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No. 14

With Ron Cherubini

George Wheeler
Blessed with a Lifetime of Football

George Wheeler just found out he has cancer.

There… it’s out there now.

To 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.

“I’m not the only person to have had (cancer),” he said. “And I’m not the only one who will beat it.”

And that’s all Wheeler had to say about that.

To know George Wheeler, it seems, is to know true determination and an immense love of the game of football.

“Coach (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 tough hombre.”

Though 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.)

“It was 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.”

Getting a scholarship was a huge deal for Wheeler and his family.

“My dad 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

VanSant took film back with him and after some review, East Carolina offered.

“My dad (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.’

“(Dad) 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.”

Quietly, 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 spring game."

Overwhelmed with his new surroundings, Wheeler was equally impressed with his new coach.

“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.”

East 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 One.

“(The 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.

“He 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 stay.”

With the fear of VanSant instilled in the young Wheeler, it became abundantly clear very quickly that the diatribe was not mere lip service.

“We had 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.

“It was 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.”

That 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.

“We had 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.”

Wheeler 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 unbelievable tailback.”

It was just that the freshmen all “meshed” perfectly together, as demonstrated by their last game in 1966.

“We were 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.”

The success carried forward for Wheeler and he came to know, firsthand, the fire in Stasavich.

“My 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?’

“He said, ‘It rained on them Indians, but it didn’t rain on our Pirates… and that’s just a shame, huh?’”

But it was what he said to Wheeler on the bus ride home that got the sophomore pushing himself even harder.

“He 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 around me.

Wheeler (Center in striped tie) and
fellow Pirates on the road.

“That’s 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.’”

Though it is obvious how much Stasavich and VanSant influenced the young Wheeler, it was another teacher that, perhaps, set him on his true course.

“I 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.

“I chose 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.”

Where Martinez helped Wheeler identify his ability to be more as a student, it was Coach Stasavich who forced him to become a man.

“I hate 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 summer school.”

He wasn’t the man.

“Stas 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.

“I 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.

“Stas 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 team.’”

Wheeler as an assistant
at South Carolina State.
(Photo from SCSU SID.)

Wheeler 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.

Wheeler retired in 2000 after a decade at South Carolina State University, where he coached the likes of Robert Porcher and Chartric Darby.

But his path to his final coaching assignment contained a number of great experiences, starting with a stint at North Carolina A&T University.

“I was 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?’

“He was 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.”

After 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 many ways.

“I met 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 talk 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.)

Holts and Arkansas were just too good to turn down, so Wheeler made the play.

“Coach 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.”

Wheeler 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.

In 1983, 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.

“Well, I 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.’”

Along 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.

“You 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.”

That was 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 SID.)

He 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.

“I have 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 about success.”

Wheeler credits his players and his former coaches and teammates for ALL of his personal successes.

“My life 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.

“And football… football has been a God-send to me. It has been a blessing all my life.”

Today, 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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Pirate Time
Machine Archives


Name (Nickname):

George Wheeler (None)





Years at ECU:


Position/Jersey No.

Defensive Tackle/ No. 77


Buena Vista, VA

Currently Resides:

Lexington, SC

  • Sales Manager, TNT Fireworks Inc.

  •  Retired Football Coach

    • South Carolina State University

    •  University of Missouri

    • New Jersey Generals (USFL)

    • University of Arkansas

    • North Carolina A&T

  • BS Health and Physical Education, ECU

  • MA Ed, ECU


Marital Status:


Significant Other:


  • Tasha, 23

  • Jonathon, 19


“In my lifetime, I have been the victim of a whole lot of care and guidance and direction. I certainly would not have accomplished anywhere near the successes that I have without those people in my life. If I had a chance to do it all again, I wouldn’t change a thing.”


1. Who is your favorite current Pirate and Why?

“You know, it has been hard for me to follow the team, roster to roster each year, because I have been coaching and involved on the weekends. I am impressed with all of the success there, though. Coach (Steve) Logan has done a great job with the program. Listen, East Carolina through the years, and Clarence Stasavich laid the foundation, has just grown and grown and grown.  Leo Jenkins made Eastern North Carolina, and Coach Stas was not far behind. Through that football program, Eastern North Carolina was changed and so was the school.”

2. What do you miss most about ECU?

“I miss the care and nurturing and respect and the culture. The cultivating that the athletic staff and Phys Ed department gave me. I was a hell-raiser, but these people made me feel like I was going to be a somebody and I believed them.”

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

“The Student Union, and I’ll tell you why. We had some guys on the team with some money and I took note of them.  I once told Coach Stas, ‘Coach, I want a car.’ And he liked to pass out. I told him, ‘I want pretty clothes and I want to do the things that these other guys are doing. They can take a girl to dinner and a movie and I ain’t got none of that.’ You know what he told me? He said, ‘You can get you a little old girlfriend and you can take her to the Student Union and for a quarter, you can feed her all the ice cream she can eat and take her to a free movie.”


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

“Scott Hall. Room 208 B. We used to have these shows, like on ‘Laugh In,’ that show with Goldie Hawn. You know… drag shows. Guys would come in and dress up and guys with guitars would play music. It kept us entertained. One story, we had a guy named Al Batemen – heck of player from Ohio – who was a big-time pyromaniac. He would go down to South Carolina and would get the big firecrackers and put them in cigarettes and he would run a fuse and he would put them in the garden center (Scott Courtyard) and they would go off and the proctors would come out. And, of course, nobody saw nothing. Al was something else.”


5. Greatest Moment as a Pirate football player?

“Probably, my last game. I remember Coach VanSant came over after the game and kind of had a tear in his eye. He said, ‘You know, four years ago wasn’t that long.’ And I remember thinking… ‘I can’t remember playing a game.’


6. Most disliked opponent?

“Probably Richmond. But we had battles with Louisville. One year we played and we were both undefeated and we beat them. Also West Texas State, when Mercury Morris and Frank Thomas played for them.”

7. Athletic Influences?

“Coach VanSant, mom and dad, Coach Stas… my teammates.”

8. Favorite coach?

“Coach VanSant and Harold Bullard (played for Coach Stas at Lenoir Rhyne). They were two peas in a pod. There was not a greater coach in the world than Coach VanSant, to me. And Bullard was right there equal. These guys were unbelievable influences on me.”

9. Best Locker Room Story

“Coach Stas and the Pepsi-Cola story up at William & Mary.”

10. Best Emerald City hangout?

“Elbo Room and The Coach and Four and the Pirates Den… liked them all in the off-season.”


Pirate Time
Machine Archives

02/23/2007 02:08:37 PM

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