As a high school football player, Sonny Wade was known for leading Martinsville High School to the 1964 Blue Ridge District title.
As a quarterback at Emory & Henry College, Wade was known for directing a high-powered offense in 1968 that generated a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics record of 553.3 yards per game in total offense.
As a pro signal-caller in the Canadian Football League, he was known for steering the Montreal Alouettes to three championships while winning three Grey Cup MVP awards in a career so storied that he wound up featured on a Canada postage stamp.
He has settled into the bucolic life.
Forty-five years after putting on a football uniform for the final time, Jesse Harold Wade Jr. lives with his wife, Gayle, on a 265-acre spread in Henry County.
Their three sons are in their 40s. Grandchildren have joined the Wade roster. Relics and remnants of two decades of gridiron greatness rest in memorabilia and memories.
Two knee surgeries, a broken neck and a torn ligament in his foot all conspired to send Wade to the sidelines for good.
Hunting, fishing and trapping replaced running, throwing and kicking. The man whose talent produced college football records and pro football championships, became famous at local farmers markets for his produce.
“I’m known for my tomatoes,” Wade said.
Roots of success
Ben Ramsey Field lies behind Martinsville Middle School on Cleveland Avenue. It was the Martinsville Bulldogs’ home turf from 1952 until 1970.
Time, and an asphalt track that rings the grass, have made the field smaller.
But tucked in behind the school building, the gymnasium and a large bank behind the north end zone, the place looked absolutely huge to an 8-year-old boy watching Sonny Wade punt, pass and kick a football in 1964.
Wearing an odd-number-for-a-quarterback jersey No. 41, Wade helped Martinsville to an 8-1-1 overall record and a district title under head coach J.B. Heldreth and assistants Jim Painter and Dick Hensley where the only Blue Ridge blemish was a 7-7 tie against Covington.
The previous season ended in disappointment when a 9-0 Martinsville team lost by a 9-0 score to a William Byrd team coached by Virginia High School League legend Norman Lineburg with the district title on the line.
Wade, who shared the starting quarterback duties as a junior, flipped the script in 1964. Martinsville scored district victories over Liberty (37-14), Drewry Mason (53-0), Franklin County (39-0), Northside (35-7), Cave Spring (19-2), Bassett (19-0) and Byrd (27-6).
Standing 6 feet, 3 inches and weighing 195 pounds, Wade was bigger than most high school linemen and much more mobile. Also a mainstay on Martinsville’s 1964 VHSL Group 1-B state basketball champions and a first baseman who was offered a baseball contract by the Pittsburgh Pirates organization after his senior year, Wade was very familiar to college football recruiters.
He grew up on Bob Gregory Street on the east side of Martinsville. His father, Jesse Sr., worked as a long-haul driver and later the office manager at R.P. Thomas Trucking Co.
However, Wade’s father suffered a major heart attack at age 49 and was nursed for the next 40 years by his mother, Lovelene.
“He would light one cigarette with another before it went out,” Wade said. “But he stopped smoking and changed his diet. My mother took care of him. I told her, ‘If there’s a heaven, you’re going to it.'”
Wade had multiple football scholarship offers when he graduated from Martinsville in 1965.
He chose Virginia Tech.
Fighting Gobblers head coach Jerry Claiborne, who evidently learned a few things when he played halfback at the University of Kentucky under Paul “Bear” Bryant, knew the secret. He visited the Wades’ home for dinner one evening and recruited Wade’s mother.
“My mother fell in love with Jerry Claiborne,” Wade said. “She would not hear of me not going to Virginia Tech and playing for Claiborne.”
When Wade showed up in Blacksburg in late summer 1965, he was one of nine contenders vying for the job on Tech’s freshman team. Except for a two-year period during the Korean War, the NCAA did not allow freshmen to play varsity football at the Division I level until 1972.
Among the group new recruits was a 5-foot-9 passing whiz from nearby Hillsville High School by the name of Frank Beamer, who quickly was moved to defensive back.
Yes, that Frank Beamer.
Wade stayed at quarterback. Playing in the very first football game ever held in Lane Stadium against Maryland’s freshman team, he led a late touchdown drive and scored on a two-point run as the game ended in an 8-all tie.
Wade sustained an injury in the ensuing freshman game at Neyland Stadium in Tennessee. By then, the Martinsville native already was feeling a different type of discomfort, the kind that led him to leave the Virginia Tech program after just one year.
In various newspaper reports covering Wade’s departure from Blacksburg, Wade was vague on the reasons for his departure. However, in a recent interview at his home in Axton, he offered some insight.
During full freshman scrimmage in the fall of ’65, Claiborne climbed the big observation tower overlooking the practice field. Wade was running the offense, which picked up 9 yards on a first-down play.
“On second down I called a play-action pass. I can see it right now,” he recalled. “I completed it for 18 yards. I hear a noise. I look over and [Claiborne] may have hit two rungs coming off that 25-foot ladder.
“He said, ‘What kind of play did you call?’ I said, ‘It was a play-action pass. If the man’s covered I was going to throw it away and pick up first down on third-and-1.’ He said, ‘Boy, we don’t do things like that around here.’
“I thought to myself, ‘That’s not going to work.'”
Wade said Virginia Tech coaches promised to allow him to play baseball in the spring. The offer quickly was pulled off the table.
“The spring rolled around, they said, ‘No, we’ve got spring [football] practice,'” Wade revealed. “But promised myself I would stay and give it a chance for a year. I fulfilled that.”
When 12 months went by, Wade honored his own word. Despite being elevated to the starting quarterback job in preseason practice in 1966, he walked into Claiborne’s office the same day and told the coach he was leaving.
“He said, ‘Son, you can’t do that, you’re first-team varsity quarterback,'” Wade recalled. “I said, ‘No, sir, I can do it and I’m going to.’
“‘He said, ‘Son, you stay here and you’ll be an All-American.’ I said, ‘Well, if I’m going to be an All-American, it’s not going to be here.'”
Making memories at Emory
Wade became an All-American, 100 miles west of Blacksburg, at Emory & Henry.
He was strongly considering transferring to E&H where one of his high school friends, Bill Nease, had enrolled the previous year. Before making the decision, he went over to Nease’s house in Martinsville to get his buddy’s opinion.
“He said, ‘What do you think about me coming to Emory & Henry?'” Nease related. “I said, ‘To do what?’ He said, ‘To play football.’ I said, ‘Well what position would you play?’ He said, ‘Quarterback.’
“I said, ‘Well, you must have got a whole lot better than when I saw you last time back in high school.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘They’ve got a boy up here, and he’s the best player I’ve ever seen play football.'”
That player was Larry Bales, who oddly enough was one of the nine freshman quarterback contenders who showed up at Virginia Tech in the fall of 1965 with Wade. However, Bales left Tech within a week and transferred to E&H, where he was an immediate superstar.
Wade said the ability to play football without sitting out a year was a factor in his decision to transfer to Emory & Henry.
He arrived in Emory during the second week of September 1966. Three days later, he was in a blue, gold and white E&H uniform for the season opener at Elon College in North Carolina.
As the Wasps’ starting punter.
Bales started the game at quarterback, but by the second or third series, Wade took over behind center and Bales moved to wingback.
E&H defeated Elon 14-12 and the rest is history.
“It didn’t take them long to figure out who the quarterback was,” Bales said recently from his home in Abingdon.
After posting a combined 5-14 record the previous two seasons, E&H went 8-2 in 1966, 7-3 in 1967 and 9-1 in 1968 with Wade running the show for head coach Casto Ramsey. He finished his career in style, leading E&H to a 34-28 victory at Appalachian State.
Wade was named Virginia Small College player of the year in all three of his seasons from 1966-68.
With Bales sidelined in 1967 after accidently shooting himself in the foot with a .22-caliber pistol in an on-campus mishap, Wade turned into a running quarterback and led the NAIA in scoring from the quarterback/place-kicker positions with 141 points.
When Bales returned the following year, E&H’s offense was firing on all cylinders. The Wasps set an NAIA record by averaging 553.3 yards per game. Wade and Bales represented E&H in the North-South Shrine Game in the Orange Bowl on Christmas Day for the South squad coached by Clemson’s Frank Howard.
Wade still stands second on Emory & Henry’s career list in single-season touchdown passes (28) and career points (300), and he is third in career touchdowns (41) and single-season passing yards (2,671).
“Sonny was smart,” Bales said recently from his home in Abingdon. “He was able to analyze. We were never in a bad play.”
Bales still ranks No. 1 at E&H with 1,202 receiving yards in 1968, catching 12 TD passes in 10 games. He was picked in the seventh round of the NFL draft by the Dallas Cowboys and was the last player cut by the team in training camp.
“Larry was the best football player that I ever played with,” Wade said. “I played with Johnny Rodgers in Canada, the Heisman Trophy winner from Nebraska, for three years. Larry was a better all-around player than Rodgers was. The only place Rodgers was better was as a punt returner.”
Wade also played baseball and basketball at E&H.
“He came out for baseball. I guess he was bored,” said Bales, who was offered a contract out of Marion High School by the Houston Colt 45s, now known as the Astros. “The first ballgame, I went 4 for 5 with a home run. He went 5 for 5 with a home run.”
Wade was named a first-team NAIA All-American. Soon thereafter, he got a letter in the mail.
It was from Jerry Claiborne.
It read “I told you so.”
Birds of a different feather
Wade was chosen by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 10th round of the 1969 NFL Draft. He also was offered a contract to take flight in the CFL with the Alouettes.
Wade said his two rookie offers were identical: a $20,000 salary plus a signing bonus.
An Alouettes representative visited Wade at E&H and explained that at the time the Canadian dollar was worth 20% more than the American dollar. But he turned down a shot at the NFL because …
… “I was young and stupid,” he said.
Wade’s CFL career as a 6-foot-3, 214-pound quarterback involved more than dumb luck.
In his second season with the Alouettes, he passed for 2,411 yards and led Montreal to a 23-10 victory over Calgary in the Grey Cup.
He served as a backup QB in 1974, but he led Montreal to a 20-7 Grey Cup triumph over Edmonton in a relief role.
Wade had his best season in 1976 when he completed 205 of 382 passes for 2,504 yards. The following year he led Montreal to a 41-6 victory over Edmonton and his third Grey Cup MVP Award, a CFL feat matched to this day only by BC Lions quarterback Doug Flutie.
Wade’s final year in Montreal was 1978, ending with a loss to Edmonton in Montreal’s fifth Grey Cup appearance in 10 seasons.
After a decade in pro football that included 15,014 passing yards, 89 TD passes, a 41.2 career punting average and two knee surgeries, he called it quits.
But not for long.
The phone rang one day, and on the other end was Philadelphia Eagles coach Dick Vermeil.
“He said, ‘Sonny, I don’t know if you know this or not, but I’ve still got your [draft] rights,’ ” Wade said. “Ron Jaworski is our quarterback now, but I’d like to you punt, back him up and fill two positions.”
Wade agreed. A shot in the NFL looked promising. Then disaster struck.
“We were in the little side practice field running warmup sprints, and I step in a hole and tear a ligament in the arch of my foot so I go home,” he said.
The Eagles brought Wade back, but he remained on the injured list for the entire 1979 season and retired. The following year, Philadelphia, with Martinsville High graduate Carl Hairston starting at defensive end, reached Super Bowl XV, losing to the Oakland Raiders.
“I told Vermeil personally my body’s telling me something,” Wade said. “I’ve been through too many wars.”
Gayle Panagos Wade was a freshman at Emory & Henry when Sonny Wade was a senior in the fall of 1968.
The daughter of a high school coach and athletic director in Fairfax County, she knew how to sling a football. Soon, she was on star quarterback’s radar.
“Somebody told him there was a girl on campus who could throw better than he could and he ought to go check her out,” she said.
Like his college football career, the relationship got off to a slow start.
Things clicked because Wade had extra academic work to complete at E&H because most of his credits would not transfer from Virginia Tech.
He returned to the E&H campus for several years in the offseason early in his CFL career, eventually graduating in 1973. Wade also joined the Army Reserves, splitting his stint between Malone, New York and Marion.
After Gayle Panagos graduated from E&H in 1972, she and Sonny Wade were married three months later, turning her into a young CFL wife.
The couple spent a few winters in Montreal while Gayle completed a master’s degree in English Literature at Concordia University. She attended her husband’s home games, prepared for any eventuality.
“I learned to take a book to the games so I would have something to read in the emergency room,” she said.
After Sonny retired from football, the Wades made the Martinsville area their home. They raised three sons: Jesse, now 45 and in Martinsville; Danny, 43, in Richmond; and Greg, 40, in Roanoke.
Sonny worked at Bassett-Walker Knitting Co. for 12 years as its national sales manager and worked for the Tultex Corp. as its retail general manager before he retired early at age 53. Gayle spent 24 years as an English professor at Patrick & Henry Community College in Martinsville.
At age 57, Sonny was still in good enough shape to play pickup basketball, where running into one of his blind-side screens was like hitting a tree.
One day, it was the tree’s turn.
Sonny was felling a big hickory on his property in Henry County. The trunk hit the ground, but he violated a cardinal rule of logging.
He forgot to look up.
Part of the tree had broken off at the top and hung in the limb of another tree. It became dislodged and hit Sonny in the head.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘That tree fell exactly where I was trying to get it fall,’ and I don’t remember anything else for two weeks after that.”
Greg Wade witnessed the accident and ran up the hill for help after leaning his father against a tree. Danny Wade, a former starting wide receiver at William and Mary, heard the chainsaw stop abruptly and passed his younger brother on the way down.
“I went down there and found him lying on his back,” Danny said. “He was filling up with blood, and I rolled him over, got the blood out and he started breathing again.”
Gayle Wade spent five weeks sleeping on a cot at the foot of her husband’s hospital bed. The recovery was a long one.
“Sonny knew all of us but he did not know his own name,” she said. “They would come in every few hours and say, ‘Who are you?’ and he would say some name, who knows where he pulled it from.”
Years earlier, Gayle could not explain her own dream.
The 1977 Grey Cup is known in CFL lore as the Ice Bowl, played on a frozen field. When Canada issued commemorative postage stamps highlighting each CFL team, Wade was one of the Alouettes featured with a photo from the famous game.
Montreal was a two-touchdown underdog to Edmonton. On the eve of the game, Gayle dreamed that the Alouettes won 41-3.
Almost. With Sonny passing for 340 yards and three TDs in a tour de force performance, Montreal rolled 41-6.
“If I’d only known a bookie,” Gayle said.
A true fish story
What are the odds Sonny Wade would have a hand in a Virginia Department of Wildlife Services state fishing record?
Wade’s good friend Nease, who once told Wade he might not be good enough to win the quarterback job at Emory & Henry, landed an 18-pound, 11-ounce monster in 1979 in the Smith River. It still rates as the largest brown trout ever caught in state waters.
Nease knew big trout were feeding on alewives below the power plant on the south side of town. But what lure to use?
Another fisherman gave him the magic answer: a topwater plug that mimicked an alewife.
Virginians in this year’s Grey Cup game
This year’s Canadian Football League championship game, the Grey Cup, will be played Sunday at 6 p.m. and televised in the U.S. on TSN. Both teams include players with Virginia ties.
William Stanback, running back. Grew up in New York, played at Virginia Union.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Malik Clements, linebacker, grew up in Danville, played at George Washington High School and the University of Cincinnati. (See previous story on Clements.)
Ricky Walker, defensive tackle. Grew up in Hampton, played at Virginia Tech. (See previous story that mentions Walker.)
Tyjuan Garbutt, defensive end, on the injured list. Grew up in Fredericksburg, played at Virginia Tech.
“I said, ‘Good God, I know exactly the plug I need. My friend Sonny Wade’s got it,'” Nease exclaimed. “I went over to Sonny’s and said, ‘Hey, how about that plug you caught those big walleyes on. Can I borrow that thing? I’m going up to Smith River and I’m going to catch a state-record trout.’
“He said, ‘Really? Well, when you do, why don’t you come back here and show it to me.'”
Nease and Wade spent hours hunting and fishing when they were students at Emory & Henry. Wade said he caught so many trout while he was in college that the school had enough to host a fish-fry for every varsity sports team.
Wade was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1994.
Not bad for a kid who walked away from the starting quarterback job at Virginia Tech, only to set college and Canadian Football League records.
Sunday, Wade will have more than a passing interest in the 2023 Grey Cup. The Alouettes play the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for the CFL championship.
That’s if he’s not out trapping foxes on his property or tossing a football to one of his grandsons.
Wade has lived quite an athletic life.
His Emory & Henry running mate, Bales, gets the final word:
“Sonny Wade, there’s only one.”