Uniontown native and former National Football League star Chuck Muncie died Tuesday in Los Angeles of heart failure. He was 60.
Mr. Muncie, who was the third overall selection of the 1976 draft, played 110 games with the New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers from 1976 to 1984 and is considered one of the greatest players in both franchises' history. Later in life he became known for his charitable work with troubled youth.
But Mr. Muncie, who was 6 feet 3 and graduated from Uniontown High School in 1971, may never have had an NFL career if it weren't for his prowess as a basketball player, because it was through basketball that he earned a scholarship to Arizona Western Junior College.
Once there, he was approached by one of the football coaches, Charlie Dine, who told him he'd improve his scholarship if Mr. Muncie agreed to play football and had an excellent season. He was so good that he never actually played basketball there.
"Chuck quit playing football after the first three games of his senior year at Uniontown because he got a concussion and his mother didn't want him to play any more," said George Von Benko, the executive co-chairman and co-founder of Fayette County Sports Hall of Fame, to which Mr. Muncie was inducted last year. "Charlie Dine had played in Canada against Bill Munsey, who was Chuck's older brother, and when he saw that Chuck was from Uniontown he called up Bill to find out who he was since his last name was spelled differently.
"Bill Munsey told him that Chuck was his brother and if he wants to get a[great] player, he'll find a way to convince him to play football. He obviously did, and the rest is, of course, history."
Mr. Von Benko, who grew up with the Munsey family and has written several articles about them, laughs about the story behind why Chuck, who was the youngest of six children, is the only one who spelled his name Muncie.
"The way Bill explained it to me," Mr. Von Benko said, "was this: 'My dad had a tendency not to pay his bills so he would use various names when he signed things, hoping the bills wouldn't find him. Chuck is the baby in the family, and Dad was trying to figure out how to avoid the bill when he was born, so he signed Muncie on the hospital forms. Chuck found out about the forms and, being the free spirit that he is, decided to spell his name the way it was on those forms.' "
That free spirit, as well as his generosity, is what many people will remember.
"Chuck was a lot of fun to be around, he was a jokester and he was sort of a different personality," said Gary Nagy, a 1970 Uniontown graduate who was a friend of the Munseys. "I think part of his problem may have been that he was so generous and wanted to help out whoever he could. He was one of those guys who would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.
"He was a tremendous athlete, though."
After one year at Arizona Western, Mr. Muncie earned a scholarship to the University of California, where, as a senior, he was the runner-up to Ohio State's Archie Griffin for the 1975 Heisman Trophy.
Mr. Muncie joined the Saints in 1976 and played with the team until he was traded midway through the 1980 season to the Chargers. He was the first Saints player to rush for 1,000 yards, with 1,198 yards and 11 touchdowns in 1979, when he also became the first Saints Pro Bowl selection.
Mr. Muncie, a big bruising back who also had breakaway speed, formed one half of the Saints' "Thunder and Lightning" backfield with Tony Galbreath. Both Mr. Muncie and Mr. Galbreath were inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame.
He played with the Chargers from 1980 until 1984, making the Pro Bowl two more times, and was named one of the 50 Greatest Chargers by the team in 1999. He is second in franchise history behind LaDainian Tomlinson with 43 rushing touchdowns.
"Everyone at the Chargers is deeply saddened by the passing of Chuck Muncie, one of the greatest running backs in Chargers history," the team said in a statement. "We will remember him as a tremendous athlete with a larger-than-life personality."
Mr. Muncie's career came to a halt in 1984, when he was suspended by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle after one game for testing positive for cocaine. He never played again.
His troubles continued in 1989, when he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for selling cocaine.
But after his release, he pulled himself together and did charity work with the Boys and Girls Club. In 1997 he formed the Chuck Muncie Youth Foundation.
Mr. Muncie's former wife, Robyn Hood, and daughter Danielle Ward each issued a statement saying that Mr. Muncie's desire was to be a role model to youth and to make sure he helped children avoid making the mistakes he made.
"My dad was a great man. While most knew him as an NFL great, I knew him as a loving father and a man who doted on his three grandchildren. Our entire family will miss him greatly. His work with at-risk youth, the Boys and Girls Clubs and his foundation were the things that really made him shine," Ms. Ward said in the statement.
And Ms. Hood wrote: "He was [a] star on the football field but his most impressive work was done in the second chapter of his life where he lived his life with great transparency. He simply wanted others to learn from his mistakes. He carried that message with him everywhere he went. And as a result, he changed the lives of hundreds of kids. He made a difference."
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org First Published May 15, 2013 4:00 AM