Manch Wheeler’s football career reached the University of Maine, but it didn’t stop there. It took him to the professional levels. It included a stop with the Buffalo Bills in the American Football League, before it became part of the NFL. It thrust him into quarterback competitions with Jack Kemp, where Wheeler put his cannon arm up against an AFL All-Star and MVP.

Through it all, however, and in the years afterward, Wheeler never lost touch with his beloved alma mater in Orono.

“We often said about the old days, if you cut a guy’s arm off and he bleeds blue, he’s a Maine guy,” longtime Black Bears broadcaster George Hale said. “And that’d be exactly what Manch was. If you cut off his arm or his leg, we said blue blood would come out. He was a Maine guy from day one.”

Wheeler, an Augusta native, died Saturday at 79 years old after a battle with cancer that followed up a stroke three years ago.

“It’s tough, but he’s in a better place now, with my mother,” said Jeff Wheeler, 55, one of Manch’s three children along with son Jay and daughter Stephanie. “He was a very strong person. He showed that before he passed, (we were told) he had 24 hours and it was a week. Very strong, very generous and he loved the state of Maine.”

And its state university.

“My brother and I were going through some jackets of his (Monday), and out of about 25 jackets I found two that didn’t have the Maine ‘M’ on them,” Jeff Wheeler said. “Everything he had, clothing-wise, there was a Maine ‘M’ on it. … That’s where he met my mother, and that was his life.”

After growing up in Manchester, Wheeler went to Phillips Academy and then to UMaine, where he succeeded wherever the Black Bears put him. He led the team in interceptions in 1960 and ’61, was second on the team in scoring in 1960 and led Maine in punting that same year, setting a program record with a 75-yard boot against New Hampshire.

“He was very smart, a very intelligent player,” said Walt Abbott, a Maine assistant from 1960-66 before serving as head coach from 1967-75. “Very good on defense, people don’t realize that. He was an outstanding defensive player and a very good punter.”

His all-around talent was overshadowed by his ability under center. Coach Harold Westerman’s Wing T offense didn’t fully utilize Wheeler’s powerful arm, so he thrived instead as a punishing ballcarrier whose 6-foot, 200-pound frame — imposing by early 1960s standards — made him a load to bring down on options, helping Maine capture the Yankee Conference championship and finish 8-0-1 in 1961, the team’s last unbeaten season.

“The joke was that it was a rare day when we threw more than 10 times in a ballgame,” said Hale, who is now 86 years old. “He used to run the Manch Wheeler option. I used to kid him, I used to say ‘Manch, what option? We know you’re going to run the ball!’ “

There wasn’t much joking around when it came to playing, however. Wheeler cared deeply about the program, and took his responsibilities as its leader seriously. “He just had a winning attitude and a winning desire,” Abbott said. “He was a competitior, no question about it. A real tough competitor, and he made everybody around him play harder because of it.”

His size and arm got the attention of the professionals, and he landed with the Bills as a free agent for $8,500 in 1962. He played one season in Buffalo, appearing in four games, and then went on a minor league football journey that included stops in Portland, Oregon and Hartford, Connecticut.

He left the game in 1969, but friends and family said he enjoyed the experience the entire way.

“He was all football, all the time,” Hale said. “He was proud of what he did. He wasn’t boastful, but he was very proud of what he accomplished.”

And he was proud of where he accomplished it. Wheeler became one of the Black Bears’ most loyal supporters — his passion stoked even further when Jeff went on to play for the Maine men’s basketball team and granddaughter Stephanie Wheeler played for the women’s basketball team — and was a mainstay at games, tailgates and Friends of Maine Football events.

“If you looked at a scrimmage, you’d see Manch. He was always there,” Abbott said. “Name it. He didn’t miss a game, he didn’t miss a function. He was there. … He was always working and supporting the program.”

And carrying on with friends, family and fellow fans, showcasing an outsized personality, jovial nature and fun-loving disposition.

“He was always just a delight to be around,” Abbott said. “Good sense of humor, just a very solid friend.”

“He cared about all of us deeply,” Jeff Wheeler said. “He loved all his family, and he had a ton of friends.”

Those trips were impossible to keep up after he suffered a stroke three years ago. Soon after, the cancer struck.

“The last three years had been very difficult for him,” Jeff Wheeler said. “It’s been a long haul these last three years.”

Still, the competitive fire that made him a star on the gridiron proved hard to douse.

“He was always positive and always wanting to make a comeback,” Abbott said. “He had several setbacks, but it didn’t faze him. He kept saying ‘Number 42 will be there.’

“He was open and friendly and caring.”

Abbott paused briefly.

“And you’d better be ready to talk football,” he added. “Because that’s what he loved.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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