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Gene Heeter

   
 

Gene Heeter
By John Antonik

Do you remember Gene Heeter?

 
  West Virginia receiver Gene Heeter spent three seasons in the NFL with the New York Jets
(WVU Sports Communications photo)

He was West Virginia's top pass-catcher in 1962 before signing on with the New York Jets of the American Football League for a three seasons from 1963-65.

The Windber, Pa., native was recruited to West Virginia by Art "Pappy" Lewis, but instead played three seasons for Gene Corum.

"If it weren't for that scholarship to West Virginia, I'd probably still be working in the coal mines," he said.

Heeter's first opportunity to play major college football came in 1960 as a sophomore. That was West Virginia's only winless season in school history.

"What a disaster!" Heeter recalled. "I played nose-up against six All-Americans that year and we just got the hell beat out of us."

That 1960 team was comprised primarily of a sophomore class that included Heeter, Ken Herock and Tom Woodeshick.

All three would play professional football.

Things got a little better in 1961 when WVU won four of 10 contests. However, Heeter spent that season on the sidelines with a broken leg.

As a senior in 1962, the 6'3", 205-pound end caught a team-best 19 passes for 284 yards and four touchdowns.

He helped the Mountaineers to an outstanding 8-2 record. West Virginia lost only twice to nationally ranked Oregon State and Penn State that season.

Included in that eight-win campaign were victories over Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech, Boston University, Pitt, George Washington, William & Mary, The Citadel and a 17-6 win at Syracuse.

The Pitt win was especially sweet for Heeter, who was among the "western PA garbage players" referred to in the newspapers by Panther end John Kuprok.

"I remember it being a rainy, snowy day," Heeter said. "At halftime our mascot shot the gun too close to my face and I got gun powder in my eyes. Later, I dove over the pile to make a tackle and got my teeth knocked out. (WVU trainer) Whitey Gwynne just pulled my teeth back in my gums and told me to get back in there.

"Those teeth remained that way for two more years before I had to get them fixed," he marveled.

The end earned first team all-Southern Conference honors and played in the East-West Shrine Game. He also lettered in track throwing the javelin and discus.

Heeter was drafted in the eighth round by the San Diego Chargers before being sold to the New York Jets, then coached by Weeb Ewbank.

"Weeb was just a good man," Heeter recalled.

He wound up making the Jets and played three seasons with them before bad knees forced him to retire in 1965.

His best season came in 1964, when he caught 13 passes for 153 yards and one touchdown. He was the first player to score a touchdown at Shea Stadium when he caught a 16-yard pass from Dick Wood against the Denver Broncos.

"I'm in a trivia pursuit game because of that," he said proudly.

The most Heeter, now 59, ever made in one season playing professional football was $18,000.

"It's all relative," he admitted. "I made three times as much as Sam Huff did in his prime and it only cost $400 to live in downtown Manhattan with three other guys. Today it costs me $100 just for my kids to go out."

Heeter had an opportunity to play one season with Joe Namath, and knew most of the Jets players when they defeated the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl.

"I was working at Shell Oil Company then and one of my territories was Harlem," Heeter recalled. "Well the odds were 100-1 on that game and I also took the 20-1 odds that New York would score first. My guys made me a lot of money."

For the past 24 years, Heeter has run his own insurance company in St. James, N.Y., located on Long Island about an hour's drive from New York City.

He and his wife have two children, Gene (31) and Christine (28).

Though Gene has not been back to Morgantown since his playing days, he still manages to catch all of the Mountaineer games on television.

"I think Don Nehlen's done a great job with that program," he said. "I just wish they could win a bowl game once in a while."

Heeter, who has remained close with WVU teammate and longtime NFL executive Ken Herock, had no intentions of staying in football.

"Once I finished the game, I was through," he admitted. "Football's not my cup of tea."

As for his college days, Heeter still harbors fond memories of WVU.

"I get very nostalgic when I talk about West Virginia University," he offered. "It's just a great school."

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