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Larger than life legend Tom Michel passes

Tom Michel, pictured above during his East Carolina playing days, died on Monday. A member of the school's sports Hall of Fame, Michel played for the Pirates from 1960-63. The photo is from the Sept. 21, 1963, game program, (pictured below) for the East Carolina-Wake Forest matchup that christened Ficklen Stadium.


By Ron Cherubini

Staff reports and an ECU Athletics
release contributed to this article.

If you were anywhere near what was then East Carolina College in 1963, you know or have heard of Tom Michel. That year in Pirate lore belonged to the Goliath-like fullback that made the Clarence Stasavich Single Wing fly.

On Monday, the Pirate community lost another great warrior when William Thomas Michel passed away.

“Oh, my… I am stunned,” former Pirates coach and administrator Dr. Henry VanSant said. “Tom has got to be one of the greatest fullbacks to ever play at East Carolina, no question about it. He was a hard player and a good person and good friend. He really loved the game and being around it."

To his coaches, Michel was a pioneer, a bold example of a truly elite player choosing to blaze his trail in the dawn of a new era for East Carolina's then-fledgling but ambitious program.

“Fair to say, he was one of the first really great football players at ECU,” VanSant said. “We had some earlier, of course, guys like James Speight and Glenn Bass, but Tom was one of the very first NFL football players that we had from East Carolina.”

To his teammates, particularly the underclassmen, he was a player to take note of.

“Yes, he was larger than life to some of us,” backfield mate Jerry Tolley recalled of his former teammate. “I remember when I was a true freshman, I was there with all the other freshmen and Tom looked like a big offensive tackle to me and I remarked to someone they have some big linemen here and he said, ‘No Jerry, he is our fullback.’

“I remember when I was a freshman and not dressing out, we played against Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Greenville and I remember from my viewpoint, Tom had such an outstanding game. I remember it because I wrote my first college English paper on Tom Michel and the game he had that evening. He was so big and fast.”

Michel came to East Carolina from Arlington, VA, and was an outstanding tailback in Jack Boone’s offense in 1960-61 and then starred for Clarence Stasavich in 1962-63.

It was ’63, however, when he led the team with 830 yards rushing, paving the way for a 9-1 season, culminating in a 27-6 win over Northeastern in the Eastern Bowl, played in Allentown, PA. In that game, Michel scored the game’s first touchdown on a 15-yard carry and then scored again on an 82-yard run off a fake lateral.

Just two points separated that 1963 team from a perfect season.

Michel was part of so many Pirates firsts, including the team’s first Bowl victory in that 1963 season. He was also the first player to score a touchdown in Ficklen Stadium.

He was a leader on the first team to beat an Atlantic Coast Conference foe, which happened to be in the Pirates' first game against an ACC school — which happened to be played in the first game in the then-new Ficklen Stadium.

In that Sept. 21, 1963 game, Michel piled up 120 yards in a 20-10 victory over Wake Forest — which featured a player of its own destined for fame by the name of Brian Piccolo — in front of 17,000 galvanized Pirates fans.

Michel garnered a Little All-America nomination as well as a place on the coveted all-State team that year.

“I never think of Tom without thinking of him in that Ficklen Dedication Game against Wake Forest,” VanSant said. “He scored all three touchdowns that game.

“Tom was more on the quiet side. He just wasn’t a rah-rah type of guy, but when you gave Tom Michel the ball and he broke the line of scrimmage, it was all over.”

While he was a star on the gridiron, Michel also left his mark on the Pirates track program, piling up five medals at the NAIA Championships in 1962, including one in the 100 yard dash, an event in which Michel regularly clocked 9.6's.

His stature belied the fierce competitor and gifted talent he was.

“Tom was funny because he looked like a pulling guard,” VanSant recalled. “He was a little round… a little pudgy, not the long lean type, but he was 6-0 tall and he could fly.”

A superior talent coming out of ECU, Michel established another Pirate milestone when he was the first drafted in 1964 by the Oakland Raiders (19th round) in the AFL draft and the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL draft (14th round). He chose the Vikings, where he went on to play for legendary coach Norm VanBrocklin. There, Michel excelled right out of the gate as a regular with the Vikings, but he eventually saw his career shortened by injuries incurred during that first season.

He went on to be inducted in the East Carolina University Athletics Hall of Fame in 1978.

Michel married his college sweetheart, the former Jean Crain — niece of Harold Crain, co-owner of the Durham company that built Ficklen Stadium. Michel once lovingly retold the story of how he met his Jean, saying, "I met my wife in the cafeteria at East Carolina and she beat me in a food fight."

He would later get to enjoy the East Carolina football experience all over again when his son, Billy, suited up for the Pirates from 1986-88. The younger Michel had a stellar career in the trenches for the Pirates, playing offensive line.

With so much invested in Greenville in his life, Michel remained in the community, close to his alma mater, working for the U.S. Postal Service for 33 years before recently retiring.

Indeed, on Monday, a great Pirate legend died.

“He was one of my (Pirate) heroes when he I got there,” Tolley recalled. “Tom was the epitome of what an East Carolina player was and should be.”

According to the obituary in the Greenville Daily Reflector, a private family service will be held. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the East Carolina University Educational Foundation, 304 Ward Sports Medicine Building, Greenville, NC 27858; or the American Diabetes Association, P.O. Box 1131, Fairfax, VA 22038-1131.

Funeral arrangements are being coordinated by Wilkerson Funeral Home & Crematory of Greenville.

Send an e-mail message to Ron Cherubini.

Page updated: 02/23/07 02:05 PM

An ECU Athletics press release was used in compiling this report. ©2005 All rights rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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