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.
Staff reports and an
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
Michel garnered a Little
All-America nomination as well as a place on the coveted all-State team
“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
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
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
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.
are being coordinated by Wilkerson Funeral Home & Crematory of
Send an e-mail message to Ron Cherubini.
02/23/07 02:05 PM
ECU Athletics press release was used in
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