Wade McGee’s decision to enroll at Haskell Indian Junior College was life-changing.
An exceptional 8-man football high school career at Delaware, Oklahoma led to a tryout at Oklahoma State University in 1988, but a fella named Barry Sanders was already in place. Poor study habits and not getting any playing time at OSU led McGee to make one of the best decisions he could have made: to enroll at Haskell.
“I wasn’t really raised traditionally. I started learning when I got to Haskell, which turned out to be a real blessing,” said McGee, who is a descendent of Chief Red Bird Smith. “I met other tribal members who were distant relatives, who started teaching me. Benny Smith was the dean of students when I was there and made a huge impact on my life. He taught me how to grow up.”
McGee spent hours walking through the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame during his time in Lawrence, Kansas. Names like Jim Thorpe (Sac/Fox), John Levi (Arapaho/Cheyenne) and Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota) inspired him.
“Jim Thorpe has always been my hero,” McGee said. “I remember seeing pictures of Jim Thorpe and John Levi and the rest of the famous Indian athletes. One of my goals is to be in the American Indian Hall of Fame some day.”
When he graduated from Haskell, which is in the National Junior College Athletic Association, he held seven football records at the university, was an academic All-American, and graduated with degrees in liberal arts and natural resources. McGee held the record for longest touchdown run from scrimmage (86 yards); most touchdowns in a single game (4); most touchdowns in a season (19); and most career touchdowns (36), among others.
In 1992, McGee was the leading NJCAA rusher in the nation, as well the national leader in scoring. His 9.8-yards per carry attracted NFL attention and he was invited to some combines.
But his life headed in a different direction; leading him into a coaching career.
McGee met his wife Debbie, Coeur d’Alene nation, at Haskell and became active in her tribe as the tribal sports coordinator. He was also nationally recognized for the development of the Bigger, Faster, Stronger Program, which was considered the best in the Northwest by the Indian Health Services.
“I think Indian kids do need Indian role models,” McGee said. “We’re not like anybody else in the United States. We have an identity. We have a culture. Even our language is different. We’re unique in that our people come from this land, so we can be here today and that’s how we teach our kids. Coach Tanner and Benny Smith were a big part of my life. They still are.”
McGee also created the Coeur d’Alene Warrior youth football program in 2003 to help teach fundamentals to young players and prepare them for high school football. He started a Little League program called the Palouse Prairie Little League, which allows kids of ages 5-18 the opportunity to play baseball and softball.
McGee’s sons Tucker, Jerry and Kenny all came through tribal youth sports programs. He moved his family to the city of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho so they could gain better exposure to college recruiters. It paid off. Tucker was offered a scholarship to play football at Idaho State University.
But despite the outstanding college career, his greatest joy is making Native American kids bigger, faster, stronger and more confident in themselves and where they came from.