The Toughest Tar Heel

Mike Voight was a two-time ACC Player of the Year and is UNC's second all-time leading rusher. Beyond the accolades, his legacy was that of a warrior with unparalleled toughness and a devoted teammate. With the news that Voight passed away earlier this week, Inside Carolina has re-published a magazine feature on the Tar Heel legend.

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Survival of the Toughest

Regarded as one of the ACC's all-time greatest players, Mike Voight ('77) steamrolled opposing defenses with his powerful running style. His gritty determination ultimately drove him to defeat an obstacle more potent than any padded opponent.

Inside Carolina Magazine
October 2004
WORDS: Jack Morton
PHOTOS: UNC Athletic Communications

n Jan. 25, 1978, Mike Voight dashed through the steady downpour, the boundary line his only point of reference and the center of his attention. He didn't see his opponent until the very last second, barreling towards the running back with high velocity and a distinct size advantage. Voight instinctively ducked and braced himself for the collision—the destructive hit ended his athletic career in an instant, despite his being miles away from the nearest football field.

With five older athletic siblings to admire, Voight grew up enamored with sports in Norfolk County, Va., now known as Chesapeake. Playing recreation league football, his team's supplies left much to be desired, as the players took to the sandlot dirt in helmets, shoulder pads, and blue jeans. Regardless of the conditions, Voight was hooked on football, having watched his brothers achieve various all-conference and all-state honors and then receive scholarships to Virginia Tech and Georgia, another playing semi-professionally for the Norfolk Neptunes.

"I had been around the bigger boys as a water boy for Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake, but it wasn't until my older brother John took me to a Neptunes practice that I was noticed," said Voight. "I was only 15 at the time, but the coach wanted to sign me to a semi-pro contract right then and there. At that time I felt like football could really take me places."

Voight's brother, Bobby, played quarterback as a senior at Indian River High School, and Mike, a freshman in 1969, served as the team's "utility back," running, catching, and blocking whenever instructed. Since he really did not know the plays, Voight would receive specific instruction from Bobby, the older brother teaching Mike as he played alongside him. After Bobby accepted a football scholarship to Georgia, Mike inherited the quarterback reigns as a sophomore, earning All-District under center.

"Integration was going on in 1971, and we merged with another area high school that fall," Voight remarked. "One of the transfers was a quarterback, and a good one at that, and I was moved over to running back. I was the state hurdles champ and ran a fast 100, so I felt comfortable in the transition."

As a senior in 1972, Mike Voight was recruited with varying levels of interest by 264 colleges, since there was no regulation at the time on campus visits or home visits by coaches. Voight's high school coach, Jim Henderson, kept him informed of his potential suitors, protecting him a bit from the chaos waiting in his own driveway.

"Coach Henderson really tried to help me through that process," Voight recalled. "I had to do well to keep up with my kin, with my brothers and all that they accomplished. He and my mother knew that the experience would be overwhelming, so my mom set up a moratorium on coaches' visits. All in all, I was recruited pretty heavily for the better part of three years."

Despite visits from the likes of Woody Hayes, Voight seriously considered Virginia Tech and Maryland, but felt the need to establish his own identity under the surveillance of a top-notch coach. He also wanted a school that would take care of his needs beyond football and academics, one that would provide him with culture and events that he could attend.

"I've always said that UNC stood for the ‘University of National Champions,' and I believe that to be true," Voight laughed. "That was important because I felt like I could go watch a baseball or basketball game, see some of the best guys out there, and forget about my sport and my academics for awhile. Carolina provided wonderful outlets like that. In addition, and this is very important, Coach [Bill] Dooley had a running style with the football team, and that definitely appealed to me at the time."

Voight considered himself a track runner as well, and with Dooley's permission he ran track for three years at UNC. As a sophomore in 1974-75, Voight won the ACC 60-meter indoor hurdles title, but ultimately found that the weight variation between track and football was too difficult to manage.

At the time (1976), Voight finished his college career as the 5th all-time leading rusher in NCAA history.

"It was tough doing both because Coach Dooley wanted more beef on me while, at the same time, I needed to be slim for running track," said Voight. "The worst was when I had to lose 40 pounds for track after football was over my junior year. That was the end of it."

On the gridiron, Voight also had to develop his level of patience while Dooley's stable of running backs kept him out of the starting lineup. As a freshman in 1973, Voight ran for only 281 yards as the team followed All-Conference tailback Sammy Johnson to a record of 11-1, including a victory over Texas Tech in the Sun Bowl. Voight's numbers improved as a sophomore to 1,033 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he still found it difficult getting around Johnson and James "Boom Boom" Betterson for carries, and the team finished 4-7. Despite the losing record, the Tar Heel backfield had managed to accomplish something never before achieved in college football, as Voight and Betterson both ran for more than 1,000 yards in the same season, combining for 2,115.

"Voight had more raw courage than any football player I've ever known," said former teammate and lineman Bill Span ('77). "He had a total disregard for his life, if it stopped him from running the ball."

Betterson started the 1975 campaign as the nation's ‘back of the week,' but suffered injuries throughout the season. Voight, in what he considers to be one of his "biggest career accomplishments," played second string for the Tar Heels but finished First-Team All-ACC, scampering for 1,250 yards and 11 scores in the process. The team finished a disappointing 3-7-1, but the tailback from Chesapeake was primed for a Heisman Trophy run as a senior.

A preseason candidate for the Heisman ultimately won by national champion Pittsburgh's tailback Tony Dorsett, Voight aimed to gain far more than the 608 yards needed to rush past Don McCauley into first place on the Tar Heels' all-time rushing list. Starting the season with nagging tendonitis, Voight rarely practiced, wearing a rubber cast and receiving daily treatment. In the season's second game, the tailback cracked his sternum against the Florida Gators, but still plowed through the rain-soaked field in Tampa for 140 yards and a 24-21 Carolina win. Concerned that the blow to his chest could ultimately result in heart damage (he currently has two pacemakers), doctors created rib pads for Voight, who seemed to improve with each additional detriment.

Behind Voight's astounding 35 carries per game, the Tar Heels finished the regular season 9-2, losing only to NC State and Missouri. In his final game at Kenan Stadium on Nov. 20, 1976, Voight turned in one of the finest performances ever by a Tar Heel, rushing a staggering 47 times for 261 yards and four touchdowns in a 39-38 Carolina victory, at the time becoming the school's all-time scoring leader.

"He could have died if he took a direct hit in the chest. The cracked bone could have pierced his heart. But in typical Mike Voight fashion, he did not let this stop him," Span recalled. "He went on to run way over 1,000 yards. Saving his best for last, he capped that season with the famous Duke win, 39-38, when he rushed for over 250 yards."

An unfortunate injury kept Voight from playing in the Peach Bowl against Kentucky, as he stepped in a shotput divot during practice two days prior to the game in Atlanta.

"I pretty much tore everything in my ankle and had to hang out at the hotel while the guys went to all the banquets and played the game," said Voight. "I was really disappointed for a variety of reasons, but part of it is because I caught something like four passes that entire season, yet I got hurt running to the flats to catch a pass."

"He literally played his heart out for us."

Voight's former teammates are the first to salute this warrior for his grit and strength, on and off of the field.

"A few years ago Mike had to have a pacemaker installed to repair damage from scar tissue resulting from playing with the cracked sternum," said Span. "He literally played his heart out for us."

Mike Voight, the 6-0, 205-pound locomotive from Norfolk County, Va., finished his Carolina career with 3,971 rushing yards, ranking him 5th all-time in school history. He was named Conference Player of the Year in 1975 and 1976, an All-American in 1976, and his 1,407 rushing yards as a senior rank as the 4th highest single-season total in ACC history and 2nd highest in school history. Voight is 3rd on the school's all-time scoring list and second on the single season points list (110 in 1976), and his 18 touchdowns as a senior is 2nd only to Don McCauley's 21 in 1970. Voight ranks 7th in total offense in Carolina history with his 3,971 rushing yards, and his 42 career rushing scores are 2nd only to Leon Johnson's 43. His 315 rushing attempts in 1976 is 2nd for one season in school history, and his 261 yards against Duke in 1976 is the 5th highest single game total in Carolina history. At the time (1976), Voight finished his college career as the 5th all-time leading rusher in NCAA history.

Drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 3rd round of the 1977 NFL Draft, Voight was cut on the final day of training camp, battling seven other running backs, including Ohio State legend Archie Griffin, for playing time. He found a home in Houston with the rough and tumble Oilers of Bum Phillips, and played the 1977 season off of scouting reports and as a back up. After the season, Voight returned to the east coast to finish classes at UNC, and was headed to Chapel Hill from Chesapeake on that aforementioned fateful January day when his life changed instantly.

"I was on a stretch of Route 10 near Emporia, Va., driving in a bad thunderstorm," Voight remarked. "There were no shoulders on the road and I was hugging the median line, which is exactly what a two-ton dump truck heading my direction was doing. I saw his lights and ducked, and that's about all I can remember."

Voight was trapped in his car, lucky that a doctor was in the car behind him and had a phone in his vehicle. The running back then spent 100 days in traction, re-learning "pretty much everything." His focus turned to teaching himself the basics of life, far removed from the glory days of the heavily padded, soiled No. 44 galloping through Kenan Stadium in front of 50,000 screaming fans. Those fans now wanted him to win this battle, to score for himself and fight his way back through recovery.

"It was all about persistence and trying, over and over again," Voight said. "Doctors were skeptical that I'd ever walk in another straight line, let alone jog or run. Well, I'm now in my 18th year officiating high school football, and I just want to look back on those doubting doctors and show them how well I've done. I want them to know."

Voight coaches track and field at Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake, after having worked with the area recreational department for 10 years developing weight-lifting and rehab programs for children. He owns his own real estate company where he works with his wife of 12 years, Dixie. Voight is a content man—a man who has looked death in the eye and walked away, with time, victorious.

"The only reason I got accolades as a player was because there was only one ball on the field," Voight remarked. "I was a team player, as were the rest of those guys. We looked out for one another—that's what you did at Carolina."

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