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May 24, 2012

Remembering the Space Cowboy

Big. Physical. Tough as nails. A fun-loving party animal. An awesome teammate and devoted friend.

These are just a few of the words that have been used over the years to describe former star UNC running back Mike Voight, who died Wednesday of a heart attack in his home in the Virginia at the way-too-young age of 58.

For a stretch of three years in the mid-1970s, Mike Voight was Carolina football. He was the epitome of the best college football players of his era---rugged, relentless, and all heart.

In the 'three yards and a cloud of dust,' era, Voight was more 'five yards and a couple of cracked heads on the ground' type of guy.

Off the field, he was known as a jovial, 'life of the party' kind of guy. The one all the other guys wanted to be around and be like, the one that all the girls wanted to be with.

His nickname was 'The Space Cowboy,' derived from a popular Steve Miller Band song of the time, but to those who knew him best, he went by a simpler, more endearing name.

'Michael Ray.'

The next in a long of line of prospects recruited successfully to Carolina out of Virginia's Tidewater region by Bill Dooley and his UNC coaching staff in the early '70s, Voight's first season at Carolina was in 1973, just as the Tar Heels were coming off back-to-back Atlantic Coast Conference titles.

Voight was right on time for the new era of true freshmen being eligible to play on varsity rosters at the major college level, and he was also right on time for the start of one of the most dominant eras of rushing in the ACC or any other conference.

Voight saw sparse action for the Tar Heels in '73, as UNC's lead running back, Sammy Johnson, ran for 1,006 yards to become the second Tar Heel---the first was Don McCauley---to run for over 1,000 yards in a season in a Carolina uniform.

From 1973 to 1984 UNC had at least one running back rush for 1,000 yards every single season, creating the most dominant list of 1,000-yard backs in the country at the time, and even earning North Carolina the nickname 'Tailback U.'

While Johnson started the 1,000-yard streak in 1973 it was Voight who gave the streak legitimacy, as his hard-charging style of ball carrying became the standard in Chapel Hill over the final few seasons of the Dooley era at Carolina.

Voight was the quintessential Bill Dooley running back---shoulders square and facing ahead, legs churning, body low and crashing left and right into defenders as he stretched for extra yardage.

From 1974 to 1976, UNC's offensive playbook largely consisted of three plays---Voight right, Voight left, and Voight up the gut between the tackles.

Don't believe me?

Over Voight's final 22 games at UNC---the 1975 and 1976 regular seasons---No. 44 was called to run the ball a grand total of 574 times---an average of 26 times per game.

In those two seasons Voight combined for 2,657 yards---1,250 yards his junior year, and 1,407 yards his senior year. Both seasons he led the Atlantic Coast Conference in rushing, and both seasons he was named the league's Player of the Year.

In 1976 Voight got a whopping 315 carries in 11 games---an average of 28.6 carries per outing.

By comparison, Giovani Bernard had just 239 carries in 13 games in 2011---an average of 18.3 carries per game---to become Carolina's most recent 1,000-yard rusher.

Voight was also a star in track and field---a state champion hurdler in high school who won the 1974 ACC championship in the 60 meter hurdles---and he would go on to serve as a track and field coach back in Virginia after his playing days were over.

Voight never won an ACC title at Carolina and he never led the Tar Heels to victory in a bowl game---although he came close in 1974---but his exploits won't soon be forgotten by those who saw him in person.

The then-sophomore ran for 90 yards in the 1974 Sun Bowl down in El Paso---pushing him over 1,000 yards in a season for the first time---but the Tar Heels fell to Mississippi State 26-24 after the UNC defense gave up a late touchdown.

That particular season Voight made history with teammate James "Boom Boom" Betterson, as they became the first tandem in major college history to each rush for 1,000 or more yards in a season.

Voight's exploits on the field at Kenan Stadium became the stuff of legend, but so did the stories.

Like the time he showed up at practice, after years of having a bushy head of hair cascading below his helmet, with a freshly-shaved mohawk.

Or the time he showed up at one of his final practices very late, only to crack up his teammates by saying, 'I was at the library!' when asked by one of the UNC assistant coaches.

Everybody that knew Michael Ray realized that he could have been in any one of a hundred places that afternoon, but the library was not one of them.

Or the story of how a couple of days after his late appearance at practice, Voight turned in unquestionably his finest one-game performance as a Tar Heel, carrying the ball 41 times on Senior Day in Kenan against arch-rival Duke, tallying 261 yards to come just short of establishing a new school record.

Voight scored four touchdowns against the Blue Devils that day, but in typical Space Cowboy fashion, he deflected the attention after the game to UNC teammate Billy Johnson, his lead blocker, for scoring the late touchdown that gave the Tar Heels a chance to win.

But it was Voight of course who provided the climactic winning points, as he blasted across the goal line on a two-point conversion attempt to seal a thrilling 39-38 victory. It wasn't Dooley's style to play for a tie against Duke, and it wasn't Voight's style to not come through for his venerable old coach when the moment arose.

Sadly, that 1976 Duke game would be the final good memory for Tar Heel fans of the great Mike Voight in the powder blue.

And it would really be the last time anybody saw him playing at his best.

Voight's final opportunity to win a bowl game at Carolina sadly never came to pass, as just two days before what would have been his final appearance in a UNC uniform---the 1976 Peach Bowl in Atlanta against Kentucky---Voight wrenched an ankle after he slipped and fell at practice in a shot put hole.

Without Voight the UNC offense was impotent against the Wildcats, turning the ball over five times and producing a paltry 108 yards of total offense as Kentucky handed the Tar Heels the only postseason bowl shutout in school history that day, 21-0.

Voight's professional career never took off. He played briefly with the Houston Oilers in 1977---serving as a special teams protector of great return man Billy "White Shoes" Johnson---before a car accident in his native Virginia required a hip replacement and ended the run of the Space Cowboy.

A little over a year after Voight played his final game at Carolina, Coach Dooley left Chapel Hill to become head coach and athletics director at Virginia Tech.

With the arrival of Dick Crum as UNC's new head coach in 1978 came a disappointing period in Carolina football history---the period when Crum tried to rid the program of the influence of the Space Cowboy era.

Crum had been offended by Voight in a 1976 game when Crum was still at Miami (OH) and came to Chapel Hill for a game against UNC.

Although Crum's Miami squad was playing dirty and Crum was yelling, 'Get Voight's Ass!' Voight sprung free on one running play and broke away down the sidelines.

As he ran past Crum, Voight flipped him the middle finger---a gesture that many Carolina fans wanted to extend to Crum over the next several years as he drove UNC into mediocrity.

In a 2002 interview relayed to the website CarolinaFan.com, Voight spoke of how Coach Crum attempted to strike him from the record of Carolina greats after he took over in Chapel Hill.

"You had to go in a dusty closet and find films to know that I had even played at Carolina (after Crum arrived)," Voight said.

Crum ordered the many posters and adornments of Voight scattered around Kenan Stadium and the UNC football facilities taken down---effectively trying to erase the memory of one of the greatest players to ever take the field for Carolina.

"When Crum came in, his main goal was to erase every memory, every good thing people thought about Mike Voight," said Bill Span, one of Voight's teammates, to CarolinaFan.com. "He removed every picture of Voight from the field house."

Eventually good will would be restored, as in 1994, Voight was honored along with several other former Tar Heel greats in a jersey ceremony at Kenan Stadium. Voight's No. 44 will be displayed and honored for posterity at the place he shined so brightly for generations to come.

Mack Brown, Carl Torbush, John Bunting, and later Butch Davis embraced Voight and the players of his era---unlike Crum---and for the final two decades of his life, Voight was a regular in Chapel Hill during the fall.

As is unfortunately the case a lot of the time in life, the good ones---the best of us---leave way too early.

Michael Ray Voight was one of us.

A Tar Heel born, a Tar Heel bred, and now, a Tar Heel Dead. He was one of the best of us. He was a great player, a great guy, and a great friend.

So many of us leave this world without a far-reaching legacy---without a string of memories that stretch beyond immediate family and close friends to include complete strangers who were dazzled many moons ago by the athletic gifts of youth.

But for Mike Voight, he's left behind a legacy of greatness that Tar Heel fans will continue to embrace well into the future.

For those fortunate enough to have seen him play in his prime, the memories will long live of the big, powerful No. 44 in light blue, charging into and around defenders on his way to more yardage.

The stories of Voight the teammate, Voight the ballplayer, Voight the guy who was always looking to have fun---those stories won't be going away for those who were fortunate enough to cross paths with Michael Ray during that special era.

For those who didn't get to see him play, the memories and the stories from those that did will help keep Voight's spirit alive in Kenan Stadium for decades to come.

At the end of the day, when death's door opens---as it will one day for all of us---we can't ask for a whole lot more than that.






 

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