Manch Wheeler lets out a hearty laugh and delves into a story he’s told countless times to countless people.

“Right place and the right time,” says Wheeler, 74, an Augusta native who on Sunday will be inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame. “I was lucky they were looking at the right film.”

“They” were the Buffalo Bills of what was then the American Football League. The “right film” was a 1961 collegiate football game between the University of Maine — for whom Wheeler shined as quarterback — and Vermont.

The Bills, as Wheeler tells it, wanted to take a closer look at UMaine standout receiver and Gardiner native David Cloutier. What they also saw on film was a strong-armed quarterback who could throw missiles over a gridiron.

Wheeler threw four touchdowns against the Catamounts, including two to Cloutier, in a 34-14 victory. One of his touchdown throws covered 75 yards, 68 of which came in the air.

The victory came at the beginning of one of the best seasons in UMaine football history. The Black Bears went 8-0-1 (5-0 in the Yankee Conference), their last unbeaten season.

The victory also helped Wheeler earn a job in professional football; the Bills signed Wheeler as a free agent in 1962.

“My signing contract was $8,500,” Wheeler says. “That was a big deal. It was a lot of money then. A gallon of gas was 24 cents. It’s all about perspective.”

Wheeler entered Bills camp as one of seven quarterbacks competing for a roster spot. Jack Kemp and Warren Rabb highlighted the group.

“But I had the strongest arm there,” Wheeler says. “Coach (Lou Saban) got down to three quarterbacks right away. It didn’t take him long to make cuts. I remember he came over and said, ‘kid, you’re going to stick around here.’ The competition was stiff. It was pretty exciting.”

Wheeler appeared in four games that season. He never threw a pass and rushed for 7 yards on three carries. Most of his work came late in games that were long decided.

One of those games, a 35-10 win over San Diego on Oct. 13, provided Wheeler his requisite welcome-to-the-AFL moment.

“Coach told me to go on a rollout to help kill off some clock,” Wheeler says. “So I did. The problem was no one blocked (linebacker) Ernie Ladd. He hit me and my helmet went one way, the ball went another way and I went another way. I don’t remember much of anything after that.”

Wheeler played out the season on the active roster for the Bills. In 1963 he was on the reserve, or taxi squad. The following year he began a minor league football odyssey that took him from Portland, Ore. to Hartford, Conn.

In 1969, at 30 years old, Wheeler walked away from the game.

“It was a good experience,” he says. “I had no problems walking away. Football was always a vehicle to get to know people. Playing was fun, but it was the people — the coaches and players — that was what it was all about.”

The road to Maine

Wheeler grew up in Manchester and played in Augusta’s first Little League in 1951. He later enrolled at Phillips Academy, where he became quarterback his junior year.

Wheeler came to UMaine in the fall 1958 and became an integral part of the football team’s “Wing T” offense.

“We actually called it the special Manch option,” says Walt Abbott, 76, of Orono, who at the time was an assistant coach at Maine. “Manch loved the option play. He’d take the option and just run over people. If you were running the option, you didn’t look for him to pitch.”

The Black Bears threw little at the time — Abbott guessed about 10 times a game — but it was clear to everyone that Wheeler could throw a football.

Abbott says the Wheeler-to-Cloutier connection was fun to watch.

“Cloutier had some great speed and Manch could reach him anywhere on the field,” says Abbott, who would become Maine’s head coach in 1967. “Manch was ahead of his time, really. We didn’t throw the ball much but he could really throw it. He just had a great arm, a strong arm. The other key is that Manch never got hurt. He was always healthy and he played both sides of the ball. He was just as outstanding on defense in the secondary. He just had a keen mind for the game.”

The Black Bears recorded just their second undefeated season in program history in Wheeler’s senior year and won the Yankee Conference.

Wheeler led the team in total offense in his junior and senior seasons. He averaged 10.1 yards a carry in his senior season.

Life after football

Wheeler ventured into sales after retiring from football as a player and then a general manager for the Hartford Knights. He settled in Enfield, Conn., with his wife, Sandy. He later ran an appraisal company in Maine for about 20 years.

Today, his six grandchildren keep him busy, as does his job with Dick’s Taxi in Brewer.

“My last year in pro football I was on the taxi squad and now I drive a cab,” Wheeler says. “I guess you can say I’ve come full circle. I drive a cab now because it gives me something to do. I’ve been doing it a few years now but will probably stop at the end of this year. It’s a lot of fun. I love talking to people.”

On Sunday, he’ll be talking to more people as he and nine others gain entry into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame at the Augusta Civic Center. Wheeler will give a five-minute speech, with most of it unprepared.

“I didn’t get to where I am alone,” he says. “I’ll thank a lot of people who helped me out along the way. It’s an honor to be inducted. I can’t believe it some ways. It’s funny because I still get envelopes in the mail from people who collect autographs. I have one now from someone in Canada that I have to send out.

“It always amazes me that anyone even knows who the hell I am.”

Bill Stewart — 621-5640

[email protected]

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