You may have seen him on the Plaza. Or maybe it was near City Hall. Or perhaps at Arrowhead Stadium on game day.
Where ever that may be, Michael Wheeler is certainly hard to miss.
The longtime runner and Kansas City resident wakes up each day and suits up for his long jogs in a rather unusual and flashy outfit: a superman-style cape and t-shirt.
“I see him all over the place,” said Levi Vanzant, a driver for a private transportation service who’s parked outside Crown Center when Wheeler runs by on a recent morning.
“Off Southwest Trafficway a lot, you’ll see him at the Plaza running.”
When a group of young children, guided by a few adults, leave Crown Center and walk past Wheeler, many point and shout “Superman!”
Wheeler nods his head, smiles back and throws in an occasional, “I’m doing super, how are you?”
Wheeler, a slender 61-year-old black man with a finely trimmed white beard, runs in his homemade superman outfit nearly every day.
Starting from his apartment in midtown, he typically hits Crown Center and City Hall in the morning and then the Plaza in the evening. The sight of him running elicits anything from cheers to gawks to general dismay from those who see him.
“What the hell?”
That was Ryan Jones’ initial reaction when Wheeler jogged by as he sat outside Broadway Cafe in Westport. Now a regular occurrence, Wheeler has in some ways become another part of the colorful midtown landscape.
“I find it a little weird, but it’s working for him,” Jones said. “He obviously enjoys what he’s doing.”
Wheeler has been a serious runner for 39 years, but he only started wearing the Superman outfit about two years ago.
“It is comical,” said Wheeler’s longtime friend and Kansas City’s former Mayor pro tem, Alvin Brooks. Brooks is also a founder and head of the Ad-Hoc Group Against Crime, located on Prospect Ave. and Linwood St.
“The first time he came flying in here - not literally - I couldn’t help from laughing. I said, ‘Michael, what’s this all about?’”
A lifelong passion
Wheeler loves to run.
“This has been my passion all my life,” Wheeler said. “I’m loving running and growing older gracefully. It’s a goal, staying in shape and giving inspiration to other people.”
Wheeler and his cape have covered a lot of terrain, and not just in Kansas City. He recently went to Los Angeles, Calif. for a marathon and self-driven run throughout the city. Over the span of nearly forty years, he has formally or informally done dozens of big races, including the Boston Marathon.
“Seeing Michael at races [when he was younger], he was one of the faster runners,” said Garry Gribble, a well-known Kansas City runner and owner of several athletics stores. “If there were 1,000 runners, he would be in the top 25.”
Running is an art, according to Wheeler.
“It’s almost like a dance. In running, I try to run gracefully. It’s not about speed. It’s about pacing yourself,” said Wheeler, who’s now preparing for Kansas City’s Hospital Hill race next month.
“The more you pace yourself the more energy you have. A lot of runners over-pace themselves and that’s why they’ll be tired.”
Running for a cause
Wheeler has been running for as long as he can remember. He likens himself to the classic film character, Forrest Gump, who ran throughout the country witnessing major historic moments.
“Like little Forrest in the movie, he ran from the bullies, that’s how I got into running,” said Wheeler. “I got tired of getting beat up, so I learned how to run.”
But while Forrest ran to run, Wheeler has a more specific cause. He’s running for Jesus.
“I’m an evangelist, but I’m a running evangelist,” said Wheeler. “I run just spreading the good news around.”
At a closer look, one can see that across the Superman symbol on Wheeler’s shirt and hat is the word “Jesus.” The phrase “Jesus Saves” is embroidered on Wheeler’s red cape.
Wheeler feels at peace when he runs. He credits this and his faith for lifting him out of a serious depression and bout with drugs when he was drafted to the military as a teenager. His father, grandfather and several uncles were also all preachers.
Wheeler said he has jogged through every state twice. He managed this by living simply and getting support from people who offered it along the way.
Alvin Brooks said Wheeler has always been religious, but recalls him first "running for Jesus" after Wheeler’s sister was brutally murdered. Brooks and Wheeler became close at that time, and Wheeler took part in Brooks’ anti-crime group.
“We were marching on crack houses back in the ‘80s, when crack became a real menace here. It was of epidemic proportions,” said Brooks.
“We marched on a crack house right across the street from where his family grew up and right across from where I lived at the time. We didn’t ask for police protection, all we wanted was for police to give us passage there and hold the lights and block off the streets.”
Wheeler decided he'd do a “Jericho run,” or seven laps, around the drug house.
“One of the dope dealers came out and hit him with a 2’ by 4’ board, a piece of lumber,” said Brooks. “He was laid up and scarred up for a while. I think that gave him more of the impetus to do what he’s doing now. And I think he’s doing it for justice and for his own Christian purposes as he sees it.”
Wheeler is quick to mention that shortly after the drug house incident, he met President George H.W. Bush during his famous visit to Kansas City in 1990. The President toured Wheeler’s old neighborhood around 33rd St. and Agnes St. to get a firsthand glimpse of the local anti-crime and anti-drug efforts going on at that time.
Wheeler has since been in and out of Kansas City. During his travels around the country, he'd often wheel around a big wooden cross or carry a flag with a phrase like “Jesus Saves” on it. Similarly, a phrase like “repent” would be printed on his shirt.
Wheeler would preach on street corners. He still does sometimes.
Wheeler said doing this has led to several encounters with the law.
He’s not shy about having a record of more than 70 arrests, according to a flyer he wrote up about himself. The Wyandotte County jail confirmed Wheeler has been incarcerated 12 times between 2004 and 2010. Most of the charges were for disorderly conduct, not paying a ticket or trespassing.
Wheeler has no record of convictions in Kansas City, Kan. or Kansas City, Mo., so any charges were likely dismissed or dropped.
So what’s with the Superman outfit?
Wheeler gets a big kick out of all the attention he gets from running around in his Jesus/Superman outfit.
Dirty looks don’t faze him.
Want a picture?
He’s happy to pose, as a quick internet search will confirm.
Wheeler says the idea for a Superman costume came about in response to his love of Superheroes and the kind of positive memories he associates with them from childhood.
“People need inspiration and hope. In our world there’s so much going on. People are fearful,” said Wheeler. “There’s a lot of hate. If people just let that down, this would be a better world.”
Wheeler admits the cape gives him an internal boost, too.
“When I put it on, I start feeling strength, almost like in the movies, like Superman,” he said.
His sister, Peggy Wheeler, has always supported him but said it was hard getting on board with the superman act, initially.
“At first when he did it I was like, 'Oh Lord, have mercy! Oh Jesus.' I really had a hard time wrapping my mind around that,” she said.
Peggy Wheeler said that like the outfit, her brother's approach has also changed over time. He used to be more confrontational.
“He’d just jump out there and tell you you’ve been sinning,” she said.
Wheeler, meanwhile, said his relationship with Christianity has evolved over time. He now describes himself as a “plain believer."
He also finds that compared to his earlier outfits and approaches, he gets a lot more positive attention running around, dressed as Superman. People will approach him, he said, and want to engage with him.
No plans to stop
Wheeler typically runs six days a week. Whether it’s blizzarding or downpouring, inclement weather doesn’t deter him.
After his morning runs, he typically breaks for lunch and to pray. His evening runs usually wrap up by 8 p.m. Then, he may work on a project to document all of his travels.
Wheeler will soon turn 62 but doesn’t think he’ll ever stop running.
“I’m gonna run till I take my last breath.”