John S. Meroney, 85, of Kernersville, North Carolina, died in his home on November 25, 2022, following complications from a stroke.
John was born on July 26, 1937, in the mountains of Western North Carolina – “right in the suburbs of Asheville,” he would say, “in a little place called Scratch Ankle. It was so far back up in the woods that when we’d go to the post office, we’d make sure we had a pregnant mule to ride so we’d have another one to ride back.”
The son of Lloyd Alwyne Meroney and Mamie (Truell) Meroney, John was a direct descendant of Philip DeLancey Meroney, of County Clare, Ireland. Meroney came to America at the time of the French and Indian War in 1760 and stayed on to fight in the American Revolution. As captain of the First Maryland Battalion of the Flying Camp, Meroney equipped a company at his own expense and fought in the Battles of Brandywine, White Plains, and Yorktown. On October 18, 1781, Meroney was present when the British surrendered to the Continental Army’s Commander-in-Chief, General George Washington. Philip DeLancey Meroney settled in Charleston, South Carolina.
This lineage helped inspire a fierce determination in young John. “We used to do a lot of fighting out there in Scratch Ankle, and it didn’t take me too long to learn and know that you’ve got to take care of yourself,” he said.
When he was boy, John’s family moved to Washington, D.C. Even though his parents had no background or interest in athletics, John fell in love with football as an eighth grader at Stratford Junior High School in Arlington, Virginia. He weighed just 110 pounds but refused to give up his dream to play.
“The first day of practice I looked at those guys and knew I could play better football than anybody on that field,” he said. John went out for the team, thinking maybe if that failed, he could be manager.
The coach sized him up and said, “Well, Johnny, you’re kind of small. If you come out for the team and you get cut, then you can’t get your job as manager back. Do what you want to.” John took a chance – and made the team. But he was third string. In the entire season, he got to play a total of two minutes. And that was only when the team was way ahead. And it was in the last minute or two.
As a junior at the much larger Washington-Lee High School, John went out for the varsity. He made the cut as left halfback, but this time he was on the seventh string. Still, he worked hard, showed he could carry the ball, and made touchdowns. He also learned to tackle.
A news account of a Washington-Lee junior varsity game against George Washington in Alexandria contains this lede: “Halfback Johnny Meroney sparked the Little Generals to victory with his standout running throughout the game, scoring two of the four W-L touchdowns. He scampered 19 and 71 yards for touchdowns.”
By John’s senior year, even though he was by then 5-6 and 155 pounds, he became “the hard-running halfback” who “heads for the wide-open spaces.” After just a couple of games, John was the top scorer for the Generals.
News accounts in the capital’s newspapers say that Meroney “raced,” “took over,” “trounced,” “romped,” and “swept [competitors] off their feet.”
THERE GOES MERONEY, read a typical headline in Washington papers. Sports reporters called him the sparkplug in the Generals’ never-say-die spirit.
“John Meroney was easily the standout performer for the Generals,” wrote the Daily Sun’s “Duck” Ducksen.
In December 1954, John was awarded the Hecht Company “Most Valuable Player” trophy. In fact, his home is full of trophies from those days at Washington-Lee – First Team All-Metropolitan, Washington, D.C.; First Team All-Northern Virginia; All-State, Outstanding Player.
Reflecting on their unique time on the Washington-Lee team, John’s fellow General, Warren Beatty, who played center (and would later go on to star as a fictional quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams in the 1978 film Heaven Can Wait) wrote to John: “You are one of the greatest guys and greatest ball-players I have ever known. I’ll always remember your modesty and perfect personality. I have never known a more likeable person than you. I hope I see a lot of you in the future.”
Thinking that he might want to attend the Naval Academy, John enrolled in a feeder for Annapolis and West Point, The Bullis School – “6 miles from the White House.” A boarding and day school in Silver Spring, Maryland, it was not unusual to see as many as eight Bullis graduates, at one time, on the varsity football squad at the Naval Academy.
But fate intervened when an assistant football coach at the University of Virginia spotted a “super player” on the Bullis gridiron – young John Meroney. The assistant was so excited at what he saw on the field that he telephoned his colleague and friend Herb Appenzeller, head football coach at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina – “The Only Quaker College in the South.”
“We don’t want another ACC school to get him,” Martin told Appenzeller. “If you get him, you will have an All America.”
Appenzeller traveled to Washington to meet John and his parents at their home on 1211 Cleveland Street in Arlington. He invited him to visit Guilford. John accepted. While in Greensboro, Appenzeller sold him on coming to the Old North State to play. He entered Guilford in 1956. John would become one of Guilford’s all-time best and, in 1974, he was inducted into the Guilford College Hall of Fame.
In Guilford’s first game of the season against Elon, Appenzeller recalled, “John ran 96 yards for a touchdown. On his second play, he ran 98 yards for a touchdown. On his third carry, he went 97 yards for a third touchdown.” It became a pattern.
John became famous “from Murphy to Manteo,” – Guilford’s first All American, and an outstanding sprinter on the track team, too. He was graduated with honors in 1960. In 2019 Appenzeller, who would go on to become Guilford’s athletic director for decades, included John’s exploits in his book, Legends from the Locker Room.
“I felt later in life that John Meroney was the football player that had the greatest influence on me in all my years of coaching,” Appenzeller wrote.
John signed with the Green Bay Packers to play for Coach Vince Lombardi for the 1960 season – this was during the Packers’ legendary era of Bart Starr and Paul Hornung. At the time, the starting salary in the National Football League was $17,934. But before the first game of the season, Lombardi himself cut John from the team. John was too small – 5-10 and 185.
When John recounted his short-lived time with the Packers, he would say, “If you think I’m only 5-10, you’ve got some stinkin’ thinkin.’ You’ve got to think bigger than that. I’m 6-2, about 230 pounds – I’m just a compact version of that, see? Some of you big guys who are about 6-2 or 6-3, I want to see you run about four or five times into Hawg Hanner or ole Ray Nitschke or Willie Wood and then come back up and not be any shorter than I am.”
After the Packers, he returned to Guilford where he worked with the football team as a backfield coach and scout. In 1962-63, he also did graduate work at the University of Virginia’s School of Administration in Charlottesville. Later, John was track and assistant football coach in the Department of Athletics at Frederick College in Portsmouth, Virginia.
In 1964, he launched a business career with Fidelity Union Life Insurance Co., where he was named regional rookie of the year and in time was inducted into the President’s Club. At American Bankers in 1971, he joined the Millionaire’s Club. In 1974, John was Phoenix Mutual Life’s Man of the Year. Later, he joined the brokerage business in Winston-Salem, first as vice president of Advance Investment Co., where he worked with William E. Hollan, Jr.; at the Pinnacle Group, with Lee Cain; and in 1988 started a career with NCNB where he became senior vice president, NationsBanc Investments, Inc., (later Banc of America Investment Services, Inc.), and senior vice president, Merrill Lynch Private Client Group.
From boyhood until his stroke in July 2022, John played tennis and also golfed with his best friend, Herb Sidden; attended NASCAR races in Talledega, Charlotte, and Daytona Beach, with his brothers-in-law Emory Gilly and Don Pence; owned and lived on a 13-acre former tobacco farm in Winston-Salem (which is still owned by family members); purchased and maintained a country estate in Davie County where he hosted a pig-picking with help from his friend, Rick Batté; raised, showed, and midwifed the pups of his prize-winning, pedigreed basset hound, Mercy Bee Merrigold; ran the New York City Marathon; hunted bears in Canada; bicycled in Santa Monica; and vacationed with his devoted wife, Marsha, at their cabin in Boone, North Carolina.
He was a dedicated reader of the Wall Street Journal and Garden & Gun. John also followed national affairs with zeal. In 2015, he forecast the rise and ultimate election of Donald Trump to the presidency, when everyone in politics and the national media – and even his own family members – viewed the real estate magnate’s chances as dubious, at best.
He spent the last month of his life surrounded by Marsha, other loved ones, and friends. In October, members of the current Guilford College football team, along with head coach Brad Davis, visited him at home to pay their respects. John loved it when they autographed a helmet for him. He also watched Monday Night Football with his granddaughter and listened to Dave Brubeck and Errol Garner with her.
John is survived by his wife of more than a decade, Marsha (Poplin) of Kernersville; his son, John S. Meroney II (Meredith) of Los Angeles, California; a granddaughter, Blair Grace DeLancey Meroney, also of Los Angeles; two stepdaughters, Dana Cooper and Lynn Alas, and their children; many nieces and nephews; his beloved little sister, JoAn Cutler of Winston-Salem; many nieces and nephews; and former wife, Audrey Gilly Meroney, of Big Stone Gap, Virginia. His brother, Hugh, and another sister, Carolyn Pence, preceded him in death.
In 1967, John joined Christ Wesleyan Church in Greensboro, pastored by Rev. Robert I. McCluskey (“Preacher Bob”) and assistant pastor Rev. Forbis L. Kivett, both of whom John regarded as spiritual mentors and friends. Later, he attended Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem for 23 years. With his wife, Marsha, John was also an active member of the Gideons; Bible Study Fellowship; and they attended Shady Grove Wesleyan Church in Colfax, and Christ Wesleyan Church in Winston-Salem.
For keeping John comfortable in his difficult final days and easing his journey to Heaven, his family would like to give its heartfelt thanks to the staff of Kate B. Reynolds Hospice Home, Trellis Supportive Care in Winston-Salem, and in particular nurse Laura Aron who has such a wonderful peace about her.
When asked to talk about his outlook on life, John always credited his mother, Mamie. “She was the kind of person who always looked on the bright side,” he said. He would also invoke Dr. William James, “the father of American psychology.” John said, “He knew a great deal about how the human mind worked and he said, ‘Man can alter his life by altering his attitude.’ What is your attitude?”
John came to call his personal viewpoint “the winning attitude.” When he spoke about it to groups throughout the country, he said that he had a love affair with his maker and a love affair with life. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, “you’ve got to have a love affair with something before anything is going to happen in your life.”
Hayworth-Miller Funeral Home in Kernersville has been entrusted with the arrangements. Visitation with the family will be there on Tuesday, November 29, 2022, from 1:00-2:00 P.M., and the memorial service will be held at 2:00 P.M. John will be buried at Oaklawn Memorial Gardens in Winston-Salem following the service. To view the obituary or share condolences, please visit www.hayworthmiller.com.