Raleigh businessman Pat Norton fondly recalls tailback Mike Voight’s first football practice at North Carolina in the preseason 1973 camp.
“He took a hand-off running straight up, high kicking all the way – everything you’re not supposed to do,” said Norton, a quarterback standout at Millbrook High who played wide receiver for the Tar Heels.
“He made it a few steps, and (linebacker) Mike Mansfield hit him so hard it completely knocked Voight out – KO’d, out cold. The next time he got the ball, he was running a lot lower.”
In four seasons on Bill Dooley’s teams, the 6-foot, 215-pound Voight wasn’t stopped cold often.
When Voight died Tuesday at age 58 at his home in Chesapeake, Va., he left behind a rich Carolina legacy. He was the first player in ACC history to rush for 1,000 yards three straight seasons and was the league player of the player in 1975 and ’76.
In 1975, he won the honor while playing on a 3-7-1 team at a time when the ACC’s players included running back Ted Brown of N.C. State and all-American tight end Bennie Cunningham of Clemson.
With 1,407 yards on a 9-3 team in 1976, Voight finished among the top 10 vote-getters for the Heisman Trophy.
“Mike was a great player,” Norton said. “He was tough and was a lot faster than some people might remember. He was a track hurdle champ in high school (Indian River in Chesapeake,Va.).”
Voight was also a character of the first order.
Nicknamed “The Space Cowboy”, his post-game quotes often were spicy and always spontaneous.
After a dramatic 12-10 win over nationally 20th-ranked ECU in 1976 at Kenan Stadium, Voight told reporters he didn’t have but five minutes for interviews because he wanted to get outside fast and meet some of the Pirate coeds before they left the parking lots.
A 1978 auto accident near Emporia, Va. ended Voight’s NFL career after one season with the Houston Oilers.
For a few years after his final game, Voight did not return to Kenan because he and then coach Dick Crum were at odds.
North Carolina had opened the ’76 season with a win over Crum’s Miami of Ohio team. Players on both sides engaged in trash talk, which was then more or less an emerging fad. Crum was offended, and the two didn’t patch things up when Crum was hired to succeed Dooley after the 1977 season.
When Crum was replaced by Mack Brown after 1987, Voight was welcomed back warmly. Voight’s No. 44, later the same jersey number for rushing star Kelvin Bryant, is honored in the stadium.
Since ACC football began in 1953, only four others have been voted league football player of the year more than once – Roman Gabriel (N.C. State, quarterback), Don McCauley (UNC, tailback), Steve Fuller (Clemson, quarterback) and Charlie Ward (Florida State, quarterback).
Although he had chronic heart problems, the cause of Voight’s death has not been determined.
But in the competitive connotation of the word, Voight will be remembered as an athlete with more than enough heart to succeed.