Manchester “Manch” Wheeler was being remembered Monday not only for quarterbacking the University of Maine football team to one of the only undefeated seasons in program history, but also for his loyalty to his alma mater in the decades that followed.
Wheeler died Saturday night in Bangor after a lengthy illness. Born March 2, 1939, he was 79.
“Manch was such a good friend, but time marches on,” said former University of Maine head football coach and athletic director Walt Abbott, an assistant under coach Harold Westerman in 1961 when the Black Bears went 8-0-1 and won the Yankee Conference championship with a 5-0 record during Wheeler’s senior year.
“He certainly was a Maine Black Bear all the way.”
Wheeler was born in Augusta and played in that city’s first year of Little League Baseball in 1951.
He later enrolled at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and played quarterback for that prep school’s football team before enrolling at UMaine in 1958.
Wheeler was the Black Bears’ starting quarterback for his three years while also playing safety/linebacker on defense and setting school punting records. He was a team captain as a senior and was selected to the All-Yankee Conference first team after averaging 10.1 yards per carry out of the wing-T offense as the 1961 club joined the 1951 squad (6-0-1) as the lone unbeatens in UMaine football history.
“It’s too bad we weren’t throwing the football in those days because he could throw the football,” Abbott said. “He was a good runner and a very good defender, and he also punted very well.
“He was just a great all-around athlete. He had an understanding of the game and he brought the quarterback position to another level.”
Wheeler played for the Buffalo Bills of the American Football League in 1962, signing a free-agent contract worth a reported $8,500. One of seven quarterbacks in training camp, he earned one of three roster spots at the position — the starter was former U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp — and played in four games that season.
Wheeler was assigned to the Bills’ taxi squad in 1963 before embarking on a minor league football career with stops in Portland, Oregon, and Hartford, Connecticut, that lasted until his retirement as a player in 1969.
Wheeler and his wife Sandy — whom he met at UMaine — originally settled in Connecticut where he was general manager for the Hartford Knights minor league football team. He also worked in sales and then real estate appraisals upon returning to Maine.
Wheeler eventually became one of the founders of the Friends of Maine Football support group and was well-known for his culinary skills around the grill at pregame tailgating events.
“Like in any group there are certain people you can count on to do the work and others who enjoy being in the group but don’t help as much,” said Peter Weatherbee, a Bangor attorney and a leader in the friends group. “But Manch was always one of the first ones to pitch in and help out despite the fact that he was far and away the best-known former Maine football player in the group, and the only pro player, that’s for sure.”
That grill is now named in Wheeler’s honor.
“He was the face of the Friends of Maine Football for a lot of years, and when we named the grill after him it pleased him to no end,” Weatherbee said.
A 1989 inductee into the University of Maine Sports Hall of Fame and a 2013 inductee into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame, Wheeler was known for his gregarious presence within the UMaine football family.
“He was so supportive of Maine football and bigger than life and loved to talk to all the different folks who’d come in,” said Jerry Perkins, a former UMaine football player who met Wheeler when both served on the board of directors of the M Club. “He’d talk about the old times and the new teams. What an ambassador he was for the University of Maine, a tremendous ambassador.”
Wheeler enjoyed a six-decade relationship with his alma mater as son Jeff Wheeler (1981-1985) and granddaughter Samantha Wheeler (2008-2012) both played basketball for the Black Bears.
“There may have been people who played football with him or just came to know him since then, but we’ve all in life seen people who come and go, and then there are always some you remember because there’s something a little different about them,” Weatherbee said.
“That was Manch.”
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