Twists of fate
He arrived on campus from Edenton equipped with football skills and knowledge that allowed him to play anywhere on the field.
A few twists of fate landed him in the starting lineup and, eventually, at wide receiver.
It was there that Wes Chesson displayed skills ahead of his time in a football career that, this weekend, will land him in Duke’s Athletics Hall of Fame.
“Being associated with that group means a lot to me,” Chesson said. “As far as honors go, it means more to me than any I would receive.”
Chesson played for the Blue Devils from 1968-70 before playing four seasons in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles.
When he came to play at Duke under coach Tom Harp, being a professional football wide receiver was far from his mind.
Heck, playing wide receiver for Duke wasn’t even at the forefront.
“I’m not sure that the NFL was I my mind at all at that time,” Chesson said. “I was just thinking about going to college and playing football. Probably just focusing on doing the best I could both as a football player and as a student at Duke.”
Harp recruited Chesson as a quarterback. Another incoming freshman, Leo Hart, was recruited as a wide receiver.
Together, they would set records for Duke, but not in the way planned.
“We had a variety of laughs about that over the years,” Hart said. “It didn’t quite work out that way.”
Once on campus, Hart became Duke’s quarterback, with Chesson his top wide receiver.
Over their three varsity seasons, they succeeded in amassing passing yardage that was unheard of at the time. While most teams focused on the running game, Duke’s offense allowed Chesson to catch 164 passes for 2,399 yards and 10 touchdowns.
As a senior in 1970, Chesson set ACC single-season records for both pass receptions (74) and receiving yardage (1,080) and was named first team All-ACC and an honorable mention All-American.
His single-season receiving yardage record stood until College Football Hall of Famer Clarkston Hines, playing in coach Steve Spurrier’s offensive system for Duke, rang up 1,093 receiving yards in 1987.
Chesson’s 74 catches were a Duke single-season record for 42 years until both Conner Vernon (85) and Jamison Crowder (76) surpassed it last season.
“Wes was a terrific athlete,” Hart said. “He could have played almost any position on the field. His football savvy and sense really offered so many avenues for me. We had good play selection where we could move him around in formation. We did that with a lot of different players. Wes certainly excelled in that.”
Chesson said his football knowledge came from his high school coach at Edenton’s John Holmes High School, Jerry McGee. During Chesson’s sophomore and junior seasons, Holmes won 27 consecutive games and two state championships.
“Jerry McGee was probably as good a high school coach you could have hoped for,” Chesson said.
A Duke grad whose brother, Mike, was an ACC football player of the year with the Blue Devils, McGee is a big reason why Chesson ended up at Duke. While he had scholarship offers from schools around the state, Chesson said, “The admiration and respect I had for Coach McGee influenced me.”
At Duke, Chesson played wide receiver, quarterback and defensive back on the freshman team. A shoulder injury caused him to miss spring practice in 1968 and he was unsure what his role would be on the Duke varsity team that fall.
But suspensions to two players and injuries to others caused Harp to make Chesson the team’s starting running back and Hart the quarterback. Another injury, to Marcel Courtillet, meant Chesson moved to wide receiver.
That’s where he and Hart clicked. They were roommates and both stayed on campus for summer classes over the next two years. That allowed them extra time to work on passing routes together.
“We really became like brothers,” Hart said. “Wes would occasionally give signals that only he and I knew what was happening. Wes had great ability to adjust his routes and find open space.”
Chesson and Hart were drafted by the Falcons in 1971 and were NFL teammates that season.
As was needed at a time when professional football players didn’t make the big salaries they do now, Chesson sold life insurance in the offseason.
“I had some success doing that,” Chesson said. “I’ve been in life insurance business ever since. It wasn’t so much preparing for life after football as needing to eat.”
Wes and his brother Earl, a former UNC football player who also played in the NFL, founded Hill, Chesson and Woody in Raleigh in 1974. The wealth management firm is still going today.
Chesson remains close to Duke and football as well. Since 1982, he’s been the color analyst on Blue Devils football radio broadcasts along with play-by-play man Bob Harris.
“I had no radio experience but I did know something about football,” Chesson said. “It’s turned into a great 32-year experience and I have a fantastic friendship with Bob Harris.”