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
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
“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
“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
“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
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
“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
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
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
“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
“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.
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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