By Sports editor Brian Hoffman
The Vinton community lost one of its all-time best athletes and a beloved former elementary school teacher when Paul Hartsel died on September 10 at the age of 74.
Hartsel, who was born on the 4th of July in 1946, was a three-sport athlete at William Byrd, graduating in 1964. He played football and basketball and competed on the track team for the Terriers.
Football was where Hartsel made his name, going on to play in college at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas, where he’s a member of the school Hall of Fame, and then at the University of Miami as a standout defensive end. Retired William Byrd teacher and coach Paul Barnard was a teammate of Hartsel’s at William Byrd.
“He was one of the toughest players ever to come out of the Roanoke Valley,” said Barnard. “He was physically tough and he was mentally tough. If he was graduating now he could still play Division I football.”
Hartsel was 6’1” and 215 pounds in high school, which was big at the time. He played defensive line and halfback, backed up Barnard at quarterback and also served as the Terriers’ kicker. The Terriers went 8-2 that season under coach Norm Lineburg, losing only to Andrew Lewis and William Fleming. They won the Blue Ridge District, clinching the title with a 9-0 shutout of Martinsville.
“There were no playoffs at that time but we finished ranked number two in the state,” said Barnard. “We had a bunch of great players. Jerry McMillan, a tackle, also played for Miami. George Morehead went to East Carolina to play and Don Taylor was a guard at VMI, where he’s in the Hall of Fame for wrestling. David Bates played for Hank Norton at Ferrum.”
Hartsel lettered all four years in football and was selected to the All-State team his senior year. He played basketball in the winter, where he had a reputation as an excellent rebounder who could score. In the spring he threw the shot and discus.
After high school he played at Fort Scott in junior college, excelling as an offensive guard and defensive lineman in 1964 and ’65 for the Greyhounds. He was a unanimous All-Conference choice on both sides of the ball and a NJCAA first team All-American. He also was selected as an academic All-American in ’65.
His performance at Fort Scott earned him a scholarship to the University of Miami, where he played defensive end in 1966 and ’67. He graduated in 1968 with a B.A. degree in Education and returned to the Roanoke Valley to teach elementary school for 33 years, including stints at Roland E. Cook and W.E. Cundiff Elementary Schools in Vinton.
“The kids loved him,” said Barnard. “He had a big heart and he related well to the elementary school kids. He changed a lot of kids’ lives in a positive direction.”
Barnard played golf with Hartsel for years, and the competitive spirit that made him a great athlete never left him.
“He hated to lose,” said Barnard. “He was just as competitive in golf as he was in football. He chipped with a seven iron and I remember one time he hit a bad shot and broke it over his knee and threw it in the bushes.”
Hartsel had some health problems in recent years and had to give up golf. Several years ago Lineburg, Paul’s coach at Byrd, asked Barnard to arrange a visit with Hartsel and the three men had a great time reminiscing.
“We were there for about an hour,” said Barnard. “It was a real special time for all of us and something I’ll never forget.”
Hartsel is survived by his wife of 34 years, Bonnie Hartsel. Also surviving are his brother, Cliff Hartsel; daughters, Karen Williams and Kim Poff; stepchildren, Linda Hodges, David Short, and Cathy Watson; 10 adoring grandchildren; and numerous other family members and life-long friends and neighbors. Paul was preceded in death by his parents; brothers, Bob, Norman, and Donnie Hartsel; and son, Mark Hartsel.
“He’ll be missed,” said Barnard. “Our graduating class is really close and they get together at the Moose Lodge in Vinton every August.
“He was bigger than life,” Barnard continued. “He was a big, tough guy, and we thought he would live forever.”
Donations in Paul’s memory may be made to Midland Baptist Church, 460 Dale Avenue, Vinton, VA 24179, or to Grace Family Church, 2021 Hardy Road, Vinton, VA 24179. The family encourages people to go online and share memories of Paul and condolences at www.oakeys.com.