Wingate assistant coach Mike Pope dies at 62 after extended illness

Mike Pope, whose career as a football coach spanned decades in both Carolinas, died Tuesday after an extended illness. He was 62.

Pope, who most recently was a volunteer assistant coach at Wingate, his alma mater, spent most of his career as a high school coach in South Carolina, with stops at Lancaster, Sumter, Blackville-Hilda, Indian Land, Goose Creek, Seneca, Simpsonville Hillcrest, Lakewood and Walhalla. Among his former players are Blackville-Hilda’s Troy Brown, who played for the NFL’s New England Patriots and Lakewood’s J.C. Neal, a former defensive back at N.C. State.

Pope graduated from Wingate (then a two-year school) in 1972 and completed his education at Gardner-Webb in 1974. He would overcome several health problems late in life. He survived heart bypass surgery in 1997. In 2004, both of his legs were amputated 6 inches below the knees because of an infection brought on by congestive heart failure.

Pope was a volunteer offensive line coach and director of high school relations at Wingate from 2008-13. He also ran his “Hawg Tuff” football camps for offensive linemen. Pope and wife, Ginger, often logged as many as 8,000 miles in their van traveling around the country to various camp sites during the summer.

Pope was the subject of a book – “Do They Play Football in Heaven?” – by former newspaper sports columnist Wilt Browning, published in 2007. A native of Monroe, Pope was honored by the S.C. High School League with a distinguished service award in 2008.

Despite his physical limitations, Pope remained first and foremost a football coach.

Cabel Cantrell, a freshman offensive lineman at Wingate, remembers the first time he met Pope at one of his Hawg Tuff camps in Walhalla.

“I remember hearing someone yell to me, ‘Hey Bo, I want to talk to you!’ ” said Cantrell in a statement released by Wingate. “I turned to where the shouting came from, and in front of me was a man in a motorized wheelchair and a big grin on his face.

“He raised his hand to me and said, ‘Good morning, big guy! My name is coach Pope, and I’m going to make you a better football player.’ ”