Wendell Wilcox will always be my hero

Published 11:19 am Monday, June 24, 2024

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By Lloyd Albritton


“READY SET! HUT ONE! HUT TWO!” Big Wendell Spence hiked the ball on the designated count. Quarterback B. C. Hall took the ball, did a quick 270-degree counter-clockwise spin off his right foot and faked a handoff to Fullback Marvin Groover as Marvin charged like a locomotive through the four-hole. Marvin closed his body over the ball and slammed through the line with his thick, powerful legs churning. Marvin Groover was 200 pounds of muscle packed into five and half feet of height. He ran with his head down, his massive body low to the ground. It always took at least a half-dozen tacklers to bring Marvin Groover down—if he felt bad. On a good day it took a whole team.

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But this time Marvin didn’t have the ball! While B.C. appeared to shove the ball into Marvin’s stomach, he actually made a quick pitch right through Marvin’s raised arms and into the hands of Right Halfback Wendell Wilcox, who had begun his oblique move to the right sideline at the snap of the ball. Wendell deftly snatched the spinning ball from the air and continued his sweep straight down the sideline toward the opposing goal line. Wendell ran for a ninety-yard touchdown! Nobody touched him!

Uh oh! A flag on the play. The Ernest Ward High School Golden Eagles huddled and lined up on the football once again at their own 10-yard-line. Wendell Spence snapped the ball, B.C. took it, Marvin faked it, and for the second time, Wendell Wilcox ran a 90-yard touchdown straight down the sideline. The proprietary 88-Sweep, developed by Coach Joe Latham, was a play virtually made for Wendell Wilcox. Wendell had the speed and the flair to make it work. In the fall football season of 1961, Wendell Wilcox brought Ernest Ward fans to their feet at virtually every game as he sped like greased lightning down the field and across the goal line time and time again.

Nineteen sixty-one was a good year for Wendell Wilcox. The Ernest Ward Golden Eagles’ football team went undefeated that year. Each and every player seemed perfectly suited for his position on the team, but no one more than Wendell Wilcox. Over sixty years later, some few folks still talk about the glory Wendell Wilcox brought to the Ernest Ward High School football that year. Most of those who witnessed it are now passed to the other side of the veil, including Wendell himself.

I had a good year too. Coach Latham bought new uniforms for the senior team that year, and when all was said and done, he had six new uniforms left over. These he offered to six of his best Ninth Grade players on the junior team. I was lucky enough to be one of those six. I wasn’t a very good a football player, and I wasn’t very big either, but I was determined and I worked hard, so I guess that’s why I got picked. Even so, I didn’t get to play in the varsity games very often. If our team was ahead by a wide margin, Coach Latham would sometimes let us younger boys play in the last quarter. Still, that was good enough for me. Just to share the locker room and the sidelines with boys like Wendell Wilcox, Marvin Groover, B. C. Hall, Leamond Gunn, Robert McCullough and Jerry Mason was an opportunity I did not take lightly and will never forget.

The new Ernest Ward uniforms were ungodly handsome that year (royal blue stretch trousers, gold jersey with blue numbers) and I felt every bit a football star dressed out in one of them, even as a “bench-warmer.” In practices, I was not much more than a blocking dummy for the big boys, but it was an honor to get knocked around by such a grand team of football players. They were all my heros, but none more than Wendell Wilcox. Wendell was The Touchdown Kid. He could flat run with that football!

A few years ago, I attended the funeral services of a well-known local man, and as I entered the outer vestibule of the funeral parlor, there stood none other than Wendell Wilcox himself. I had not kept up with Wendell over the years, but I had run into him a couple of times at local dining spots. He looked healthy and vigorous on those occasions and always greeted me with a friendly smile of recognition. This time was no different. As we shook hands and greeted one another, Wendell nodded to his companions standing with him and quipped, “This is our celebrity.” He went on to explain that he was a reader of my column in the local newspaper. I quickly returned the compliment by informing the men standing that Wendell Wilcox had been one of the best running backs in the history of Ernest Ward High School football. Wendell smiled shyly, but knowingly, at the compliment.

Wendell got married to his high school girlfriend during the summer of 1962. He failed to attend early fall training that year, but did return to school for his senior year. He showed up on the practice field for training on the first day of school, but it was obvious that his heart was no longer in football. He quit school, and football, after only two weeks. I saw him on a Saturday night a year or so later while cruising the Dairy Bar Drive-In with some friends. He was wearing his levis and school jacket and still carried himself with the swagger of a bonafide football star. He said he had only stopped by the old teenage hangout to grab a sandwich on his way to work the graveyard shift at a local factory.

As Wendell and I talked in the lobby of the funeral parlor, I noticed a slight slurring of his speech. He told me that he had suffered a stroke some months earlier while working in an overheated work environment. His health impairment was barely noticeable. In fact, he looked every bit as youthful and athletic as I remembered him. Our conversation quickly turned from high school days of yore to the man in whose honor we had gathered, and then on to the greeting of other friends.

Later, as thoughts of Wendell Wilcox lingered, my mind meandered back to school days. I remembered a warm spring day at school in my Eighth Grade year. Some of the older boys gathered on the football field at the end of a school day for a foot race.   The group consisted of some of the fastest runners in the school. Wendell was there, then still in the Tenth Grade, but already recognized as a future star athlete. A dozen or so other boys tossed their hats into the competition, all known to be fast runners.

The boys shed their shoes and scrunched their bare feet in the grass as they limbered up. They rolled up the cuffs of their britches, took their shirts off, and trotted down to the end of the field to line up on the 100-yard-line. I just happened to be there that day and I watched closely, for I had a feeling this would be a day to remember. Only a few other students gathered to witness this epic foot race. Ours was a small country school and all the competitors were country boys plain and simple. None were skilled or trained in track and field. They had learned to run in uneven pastures and plowed fields and through the briars and brambles of the woods in which they lived. They were used to jumping stumps and fallen trees and ditches when they ran.

At the wave of a handkerchief, the racers took off. Wendell, always a quick starter, took the lead in the first twenty yards, but was promptly eclipsed by an older boy, a senior named Marvin Sanders. Marvin had played football in his earlier years, but had been disqualified because of his age. He was nineteen, small and lean. Marvin Sanders’ legs moved like a pistons in a race engine, so fast I couldn’t even see them. He took the lead in the race and never lost it, crossing the finish line a good ten yards ahead of a tall tenth grade boy named Leamond Gunn, who would himself become a legendary running back in his senior year of school. Coming in third, and only a few steps behind Leamond, was Wendell Wilcox. Wendell had been clocked at ten seconds flat on the hundred yard dash. On this day, nobody held a stop watch, but I knew I had witnessed an off-the-record historical event of epic proportions.

Coming away from the informal foot race awed by the phenomenal speed of Marvin Sanders, I became one of the few students in the school to know that Wendell Wilcox was, in fact, not the fastest runner on campus. The following year, as he enthralled the crowds at Friday night games with his speed and prowess on the football field, fans could not fathom anyone being a faster runner than Wendell Wilcox, for Wendell’s running style embodied not just speed, but flamboyance. He ran straight up, head back, arms and legs flailing, and grunting with every step he took. His cleats flung dirt and grass divots behind him. We did not just see Wendell Wilcox run. We heard him! We felt him! We grunted with him each time he looked over his shoulder to see an opposing player gaining ground and stepped it up a notch, sometimes swaying his back as fingers clawed at his jersey. I knew that it was not Wendell’s speed that made him heroic. It was his heart! Wendell Wilcox was not just a good football player. He was a charismatic personality whose friends and fans clamored to be near him. In those callow days of my youth, watching Wendell Wilcox swagger confidently across the old school campus in his beltless levis and blue-and-gold football jacket was like watching Steve McQueen in Baby The Rain Must Fall. Oh, how I dreamed of running the football just like Wendell Wilcox. He was just plain cool!

Wendell Wilcox passed away a few years ago and I was honored to be asked by his wife to speak at his funeral service. A short time before he died, I encountered Wendell at another funeral service and he promptly sat me down knee to knee and looked into my eyes with a most serious gaze. “Lloyd,” he said, “I am your biggest fan and I love that story you wrote about me, but there is one thing you said that was not true and I need to correct you. I know I am not the fastest runner there ever was, but I also know that nobody ever beat me in a 100-yard-dash by 15 yards, like you said Marvin Sanders did.” I confessed to Wendell that, after so many years, perhaps I had remembered the race a little wrong and I hoped he would forgive me. Wendell smiled and patted my knee as he stood to walk away. “Aw that’s okay,” he said. “I just wanted you to know because you are my hero and what you think matters to me.”

Sometimes, when I feel the devil breathing down my collar, and his fingers grasping for my shoulder pads to pull me down, I think of Wendell Wilcox and I throw my head back, lunge forward with a mighty grunt, and I run as hard as I can for my goal line. I am confident that the life of Wendell Wilcox was about far more than high school football touchdowns, but if he had done nothing more with his life than run touchdowns, that single legacy would have touched my life enough to make a difference.