Vel Heckman found himself back on Florida Field last month, 61 years after playing in the first UF-FSU football game. So great was his defensive tackle game that Heckman was named a first-team All-American in 1958.
Heckman returned to Gainesville Saturday, Nov. 30, to be recognized as the oldest Gator All-American and for his role in the rivalry game. A photo of him in uniform was emblazoned on the big screen, taken six decades ago when crewcuts were the fashion.
“It was quite a thrill,” he said. “It was nice that the head football coach, Mullens, came over to me and he congratulated me.”
The football and coaching great now lives in Gotha with his wife, Frances, and together they have five children, 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
A Google search for Vel Heckman provides the basic information: Velles Alvin Heckman is a former college football player. He played at the tackle position for the Florida Gators football team at the University of Florida and was selected as a first-team All-American in 1958.
But Heckman, now 83, is much more than that. Just ask the hundreds of boys he coached at Lakeview High School, several of whom give him credit for their careers.
“Vel Heckman was the toughest coach I’ve ever been around; he made boys into men but cared about us all,” said Russell Crouch, Lakeview Class of 1969, who played for Heckman his junior and senior years. “I became a football coach for over 35 years because of him.”
THE GATOR CHOMP
In the late 1950s, the Florida legislature mandated that the two state-supported schools face each other on the football field. Heckman remembers the game buzz — that Florida State was better than Florida.
“In the opening first minutes, on the opening kickoff, we kicked to them and they ran all the way back to score a touchdown,” he said.
Those would be the only points the Seminoles scored that day, though; the Gators won the game 21-7.
Heckman attended UF in 1954, took a break after one year and returned after another year to play for Gator head coach Bob Woodruff from 1956 to 1958. He was named to the All-American team his senior year.
“Look” magazine sponsored a trip to New York City for the team members; he recalled the entire team singing on national television with Perry Como. It was three days of entertaining; no football was played.
“We must have signed 500 footballs for them to hand out to dignitaries and others,” Heckman said. “I have one of them.”
Heckman went by his given name, Velles, until his sophomore year of college when a newspaper reporter watched the team scrimmaging and wrote “mar-VEL-ous” in the headline of a story the following day.
After college, Heckman signed with the San Francisco 49ers but never played a regular-season NFL game.
“I felt like it wasn’t enough money to play pro football,” he said. “And that was my desire but I just didn’t want to play for that kind of money.”
COACHING THE RED DEVILS
Heckman made the decision to go into teaching and coaching, but he wanted to work on the high school level so he could stay home and build a family. By 1962, he found himself in Winter Garden, teaching physical education and coaching the football team at Lakeview High School.
That first fall, when the teachers went back to school, Heckman was asked to meet with them.
“We talked, and I used to say, ‘If an athlete gives you a problem, you really don’t have to send them to the office. You just send them to me. Or tell me,’” he said. “And (the students) would sooner go to the office than come to me.”
He considered himself a disciplinarian, and at that time, teachers were allowed to paddle the unruly students.
“And it didn’t matter if he was a starting quarterback or not,” he said. “If he acted up, he got a lick.”
Heckman instituted a curfew for the football players so they would be in top shape for the games, and he didn’t hesitate to drive past the popular local spots to see who was hanging out. He also was known to call the boys’ houses and ask to speak to them.
The players were fed steak before every home game, which was played at Walker Field, off Park Avenue in Winter Garden. Heckman seeded the football field, periodically moved the lawn sprinklers and, until he got some help, he mowed the field.
He said his goal was to coach these boys and get them into college.
“The first year I got Bobby DeLoach a full scholarship to the University of Tennessee,” Heckman said. “My second year I got Larry Pendleton a scholarship to FSU. Then were were different guys who played for me that played in college: Freddy Owens, Dennis Reed, Mark Hodge, Pat Wiggins, Jan Gowland.”
Heckman remembers fondly all the support the Winter Garden community gave to the coach and his team through the years.
The Lakeview High gig lasted 13 years; he vacated the position when West Orange High School opened and Lakeview became a junior high.
Ron Cothern, a 1964 Lakeview graduate, played for Heckman in the 1962 and 1963 football seasons. Coach called him Redbird.
“Coach Heckman was fair and, even back then, he was easy to talk to,” Cothern said. “The difference upon his arrival and coaching was like night and day. The practices were more organized, we started strength training, and a few other things were introduced such as telephone poles, boards and isometric stations.”
Ted Melinn, another 1969 graduate, said playing quarterback for Coach Heckman was the greatest time of his life.
“We called him Daddy Vel,” he said. “He was an awesome, bigger-than-life figure. He worked us hard and made it fun at the same time.”
Mark Sterns was Heckman’s team manager from about 1969 to 1974, and his brother, Reggie Sterns, was quarterback around 1967 and 1968.
“Coach Heckman was a very positive influence in my life,” Mark Sterns said. “I am still grateful for him allowing me to go to an athletic training seminar at the University of Florida. … It was that course which I think set me into a career in health care and service to the citizens of West Orange County as a paramedic and a nurse. I will ever so be grateful for his influence and guidance in that respect.
“He was always the positive influence on me,” Mark Sterns said. “He was a strong but very fair person. He was and is like a second father to me, for which I shall always be extremely grateful. That is why I was so thrilled when he was honored at the recent Florida/Florida State football game. He was and is one of the best. He will always have my undying respect.”
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.