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No. 11

With Ron Cherubini

Don Tyson – Builder’s
Foundation Built at ECU

Football fans are as accustomed to it as the players these days. As a game progresses, a player will get up slowly, grab a knee or an elbow and hobble off the field. Sometimes, a player will be carted off the turf.

On Monday or Tuesday and slightly more frequently as the next game approaches, fans will ask one another, ‘Is he out this week?’ or ‘What is so-and-so’s status?’ Sometimes players never come back and as the season progresses on, there will be occasional questions from a fan here and there like, “Hey, whatever happened to so-and-so?”

But when you are “So-and-So,” and your career is ended as a junior in college by injury, it is seldom passé. In some cases, it sticks with the player for a long time.

Meet a proven Pirate all-star, who on the cusp of greatness, walked away from the game he loved so much, because he couldn’t play it the way he wanted to.

Meet Don Tyson.

By his junior season in 1968, the bull-headed defensive lineman had solidified himself in a lineup that included stars like Wayne Lineberry – who would go on to play for the Buffalo Bills – and tenacious Jim Flowe. Tyson was an All-Southern Conference first-teamer and an Honorable Mention All-American.

Tyson in the field in Spring of 1967

But along with all the glory, came a lot of pain. So it was, after his junior season, after a third shoulder surgery, he quietly walked into the football offices and told the secretary to please tell coach Stas that he was heading home… it was over.

“I got up one morning and I couldn’t even wipe my butt,” Tyson recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘I can’t do this again.’ It was so painful and it went past the physical pain. It was mentally draining. I walked into (football secretary) Earline’s office and told her that I was gone.

“And you know what? Coach (Clarence) Stas(avich) and (freshman) coach (Henry) VanSant called me. They left football for a while and talked to me, about me, and with concern for me. They didn’t talk about me coming back… they were just concerned about me. That is the kind of men they were.”

Tyson left school, just shy of a degree, and in doing so, left behind the sport that he so passionately embraced. It wasn’t easy.

“(Leaving) hurt so bad,” he said. “It was tough… and not just for a year or two. You constantly say ‘What if this?’ and ‘What if that?’”

He tried to stay involved and even went to the East Carolina College-East Tennessee State game during what would have been his senior season. But, he was miserable there and didn’t return for next four or five years.

“Coach VanSant stayed until coach Stas retired but they brought in (Sonny) Randle. There were a lot of us who broke away because we felt coach VanSant should have got the job, but we were wrong probably. Too loyal. As I matured, I realized (ECU) gave me a great opportunity. I am really involved now and I will always support the kids and the school.”

To Tyson, coach VanSant epitomized the term “man”, and the things that his freshman coach taught him superceded the gridiron.

VanSant was a second father to Tyson and a man with whom he has forged a close friendship post-football.

“He was the first person to teach me about equality. He was the first man to teach me about fairness. He taught me that getting down is temporary.”

It was VanSant who from the beginning recognized Tyson’s overachieving qualities and put them to good use in a position better suited for the prep fullback’s temperament.

“When I got to Greenville, I was an all-state fullback. And at 6-0, 230 pounds, I was big for back then,” Tyson said. “There were 13 (fullbacks) in camp. After the third day, I was ready to go home. I just wanted to play.

“Coach VanSant realized this, I think. His thing was whenever he would see me, he would say, ‘Get your chin up… with it down, you look like you’re not a winner.’ He tried me at guard and I couldn’t play it. By the third day, I was on the defensive line.”

At the time, East Carolina College ran the Single Wing. In fact, the Pirates were the last of the NCAA programs to run the Single Wing. And, as such, Tyson figured had he stayed at fullback, he would have been watching from the sideline.

“You know, I was disappointed, because I thought maybe I could play pro ball (as a fullback),” he said. “Had we been a Wing T team, it probably would have been different. Maybe… (his career) would not have been as successful. I’m just glad to have had the opportunity.”

Before he ever made it to East Carolina, fate seemed to have conspired against the prep star from Massey Hill High School (now Douglas Byrd) in Fayetteville, then a small mill town. In his senior class, Tyson was one of four highly regarded players, including former North Carolina quarterback Junior Ridge and fellow-Tar Heel Moose Butler, along with Western Carolina standout Jimmy Bryant.

“Carolina started recruiting me as a sophomore and I went to all of their (home) games,” Tyson said. “But my senior year, when Brian Piccolo was a senior at Wake Forest, I saw them beat UNC and he ran for two or three touchdowns. Something really struck me at that game and I thought, ‘I like Wake Forest.’

“I called them and I was all set to go to Wake.”

However, to go to Wake Forest, Tyson needed two years of foreign language classes. So, Tyson went to Carolina Military Academy to get credit for the required second year. During his year at CMA, Wake’s coach departed for a job at Illinois, leaving Tyson out in the cold with Wake.

“At that point, Carolina was no longer interested in me,” Tyson recalled. “(ECU recruiting) Coach Odell Welborne was down at (CMA) talking to a player they were recruiting and I met him and we talked. (Meeting Welborne) was totally accidental, but I am so glad it happened.  I had never really heard much about East Carolina and had never been interested. Honestly then, East Carolina wasn’t little, they simply ‘weren’t.’”

At Massey Hill, Tyson had also been courted by Purdue, New Mexico, Clemson, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Elon (then-coached by Red Wilson). East Carolina, just didn’t come to mind for him, then. But it didn’t take him long to fall for the school and the program, though he struggled at first.

“I was from a little mill town and I was shy,” Tyson said. “I was taking everything one day at the time. I was so shy, I didn’t even know that the Pamlico Room existed until my sophomore year when I actually explored (central campus). (The freshmen) were sheltered. We were up on the hill and at Overton Stadium, and that was really it.”

But with the insulation, came an extreme focus on football. With a freshman team that had no less than 40 players who had prepped for a year before heading to East Carolina, VanSant had little trouble honing the collection into a powerhouse frosh club.

And it was on this freshman club that Tyson developed a knack for flying to the ball and lowering the boom, albeit sometimes not exactly doing it by the book.

“I think after the second game, I never used a single technique that I was taught,” he said. “I never ran what Wayne Lineberry called, but I also never got fooled. I had a nose for the ball and I got to it.

“I remember against Louisville, which threw the ball a lot then, too, when the split was to my side, I was supposed to line up head on the tackle and go inside, but I thought that was stupid. So, I would line up outside the end every time and go right to the quarterback. And it worked. I thought I would get chewed out during film review, but (the coaches) said nothing and every game, I got braver and braver.”

The coaches said nothing — because Tyson was always on the ball, making the tackle or causing chaos in the opponents’ backfields. The team was a tough bunch of overachievers, according to Tyson.

“I remember around the time of the Gulf War, coach VanSant, who had a son over there, used to say, ‘Let me take that crowd from ’66 over there and we’ll take care of that thing real quick,’” Tyson said. “We really weren’t that talented, we just didn’t know it.”

Tyson’s two years on the varsity, playing for Coach Stasavich, were equally as successful, though he had to adjust to the differences between VanSant and his new mentor.

“Coach Stas was a very wise man,” Tyson said. “He was a very sarcastic motivator compared to coach VanSant, who was always full of piss and vinegar. Coach VanSant was probably an overachiever. I’m telling you, there were more talented guys, but none that fought as hard as we did. Coach Stas was like a grandfather figure to us and sometimes it was difficult to identify with him. With coach VanSant, he would get down with you during a 2-on-1 drill, without gear on, and show you how to do it. He was always walking around with scabs on his nose from drills.”

Stas, however, was equally demanding in his own way and the players knew it. And he was practical, almost painfully so, as Tyson pointed out in the story about how he became a kicker and how he got his nickname, “True Toe.”

“I had reported to practice,” Tyson said. “And Coach Stas comes over to me and says, ‘Tyson, you’re a pretty good kicker, right?’ and I said, ‘Oh, yeah! I can kick.’ And Stas says, ‘Good, ‘cause (Rob) Ferris got killed last night, so you are our kicker now.’ That’s how I found out Rob had been killed. And, that’s how I became our kicker… ’True Toe.’

“I’ll never forget it, it was August 15th. (Rob) and I had kicked the ball for quarters and he was a really sarcastic, fun guy. But, he was gone and we needed a kicker. So, that was that.”

Stas and his staff were tough, but it was what the players best understood.

“In my generation, the players would cut players, not the coaches,” Tyson said. “If a player was lazy and cut corners, and always bitching about how hard it was, the players would ask them to quit. And you never heard anyone talking about quitting. Players just sort of disappeared.

“I remember watching eight players walk down the hill and go home after the first water break on the first day of practice. It was something.”

And his career, albeit truncated by a season, was something to remember.

Tyson got to lay the wood to the likes of Mercury Morris and decorate the turf with golden arms like Terry Bradshaw. He got to rough it up with John Matusak and got to take on Louisville fullback Wayne Patrick, who went on to open holes for O.J. Simpson with the Bills.

But even with all the greats he encountered, Tyson calls former East Carolina tailback Neil Hughes the “best football player, pound for pound, that I ever played with or against.”

Above all the memories, however, one that has always stayed with him was during his sophomore year against William & Mary. It was the hit, or more correctly, the missed hit that he will never forget.

“It was the first punt against William & Mary,” he recalled. “(W&M) had an All-American linebacker named Adrian Brown. I was at about the 50-yard line and I saw that (Brown) was dragging ass and he was right in front of Coach Stas, and I said to myself, ‘I’m gonna kill him and I’m going to make this team.’ (Brown) moved just when I went to hit him and (I injured) my shoulder.”

It was the second time he had injured it and it was the beginning of the end for him, though he went on to a pair of stellar seasons as a varsity Pirate.

Tyson quietly left Greenville, but he did so on his terms.

“I really just had to walk away from it (at that point),” he said. “It was one of the toughest things I ever did.”

He had been getting some interest from the professional ranks. Dallas and San Diego were tracking him as a sophomore and a junior and he actually ran a 50 for former 1950’s era Wake coach Peahead Walker, who at the time was with the Giants. But for Tyson, football as a player was over.

Today, Tyson is a successful Atlanta-based contractor. He has come to terms with his exit from college football and he regrets little other than not graduating – which he intends to see through. His work is all over North Carolina, from just about every Pizza Hut across the state to a large number of homes. Now, his company specializes in hospital construction, with upcoming jobs renovating the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Congress Building.

“It’s hard to ride through a town in eastern North Carolina that I didn’t build a building in.”

Before his partnership in Atlanta, he worked with his father building in NC and then had a stint with New York Life, before getting back into the building game.

“When I get a set of prints from an architect and we are getting close to the bid… Say we have a 2 :00 bid and I drive in 45 minutes early. I’m waiting to fill in the blanks on the bid and trying to prepare it,” he explains. “I turn the sealed bid in and there are 12 other companies bidding on the project — it’s like just before kickoff and they call a price out. I get the same feeling in my stomach, the palpitations, the excitement of competition.”

And with all of the big buildings he has built, it is a small job in North Carolina, back in his early days as a contractor, that stands out as his greatest monument to his alma mater.

“The project I am most proud of – and they are all so special – but there is one that is really special,” Tyson said. “About 20 years ago, I built a house for a guy who was in a wheelchair. He had been in (the chair) for about three years and he was building the house for his high school sweetheart. She was a doll and she had stuck with him and married him.

“It was a little house, no bigger than 1,100 square feet, but he was so proud of that house. I remember the look on his face when we finished it. He felt great. At the time, I was of the age where I was thinking, ‘Now, how could a woman like that marry him?’ But, after we finished, I saw it. I realized what a great man he was and why she married him. He was fighter.”

Tyson knows that spirit… he learned in little Greenville.

“We learned how to be men (at ECU),” Tyson said. “I don’t think anything can come up in life – I have raised four kids and been through a divorce – that playing football at East Carolina didn’t help me prepare for.”

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Don Tyson
(True Toe)





Years at ECU:


Position/Jersey No.

Defensive Tackle/Kicker/No. 74


Fayetteville, NC

Currently Resides:

Atlanta, GA


General Contactor, DCW, Inc.


Pursuing BS Education

Marital Status:


Significant Other:

Engaged to Camille Chestnut

  • Don (30)
  • Micki (28)
  • Billie (22)
  • Josh (20)

“We were East Carolina College and on our footlockers we had ‘ECU’ written on tape. That was Leo Jenkins for you. He used to always say, ‘God lives east of Raleigh.’


1. Who is your favorite current Pirate and Why?

“Right now, my favorite athlete at ECU… I wish I could say it was a defensive lineman, but, I like David (Garrard). That quarterback has a lot of guts, more guts than ability, I think, but I like how he plays.”

2. What do you miss most about ECU?

“The camaraderie, especially being around Henry VanSant. I talk to my college roommate (Jim Gudger) every week. He and I and our sons played golf together as a team at the Letterman’s Weekend golf tournament and it was great to be back (at ECU).”

3. Where is your favorite spot on the ECU campus?

“Over at the women’s dorms, particularly Fletcher. Naw, actually it was the Pamlico Room (a then-snack shop at the opposite end of Wright Circle). All the girls would go through there and they knew who (the football players) were.”

4. What was your dorm room and favorite dorm story?

“202 Belk Dorm. My story would be about (Linebacker) Harold Glaettli. He was an animal and he was older than most of us. He had been in the army and came back to school and was married and had a family. He had been drinking Peach Schnapps and Vodka and was pretty much wiped out. (Tyson, Gudger, defensive end Jim Flowe, and defensive lineman Wayne Lineberry and defensive guard George Wheeler)  were going to take (Glaettli) and put him in a bed so he wouldn’t get into any trouble, but he wasn’t having any of that and he whipped all five of us, got in his car and drove on home. Flowe was probably the toughest of us down there and Glaettli took him out quick and the rest of us followed right after.”

5. Greatest Moment as a Pirate football player?

“You know, I don’t know. I felt like I was probably an overachiever. Lineberry went to the (Buffalo) Bills and Flowe was even better than he was. The 1966 freshman team was undefeated and Coach VanSant had a group of overachievers, but we had a chip on our shoulders. He taught us how to win and how to fight until the final whistle. I went to the varsity, I knew that Flowe and Lineberry were so good, and if they had worked as hard as I did, they would have been All-Americans. I always played with the feeling that Coach Stas would send someone in on every play to take me out. So, I played out of desperation. I just whipped everyone in front of me so they couldn’t take me out.”.

6. Most disliked opponent?

“Citadel. One reason, because they wore Carolina blue. They were just so pesky. We were in the Southern Conference and everyone got up for us. Citadel always just hung around. I especially dislike them because they kept us from a bowl game my sophomore season. WVU went to the Tangerine bowl my sophomore year because we lost to Citadel. What made it worse was that I killed us in that game. I missed an extra point, a 35 yarder and then roughed the kicker when they went for a field goal and moved them to the one-yard line and then, of course, they ran over me for the touchdown, so you can see why I don’t like them much.”

7. Athletic Influences?

“A  friend of our family… a postman (Fred Nunnery) was a big influence to me athletically. He ran and jogged and worked out a lot. He was a baseball player… he would take me to ball games and kind of got me into things. I played it all since I was eight (years old). I play golf now and I love to compete. My dad worked very hard and built a great business… but he was always busy, so (Nunnery) kind of filled in that role. I got my competitiveness from my father, I think.  My father and my younger son (Josh) are the most competitive people I have ever been around… (Dad) would give you the shirt off his back but if you tired to beat him out of a nickel, he would be all over you for it (for the sake of competition).”

8. Favorite coach?

“Henry Van Sant, without a doubt. He was the first person to teach me about equality. He treated everyone equally. When you worked hard, he patted you on the butt. He’d get in your face if you didn’t. He was the first man that taught me fairness. I still call him all the time. He is absolutely a second father. He taught me that getting down is temporary.  When I am down, I call him and we talk about life. Never more than three or four minutes and somewhere in that conversation… well, he will light my fire.”

9. Best Locker Room Story

“This has to do with Coach Van Sant. Back in my day, freshman were not eligible for varsity. (The freshman team) went to Citadel and had to drive to Charleston in a friggin’ bus. We stopped in Whiteville (NC) at a little drive-in. Coach Van Sant said ‘You got 12 minutes.’ So we all go and everyone orders cheeseburgers, hamburgers, etc… The guy working took our money for all the orders. After 12 minutes, (Van Sant) says, ‘Let’s go.’ And when he said 12 minutes, he meant it. So Coach went over to the guy working there and told him to finish the orders that were already on the grill and give back the money for the rest. And the guys said, “F--- you’ and Van Sant goes over the counter at him. Here we are, a college freshman team on our way to a game, and our leader is going after the guy there. Of course, the police came and it was all worked out. And we made his schedule. We didn’t get to stop this time. The funny thing is that in that game, we were down 19-0 at half, and VanSant went crazy, he threw a couple guys through the chalk board and ranted. We ended going out there and quickly went up 21-19. He had made his point clear.”

10. Best Emerald City hangout?

“Coach and Four. I think it eventually became the Elbow Room. It was a beer joint. At one point, the sales manager from the Schlitz distributor was in from Fayetteville and we had just played at Richmond and had come back and were getting off the bus. I had actually knew him from home and he basically told the team, ‘When you go to the Coach and Four, if you guys will drink Schlitz and drink it at the bar and leave it in the can, (Schlitz) will give (the beer to the guys) for free.’ So, as team, we drank Schlitz at the Coach and Four for a long time.”


Tyson Sidebar:
A Father, A Son, and Football

When he gets a chance to return to East Carolina University and take in a football game, it is sometimes overwhelming for the former defensive lineman.

In his day, the second half of the 1960s, East Carolina was East Carolina College and the football games were in a humble stadium called Overton Stadium. My, how things have changed.

“Every time, I think about what (playing at ECU) was…,” Tyson recalls, “when I go to the games and when I watch the team on television, I am amazed at what I see. When I’m there, live, and the players come into the stadium, my hair stands up. I remember what it was like, to run out onto the field. I remember kicking balls through the uprights and into the street. I can still feel it. Hell, I’m 55 years old and it still feels the same way. If they played ‘Dixie’ – our fight song then – I’d probably pass out.”

Tyson, who saw his career abruptly ended after his junior season due to injury, is passionate about football and, particularly, about East Carolina’s version of it. But it was, perhaps, his youngest son, Josh, who put things into a new perspective for Tyson on a recent visit to ECU.

Don and his son, Josh Tyson

“We went to Greenville for the weekend for the Memphis game this year,” Tyson explained. “Josh is a junior at Western Georgia and he hadn’t been (at ECU) since he was 12-years old. We were going to golf in the Letterman’s Golf tournament that weekend. Josh says, ‘Dad, can you take me by the stadium?’ So we drive by and he asks if we can stop and take a look. So we got out and walked into the stadium to about the 15-yard line. Josh looks at me and says, ‘Dad, this place is awesome.’

“Now, this kid regularly goes to Georgia and Alabama games and he says to me, ‘(My schoolmates) think we are just a little school.’ Look, he even says ‘we.’ And then he says, ‘This is big time!’ Then he goes on to ask me what it was like to be a player (at ECU).”

And Tyson shares with his son stories of past greatness, like being named an Honorable Mention All-American as a junior. Telling his boy how he wanted to run right home to the local drug store so that he could sit there and watch all the guys come by and congratulate him.

“Josh asked for a picture of the stadium and I got him that picture from the State game, the aerial shot,” Tyson said. “He was saying how his friends assumed that since ‘WCU is Western Carolina, then ECU must be Eastern Carolina.’ But Josh said, ‘I kept telling them all that ECU was big time.’”

As a successful builder, Tyson finds extra beauty in what he sees today on and around the grounds he once lived and played on.

“I don’t know what (ECU) has invested in (the upgrades),” he said. “But what they are doing is phenomenal. It is just beautiful. When I went here, a good crowd was 25,000 and our stadium started about where the 50-yard line is now. To see the facilities and the crowd support is overwhelming.”

You get the sense that he does not envy today’s Pirates, but rather, he enjoys the sheer pleasure of the game he played.

“You know, my son (Josh) was always a basketball player and he was a good one, too, at the 4-A level,” he said. “But he decided to play football one year, played at South Forsyth (Ga.) with (current ECU player) Brian Fox. Josh went out and started at tight end, and after the fourth or fifth game, he comes to me and says, ‘Dad, why didn’t you tell me about football?’

“And I said, ‘Son, it can’t be explained.’ There was no way to explain to him the emotions that football stirs up, and he said, ‘Dad, you’re right!’ And that tickled me to death.”

Tyson is glad to have made that connection with his son and hopes to continue to connect with the sport that stirs so much passion within him.

“All my children are grown, I have two grandchildren and I don’t have to do anything,” he said. “But, there is something I always wanted to do. I really wanted to graduate and when I gave up on football, I gave up on school. The other thing is, I always wanted to coach and make a difference like Coach (Henry) Van Sant did for me. I’m going to retire here soon and I’m going to do that… I’m going to teach kids to fight and to never give up.”

And mostly, he will try to teach that unexplainable thing about football that he and his son shared, to the next generation.

Tyson’s formula is simple:

“Football to me was always about fun,” he said. “I wasn’t very good at it, but I didn’t know it.”

Well, maybe he was kind of good at it.

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02/23/2007 02:08:31 PM

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