Prep Football: Legend Grey Medinger

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 20, 2011

Grey Medinger celebrates his 44th wedding anniversary today, beating long odds that included flying helicopter combat missions in Vietnam in the early 1970s.
Medinger is a legend both for distinguished military service and a fine athletic career at North Rowan and East Carolina.
A tragedy early in life led to Medinger growing up in Spencer rather than Tennessee.
Grey’s father was from the Baltimore area and a serious sports fan who knew icons Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey personally. When Grey was 5, Paul Medinger was killed in a car wreck when Duke Power was relocating him to Lewisburg, Tenn.
So Medinger grew up instead in his mother’s hometown. He began his athletic career at her life-long church at age 6 when he first picked up a baseball bat for the Oakdale Baptist Little League team.
“All we knew was sports, and we played sunup to sundown in the summer and from the time school was out until dark in the school year,” Medinger said. “That’s how it was then. We played the sport that was in season.”
He was good at all of them. As a junior in 1963, he contributed to North’s first great basketball team, a Walt Baker-coached, Gilbert Sprinkle-led bunch that won 16 straight games and finished 18-3. As a senior, he was one of North’s standouts, the No. 2 scorer with 11.8 points a game.
In baseball, he was a solid catcher, good enough to start for the Rowan County American Legion squad.
But football is what he loved most. That’s where he really stood out.
North won the NPC outright in 1962 after beating Mooresville for the first time and made its first playoff appearance under coach Burt Barger.
“We lost to Asheboro,” Medinger remembers. “Lost to Neal Hughes and some more guys I played with at East Carolina.”
As a senior in 1963, Medinger was the star for the Cavaliers and led them to their fourth straight winning season under Barger, who passed away two months ago at age 92.
Barger had been the coach at Valdese, where he’d directed the tiny school to against-all-odds victories against Morganton, Hickory and Shelby.
When North had opened in 1958, he’d brought his leadership skills to Spencer. After an 0-10 debut, he built the Cavaliers into a strong program.
“Oh, gosh, he was a great coach,” Medinger said. “He always said exactly what was on his mind, so he came across as gruff, but if you knew him, you knew how much he loved to help people. He helped me. He was the main reason I got a football scholarship.”
Barger was a believer in the single-wing offense that he had starred in at Lenoir-Rhyne. The ball was usually snapped to Medinger, the tailback, and he often made good things happen.
Medinger was a superb punter and he also led Rowan County in 1963 with 12 touchdowns.
“I know 12 touchdowns in a season is nothing now,” Medinger said with a laugh. “But we didn’t score as many points back then.”
He scored three of those touchdowns in a win against Concord. Then he finished strong with seven TDs in North’s last three games — wins against East Rowan, Children’s Home of Winston-Salem and Davie County.
“We had good rivalries then with all the county schools and also with Davie,” Medinger said. “It was a little different then in that you usually competed against the same guys year-round in football, basketball and baseball. Everybody knew everybody.”
While he made a dozen trips to the end zone as a senior, Medinger remembers his best contributions coming on the defensive side of the ball. He performed double duty like a lot of athletes in that era. When he wasn’t playing tailback, he was a defensive back.
“I guess the game that sticks out more than any from high school was my junior year when we played Kannapolis,” Medinger said. “They had a running back — Harry Greene — who was the best I played against in high school. I just remember being so worn out from chasing him all night long.”
Medinger made all-conference in three sports, so it’s no surprise the caption under his picture in the North yearbook reads: “Not that he loved studies less, but he loved athletics more.”
He had an offer to play baseball at Pfeiffer, but Barger had a connection from Lenoir-Rhyne with ECU football coach Clarence Stasavich, and he pointed Medinger toward Greenville.
Medinger did OK for the Pirates, starting several games as a defensive end as a sophomore and also starting half the time as an offensive end as a junior.
Those were important days for the Pirates, who were just moving into big-time football in the Southern Conference. He played on the 1965 team that went 9-1 against a schedule that included Furman, Richmond and Louisville.
A George Washington player — Norman Neverson, the first black player at that school — taught Medinger an important lesson when he was covering a punt. Namely, it’s a good idea to keep your head up.
“I never saw him coming, and he hit me with a forearm and lifted me right off the ground,” Medinger said. “I saw stars for 10 minutes.”
In a 1966 game against Davidson, in front of a big crowd in Greenville, he scored his only college TD.
“About a 20-yard pass,” Medinger said modestly. “No fancy moves. I caught it in the end zone.”
He didn’t play in what would’ve been his senior year. He left school and got married to his high school sweetheart, Candy Cope, on Oct. 22, 1967. Eventually, he returned to ECU and finished work on his business administration degree, graduating in the spring of 1969.
Three weeks after graduation, he entered the Marine Aviation Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va.
The war in Vietnam was raging. After 16 weeks of helicopter training in Texas and an advanced course on mountain flying in Georgia, he was deemed ready to fly CH-46 helicopters in combat zones as Lt. Medinger.
“Medivacs, troop insertions, supply drops. I had about 900 combat hours in all,” Medinger said.
He was cited for meritorious actions often and was awarded the Air Medal and the Navy Achievement Medal. He survived to become a flight instructor at Pensacola, Fla., and that led to the highlight of his career.
From 1978-82, whenever presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan or their vice presidents stepped aboard the helicopter designated HMX-1 — “Marine One” — they were transported by Colonel Vernon Grey Medinger.
Still trim, Medinger now attends Rowan ballgames, plays his share of golf — and celebrates anniversaries.
“Very few regrets,” he said. “I’d do it all again.”
l. Grey Medinger graduated from North Rowan High School in 1964 and played football at East Carolina University before serving in Vietnam in 1970-71.
After extensive combat experience, Medinger began flying the HMX-1 or Marine Corps One for Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
“There are 100 people on the ground who make these flights successful. It is not something that you get right 99 percent of the time, it has to be 100 percent of the time,” Medinger said.
1963 Ficklen Stadium, a 17,000-seat facility, is dedicated during a football game against Wake Forest University where the Pirates defeat the Demon Deacons by a score of 20-10.
1964 East Carolina is admitted to the Southern Conference (The Citadel, Furman, Davidson, Richmond, George Washington, and William & Mary) on probationary status.
1966 East Carolina becomes a full member of the Southern Conference and attains recognition for a football championship in the first year of full membership.
1968 With a seating capacity of 6,500, Minges Coliseum is dedicated on January 27.
1971 Harrington Field is dedicated on May 9.
1975 Ficklen Stadium is enlarged to seat 35,000, and the East Carolina University football team defeats the University of North Carolina by a score of 38-17.
1976 East Carolina withdraws from the Southern Conference after winning, five times in an 11-year membership period, the Commissioner’s Cup, an award symbolic of the most successful overall athletic program in the conference.