonderful. We had no problem getting up the money. People just kept coming up and giving money.”
It was a Pirate moment, frozen in time. It was more than just the gathering up of money to do something. But, more than that, it was an example of the family that is uniquely ECU.
“To see those guys rally together for one of their own was a beautiful sight,” Maloney said. “The ’66 team had a get-together on Thursday night and everyone was hugging each other. Then, on Friday, George and Coach (Henry) Vansant were riding all over the place in the golf cart, and then on Saturday, (Butch) Colson brings George into the tent and all his teammates rallied around him… they all cherished every minute together.”
Logistically, it was complicated, but to Wheeler’s teammates, it was not so intricate — it just was...
“It was so damn easy,” Gudger said. “But that’s ECU people. There are always more than enough people ready to get something done.
“This all started, for us, in 1966. It may sound silly, but I believe it was a very special group brought together at a special time for ECU. I hope my son can find a group like this.”
For Wheeler, perhaps it will not be the last time he is reunited with his ECU family. He and his family were eternally grateful for the moment. But for all those involved, it was a heartfelt reminder of what it has always meant to be a part of the ECU family.
02/23/2007 02:05:47 PM