GREENVILLE – The following article written about longtime Greenville resident, LeRoy Wilson was a favorite of local readers. Mr. Wilson passed away on March 26, 2018, soon after the article appeared in print on November 10, 2017.
LeRoy Wilson, a Nebraska native, was born in Odell, Nebraska, in his grandparent’s house October 23, 1929.
Wilson attended Beatrice High School, 40 miles south of Lincoln, NE, where he quarterbacked his high school football team. Wilson was awarded honorable mention All-State and was named to the Mid-East Conference team as a quarterback before graduating in 1947.
After graduating from high school, Wilson went to college in Lincoln at the encouragement of hometown folks, where he made the Nebraska Cornhuskers football team and was the starting quarterback for the Huskers freshman team.
“They thought I could make the team there in Lincoln,” Wilson said of his hometown fans. “I didn’t have any money, so I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it. Back then, they didn’t give you scholarships right away, you had to earn them, so I went up there and made it as a quarterback on their freshman team. Freshman weren’t allow to play varsity football back then.”
The 1972-1973 academic year was the first in which freshmen were eligible to play varsity football in the University Division. The NCAA had historically prohibited freshmen from varsity competition, except during the U.S. involvement in World War II.
It was his freshman season, Wilson received numerous injuries playing for the Cornhuskers.
“I got some teeth knocked out by two guys,” chuckled Wilson. “One of them was All-American linebacker Dom Knovack, and the other one was All-Conference tackle Darwin Salstue.”
The injuries occurred while the freshman team was scrimmaging the varsity squad.
“They both collided on me, they hit me, and I thought – boy, my mouth. My face hit the dirt,” noted Wilson. “I thought there was some dirt in my mouth, and I spit it out, and my teeth – they broke them off, so I had to go to the dental school of college, and they took care of them.”
Later in the fall, Wilson received what was thought to be a career ending knee injury requiring surgery.
“The physicians that operated on me told the coaches ‘he’s not going to be able to play football anymore, this is pretty serious damage to his knee,’” Wilson shared. “They removed the cartilage and so-forth.”
Wanting to be a coach and teacher, Wilson transferred to Peru State Teachers College (PSTC) in 1948, where years earlier several of his uncles played football.
“While I was there, I wanted to stay in shape because I had always played ball of some sort, so I went out for track,” said Wilson. “I wasn’t a speed demon, but I wanted to throw the discus.”
While throwing the javelin, Wilson’s throwing ability caught the eye of Peru football coach Al Wheeler.
“Coach Wheeler came up to me one day and said, ‘gosh Wilson, nice throw. Why don’t you come out for football? You seem like you can throw that javelin pretty good.’ I said they told me I couldn’t play ball anymore, and he said, ‘well, why don’t we just give it a shot, see what happens,’ so that’s how I got started playing football down there.”
Wilson was the starting quarterback for PSTC his sophomore, junior and senior seasons before graduating in 1952.
Wilson was named All-Conference quarterback in 1952, his last year of college ball and was honored with a letter from Nebraska Governor, Val Peterson which read:
“Dear LeRoy: Congratulations on winning a spot on the NCC All-Star Football Team. As a former coach, I am aware you have put in countless hours of hard work to achieve such an honor. You should hold this recognition in high regard. It will be an inspiration to you, your friends and the many boys who will try to attain the high standard you have set. Sincerely, Val Peterson.”
Wilson served as his college class President his senior year and was named Who’s Who in American College and Universities.
“I got a lot of accolades that were given to me because of a lot of the work by a lot of people, especially my football team,” said Wilson. “You know you don’t do that by yourself. I had some good ball players with me.”
“I graduated in January and went home to my home in Beatrice and my mother said, ‘you have two letters. One of them you won’t like and the other one you won’t be disappointed’ and I knew what one of them was,” Wilson noted. “One of them was from the President of the United States, Harry Truman – ‘Greetings, you are to report for duty.’”
“I took a deep breath and I opened the other letter,” continued Wilson. “It was from the Baltimore Colts and they wanted me to come and try-out for the Colts, that’s before they had the draft.”
With orders to report for the US Army, Wilson’s possible chance at a professional football career lost out to his Country’s call.
Wilson reported for duty in February of 1952, where he became part of the Signal Corps as a Teletype Operator coding and decoding while receiving top-secret clearance working in a Colonel’s office.
With training completed, Wilson was slated for duty in Korea, but through a series of events, the former starting college quarterback’s orders were pulled, and he was soon on the troop ship USS Greely on his way to France.
“I thought we were never going to get off that water,” Wilson laughed. “We went from New York and we were in that ship 17 days. We went through the North Sea, one of the biggest storms they ever had. That ship would come up out of the water.”
Wilson was assigned to a transportation unit in Verdun, France, transporting troops and supplies from the coast to Divisions within France and Germany.
Once again, extenuating circumstances landed Wilson the starting quarterback job on the Orleans Ramblers Army football team while stationed overseas.
A newspaper article in the New York Herald Tribune dated September 16, 1953, made mention of Wilson in preseason hype stating, “Quarterback, LeRoy Wilson former Nebraska slot-man, possesses a razor-sharp passing arm and knows the intricacies of the split T, the basic OAC offensive pattern.”
Soon, another newspaper story noted: “LeRoy Wilson is tabbed as ‘The Arm’ by servicemen in France.”
A later newspaper article in the Stars and Stripes titled; “Ex-Orangeman In France Is Now Known As ‘The Arm’,” hit the stands November 15, 1953, with the following comments:
“LeRoy Wilson and Jackie Bearrow led the Orleans-Loire Ramblers to their first victory in the second of two meetings with the Toul-Loraine Dodgers, 19-0.
“The Ramblers struck for two TDs the first two times they possessed the ball. The first TD came on a pass from quarterback Wilson to end Bill Irby with the game less than three minutes old.
“Wilson later in the period intercepted a Dodger pass and put it on the Dodger 30. He then hit Danny Marino in the flat for 23 yards. Burly Bearrow soon bucked it over from the one.”
A November 15, 1953 news story wrote:
“Quarterback Wilson, an ex-Peru College letterman, has earned himself the title, ‘The Arm.’ Wilson thus far has pitched 10 TD passes and in four consecutive games his pass yardage totaled more than 100-years in each.
“Just how many feet of adhesive tape it took to keep LeRoy Wilson together long enough to pass the Moselle Mustangs dizzy is the question that is hard to answer.
“Listening to screams of more tape to wrap around the well-built quarterback, one would get the idea that Wilson should keep his own warehouse. All in one sitting, Wilson had two wobbly ankles taped, a trick knee, a shoulder, and several bruised ribs.
“After a recent Saturday game Wilson’s cheekbone and lips were puffed and blue from an elbow smash that stretched him out for five minutes.”
A final newspaper article gave the people of France the disappointing news with word Wilson would be departing the Rams, noting:
“The Oleans Ramblers 1954 football team’s chances suffered a severe jolt this week when star quarterback, LeRoy Wilson departed for Fort Sheridan, Ill, and discharge.
“The Lincoln, Nebraska all-around star was just about the “backbone” of the powerful 1953 Ramblers who won seven victories and lost two for the season in the Com Z Eastern League.
“Wilson was not only the team’s field general offensively and defensively, but he was the best passer in Com Z. He flipped 13 touchdown passes for the season. He was also an outstanding punter, placekicker, ball carrier and pass receiver.”
Wilson married his wife LeNie (Katherine) of nearly 60 years on November 24, 1950, his junior year of college.
“LeNie passed away on June 17, 2010,” said Wilson. “Less than three months later we would have been married 60 years. She worked for Greenville city schools where she was the secretary for the athletic department for Fred Matix.”
“You have never met such a positive guy,” said former Greenville football coach Larry Masters. “His wife worked in the Athletic Director’s office. Every time he would come up and talk to you he always had something positive to say if you were a little bit down – had a smile on his face and loved his Cornhuskers. Just a great guy to be around. You can’t beat LeRoy, he’s a great guy.”
The couple had three children; Cynthia now residing in Centerville, a son Gregory and youngest daughter Lynne born in 1960.
Gregory played football and was on the track team at Greenville, graduating in 1975, went on to play D-I football for Toledo University and now lives in Powell, OH, where he has been an usher for the OSU Buckeyes Football Team for the past 25 years.
“Lynne passed away 20 years ago from Idiopathic Fibrosis of the lungs, idiopathic meaning they didn’t know what caused it and they didn’t know how to cure it,” shared Wilson.
Lynne, a 1978 GHS graduate, is the school’s only five sport letter winner, lettering in basketball, swimming, softball, golf and track.
“She was tough, tougher than nails,” Wilson said of Lynne. “It was tough to lose her. She had just received her degree as a Physician’s Assistant in California and she came home to practice and then she got sick. It was tough losing her because she was well liked by everybody. She didn’t have any enemies. She worked her tail off, she graduated with honors and she never got to practice it. I guess the Man Upstairs wanted her on His team.”
Wilson was working for Wilson Sporting Goods in Nebraska when he answered a call to move to Greenville to work for General Athletics before moving to the Neff Company 12-years later.
Soon after accepting a position with General Athletics, Wilson received a letter from the Commissioner of the Big Eight offering the former college and Army quarterback a football officiating job – “but had to turn it down taking the job at Greenville,” noted Wilson.
“I always kid everybody,” said Wilson, “my son said, ‘you didn’t go back to play football because you gave it up to Johnny Unitas (Baltimore Colts Hall of Fame Quarterback),’ and I said, oh yeah, I gave it up to Unitas, but he was the quarterback then that year, so it’s kind of a standing joke – but would have been nice to go back and see what I could have done. You never know.”
“LeRoy is an amazing guy,” said GHS alum and three-time Super Bowl Champion Matt Light. “He’s always been a big supporter of mine throughout my entire career.”
“I know LeRoy very well,” continued Light. “One of the greatest things that could be said of anybody is the impact that they’ve had on other people. LeRoy Wilson is a guy that I have had a number of people from the time I was a kid until today come up and say the impact that he has had on them, and really it’s about his encouragement of others and all these young athletes that really fought hard to have a personal record that they bested or to be recognized in some way – they were recognized by LeRoy way before that.”
“I just heard one the other day where LeRoy had written a letter, had made it a point to go up and tell some young kid, hey, you did a great job, I’m pulling for you to hit that number you want to hit or what you want it to be. LeRoy is always encouraging young people. He’s an amazing person,” concluded Light.
Contact Darke County Media Sports Editor Gaylen Blosser at email@example.com or 937-548-3330