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The ubiquitous grin and infectious laugh were unmistakable. Dereck Whittenburg was ready to have a good time for a good cause.
The former North Carolina State University basketball star was one of more than 40 invited guests Wednesday at the 17th annual North Carolina Baseball Museum Celebrity Golf Tournament, played under a gorgeous blue sky at Wedgewood Public Golf Course.
“Anytime you can come out and support a great cause and be around people and a lot of my Wolfpack people here, it’s good,” Whittenburg said. “There’s a lot of great memories out in Wilson and a lot of great folks down here.”
Whittenburg was a first-time participant in the N.C. Baseball Museum Celebrity Golf Tournament, one of its annual fundraisers. Other first-time guests were Wilson native and former MLS goalkeeper William Hesmer, former University of North Carolina quarterback Paul Miller, former NFL players Blair Bush and Dave Taylor, former N.C. State and minor league pitcher Daniel Caldwell, the son of former major leaguer Mike Caldwell, and Barton College football coach Chip Hester. The gathering also included former major league baseball players Tommy Smith, Johnny Grubb, Monty Montgomery, John Roper, 1970 American League Cy Young Award winner Jim Perry, Jim Coates, Billy Harris, John Donaldson, Floyd Wicker and Fred Valentine as well as former NFL players Milt Plum and Jim Cheyunski.
Perhaps best known for his “pass” to teammate Lorenzo Charles for the game-winning, buzzer-beater dunk to stun top-ranked Houston in the 1983 NCAA championship game, Whittenburg continues to be a revered figure among Wolfpack faithful. On N.C. State’s magical run to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and NCAA titles under the legendary late head coach Jim Valvano, Whittenburg said: “The way we won was just phenomenal and the way people kind of gravitate to our team. We played the underdog role and you’ve got the great Jimmy Valvano who came in with a dream and wanted to win a national championship. More importantly we gave people hope that just some ordinary guys could achieve extraordinary things and that’s led to using that platform to really helping others. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past 36 years. That championship run, in the last 36 years, somebody’s always talked about that championship run and it was just a special moment.”
Whittenburg became a coach shortly after his college career ended, first serving as a graduate assistant under Valvano in 1985-86. That was the first of three stints on the Wolfpack bench for the Maryland native, including in 2013-15 under former head coach Mark Gottfried. Whittenburg, who was the head coach at Wagner and Fordham, is now an associate athletic director for community relations and student support for his alma mater.
“I love what I’m doing,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun to be involved with the university and the athletic department, mentoring our athletes. So I’ve got a great position and I’m having a lot of fun with it.”
Whittenburg’s love for N.C. State has been in place since before he signed to play for then head coach Norm Sloan.
“It’s all about what you get out of being a part of the university, so when I came to N.C. State, I wanted to get a degree, obviously,” he said. “I’m a first-generation graduate. I wanted to come out mature and a better person and then, the icing on the cake was winning the national championship. So it’s not much more you can get, but I appreciate my experience there, my relationships that I built there and I wanted to come back and pay it forward and help my university any way I can.”
That means applying the needle to a fan of a rival school whenever possible. He playfully teased N.C. Baseball Museum board member and UNC graduate Marshall Lamm for wearing a T-shirt saluting the Tar Heels’ 2017 NCAA title.
As always, Whittenburg is upbeat about N.C. State athletics as it transitions leadership of the department from Debbie Yow to Boo Corrigan.
“All of our sports are doing really well and Debbie Yow has done a great job in her 10-year tenure here,” Whittenburg said. “Now we’re moving on to Boo Corrigan, so we’re excited about that. We’ve got good coaches, good teams, good people in the athletic department, so the future’s bright for us.”
A WHOLE LOTTA WINNING
Miller, who was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in May, was an All-ACC and All-ACC Academic quarterback at UNC in 1971 and led the Tar Heels to bowl games in back-to-back seasons. He was first in total offense in 1971 as UNC went unbeaten in winning the ACC championship and finished with a 9-3 record, losing 7-3 to No. 6 Georgia in the Gator Bowl.
The previous year, the fourth under head coach Bill Dooley, the Miller-led Tar Heels went 8-4 and lost to No. 8 Arizona State in the Peach Bowl.
While Miller was a big part of two of the best football seasons in UNC history, it was actually a step down for the former Ayden High star.
In three varsity seasons at Ayden, Miller’s teams never lost a football game, going 52-0. However, in a quirk of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association at the time, the Tornadoes never won a state championship with Miller. There were just four regional champions in the NCHSAA 1-A ranks from 1961-66 and Ayden won consecutive Region 1 crowns in 1965 and 1966. The state association narrowed the championships to an East and a West in 1967, Miller’s senior year. Ayden High got its one and only football state title in 1968, when Miller was a UNC freshman.
But his success at Ayden High wasn’t limited to football.
“In basketball, I started my sophomore year and we were 28-0 and state champs,” Miller said. “My junior year we were 28-0, state champs. My senior year we were 22-4 and got beat in the tournament by (future N.C. State star) Tommy Burleson. He was 7-foot-2 and they had a 6-foot-6 forward and our center didn’t play that night. He had a sprained ankle. They beat us by eight points.
“My sophomore year, we finished 17-1 in baseball. We got upset in the Eastern finals. Then my senior year, we won the state championship in baseball.”
Miller estimated that his teams lost less than 10 games total in his three-year high school career. He compared Ayden’s run to that of Fike High in Wilson when the Cyclones of head coach Henry Trevathan, who stood nearby Tuesday at Wedgewood, won three straight state 4-A titles in the late 1960s.
“The town embraces you,” Miller said. “Of course, Ayden was even smaller than Wilson. There was nothing to do. there was no social media, there was no bowling alleys. It was just football, basketball, baseball. It was the kind of thing that you did.”
Miller said that there was just a special group of athletes in Ayden at the time, including Monte Little, who played QB for the Tornadoes before Miller. Little, who was present at Wedgewood, later was the ECU baseball coach for three seasons, compiling an 82-49 record.
Despite UNC’s lack of a winning record for all but one season from 1958 to Dooley’s fourth season directing the Tar Heels in 1970, Miller didn’t have to deal with it. He was on the Carolina freshman team in 1968 that went 4-1 and then was injured during the preseason and missed the 1969 season in which the Tar Heels 5-5 after going 5-15 in Dooley’s first two seasons.
“They had only had three winning seasons in 17 years and they had just hired Bill Dooley and he was going to turn it around,” Miller said. “And he did, but the first couple of years he had was kind of like what Mack Brown had. It was tough! Then my sophomore year is when it turned around and then my junior and senior year on.”
STILL ONE OF THE GREATS
Hesmer is one of the most accomplished athletes in Wilson history, having played nine Major League Soccer seasons, including six with the Columbus Crew. Hesmer helped the Crew win the 2008 MLS Cup and earned a couple of invitations to the U.S. Men’s National Team training camp.
He was a two-time All-American at Wake Forest University following a career at Hunt High in which he starred in football and basketball as well as soccer and was a starter on the baseball team. However, all that is in the past now for Hesmer, the 2000 Wilson Times Athlete of the Year who is now a financial planner in Raleigh. Hesmer said he wasn’t much of a golfer during his younger days, but “it’s all I do now,” he said with a grin.
Even at 37, Hesmer looks like he could defend the pipes with abandon if called upon. He humbly downplayed his high school exploits but noted that he was glad that he was able to play as many sports as he could instead of specializing in just soccer. Hesmer said that his Capital Area Soccer League club team always wanted him to focus on soccer but allowed him to play as he could, instead of the all-or-none choice that aspiring young soccer stars face today with high-level clubs.
Hesmer and his wife, Tacey, are the parents of two sons: William and Anderson.
LAST CALL FROM OMAHA
The 1968 N.C. State baseball team, the last Wolfpack nine to travel to Omaha, Nebraska, and play in the College World Series, staged a mini-reunion at Wedgewood on Wednesday. Besides Caldwell and Smith, the 1968 team members present were Freddie Combs, Francis Combs, Alex Cheek and John Rowland.
Among those also on hand Wednesday were former Duke basketball star Steve Vacendak, former N.C. State point guard and college basketball coach Eddie Biedenbach, former Duke sports broadcaster Bob Harris, former Carolina Hurricanes radio announcer Chuck Kaiton, former Lee County football coach and N.C. Sports Hall of Famer Paul Gay and N.C. Sports Hall of Fame executives Bobby Guthrie and Don Fish.
Former college baseball players Rick Richardson, Mike Bryant, Robert Wells and Robin Rose as well as former college football players Lynn Daniell and Leander Green and former minor league baseball player Johnny Ellen.
In addition, Wilson County sporting notables included former Fike High coaches Gus Andrews, Gilbert Ferrell and Jim Boykin Jr.; Wilson County Schools athletic director Jimmy Tillman and Barton athletic director Todd Wilkinson, baseball coach Jim Chester and golf coach Ashley Leonard.
Former East Carolina pitcher and Wilson and Rock Ridge legend Earl Boykin was conspicuously absent from the proceedings Wednesday. Wicker, Boykin’s teammate on the Pirates’ 1961 NAIA championship team, said that Boykin had told him he was nursing a bad back and wouldn’t be able to make it.
Wicker then quipped, referencing American Athletic Conference-champion ECU’s upset loss to Wichita State in the first round of the AAC tournament Tuesday, that Boykin may have injured himself throwing a fit while watching the game.