Nov. 10, 2011
By Bruce Madej
When Flint Central all-state running back George Hoey accepted a football scholarship at the University of Michigan in 1965, the Wolverines were so deep and versatile at his position that even their fourth-liners became headliners.
"Freshmen did not play varsity at the time, and when Bump Elliott was recruiting me he told me that I would probably be sitting a lot," said Hoey. "After all (Jim) Detwiler and (Carl) Ward were in front of me and my main competition was Ron Johnson."
It was a tall task for the all-state speedster who could have had his pick of schools.
"Bump told me I would be playing very little for the first few years, but the one thing he could guarantee me is that I would get a great education," added Hoey. "I said, 'Coach, that's enough for me' and at that time I knew I was going to Michigan."
Hoey was mature beyond his years. He knew the value of the U-M education and he also knew how to put it to use once his playing days were over. Today, Hoey is the career services assistant director for diversity at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
"My position is interesting. It was the next logical extension of what I have been doing with student-athletes most of my life and especially here at Colorado," said Hoey. "I was running the life skills program, and let's face it, most of these student-athletes are not going to have a pro career. We want to give them a chance to choose a livelihood outside of sports, and now I'm doing that full-time."
Hoey's career with student-athletes first started in August of 1978 when he was hired by U-M director of athletics Don Canham as the first dedicated academic advisor within the athletic department. During his 15-year career at Michigan, he moved up to the position as director of the Academic Services Program before taking over as the compliance director in 1990.
In 1993, Hoey headed west to Boulder, where he has worked with Colorado's student-athletes for the last 18 years.
While Hoey knows most student-athletes are not going to be professional athletes, he knows how one moment can change one's fortunes. He himself has had a number of those moments.
"Maybe the best thing a coach ever did for me was to keep me out of a game," said Hoey. "It was the annual Thanksgiving Day match-up with Flint Central against Flint Northwestern in a big Saginaw Valley Conference football game. I was returning a punt and I thought if I couldn't get past these guys, I could run over and go through people. Instead I was knocked unconscious, out cold."
Hoey finally felt good enough in the third quarter, and the macho football player told his coach he was ready to go back in.
"I had an ego, I had pride, I wanted to go back into the game, but my coach told me, 'Be comfortable, sit back and watch the rest of the game,'" added Hoey. "He told me I had a great things awaiting me. He said he did not want me to ruin my college career."
The coach who held him out of the game was former Michigan football player Bob Leach, the twin brother of Dick Leach and the uncle of U-M All-America quarterback Rick Leach. He was also the inspiration and the motivator who helped Hoey through his high school days.
"Bob was ahead of his time," said Hoey. "He knew about head injuries and knew this could be a big problem."
When Hoey got on the practice field at Michigan, his days as an offensive player were over. Now, when he touched the football, it would be as a return specialist on special teams or intercepting a football from his defensive back slot.
This move was also fortunate for Hoey. He was an All-Big Ten player and wound up in the National Football League after graduation.
"I was excited about the move because Rick Volk, John Rouser, Mike Bass and Rick Sygar were back there and I respected those guys," said Hoey. "And Don James was the defensive backfield coach, and that move and his coaching helped me play in the NFL."
Hoey said he bought into James' philosophy "hook, line and sinker." James taught his players not only to understand their position but to know what every player on the field was doing -- especially the secondary.
"Everything I was taught at Michigan was applicable when I went into the pros," said Hoey. "It allowed me to play left corner, right corner and safety, and it allowed me to have that journeyman career in the NFL."
Hoey was initially drafted in the 14th round by the Detroit Lions and was released before the start of the season.
Again, fortune was on his side. Former Michigan coach Bob Holloway and Hoey's high school coach, Bob Leach, were assistant coaches with St. Louis. They knew Hoey's ability and his speed and picked up the defensive back. As a Cardinal, he set an NFL and club record with six kickoff returns for 206 yards, one for 103 yards. He then went on to play with New England, San Diego, Denver and the New York Jets.
"I broke my jaw playing for the Broncos (1975) and was picked up for the last five games by the Jets," said Hoey. "I went back to camp with the Jets the following year, and I remember the day I retired like it was yesterday.
"It was August 9, 1976, Lou Holtz was the head coach and I just told him this was it, consider it my retirement. Before I get killed or I get one my teammates killed, I am going to call it quits."
Hoey, a member of the Greater Flint Afro-American Hall of Fame, was also a sprinter for the Michigan track team. In his freshman year, he set a 60-yard dash record with a time of 6.1. He was also a member of the University of Michigan's record-setting 4x100 relay team with a time of 40.6.
Now, Hoey resides with his wife, Erin Hoag, in Thornton, Colo. Erin has two children, William (26) and Sean (21).
George still stays in touch with many of the players from his days playing football at Michigan and next week plans on visiting best friend Ron Johnson in New York. He has talked or visited with Johnson almost every month since the two left Michigan. Now, Johnson has Alzheimer's.
"I have to visit him," said Hoey. "I want to talk to him face to face and visit with his wife and family. It will be tough."
But when the two get together next week, Hoey is going to remind Johnson about their playing days at Michigan.
"Ron and I continually talk about our days at Michigan and what they mean," said Hoey. "I reflect a lot about my life, but I can say Michigan has been the cornerstone for my career. Ron and I have said all along, our days at Michigan were the best days of our lives."