Southwest Pennsylvania – Breeding Ground for the NCAA and the NFL

For a region not as heavily populated as some areas of the country, Southwest Pennsylvania has produced a large number of college and pro football greats over the years. Not only does Southwest

Pennsylvania lay claim to the birthplace of professional football, but throughout the years it has also served as a fertile breeding ground for college and professional football.

The players that have come from Southwest Pennsylvania reads like a who’s who of college and pro football greats. In breaking it down by position, an All-Southwest PA team might look something like this:

No part of the country has produced more great quarterbacks and no position is as deep on this squad as quarterback. The starting signal caller would be Joe Montana, thought of as the greatest quarterback in NFL history till Tom Brady, and the backups aren’t too bad either. One would be Johnny Unitas, the greatest quarterback in NFL history before Joe Montana. In 1999, The Sporting News ranked Joe Montana the third greatest football player ever and Unitas fifth. The other backup quarterback is none other than Dan Marino, and Marino retired as the NFL’s all-time leading passer in yards thrown, touchdowns and completions and may have been the best pure passer ever.

Quarterbacks earning honorable mention would include NFL Hall of Famers Joe Namath and Jim Kelly; Gus Frerotte, who threw for over 21,000 yards and made a Pro Bowl; Johnny Lujack, a Heisman trophy winner at Notre Dame; Sandy Stephens, an All-American at Minnesota and Big 10 Conference MVP who led the Golden Gophers to a national championship and is in the College Football Hall of Fame; Terry Hanratty, who led Notre Dame to a national championship and finished eighth in the Heisman Trophy balloting; Chuck Fusina and Richie Lucas, who both went to Penn State and both were runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, and Lucas is in the College Football Hall of Fame; Babe Parilli, a two-time All-American that led Kentucky to Sugar and Cotton Bowl victories and finished in the top four of the Heisman Trophy balloting twice and was the 4th overall pick in the first round of the 1952 NFL draft; Charlie Batch, a three-year starter for the Detroit Lions, and Terrelle Pryor, who led Ohio State to two BCS bowl victories and was MVP of both the Rose and Sugar Bowl.

As for the starting running backs, this lineup has two of the NFL’s all-time greats: Tony Dorsett, a Heisman Trophy winner at Pitt and NFL Hall of Famer; and another NFL Hall of Famer in Curtis Martin. Few backs were as good as Dorsett in college football history. Dorsett broke the record for most yards rushing in NCAA history, and upon his retirement from pro football, he was second all-time in NFL history in career rushing yards with 12,739. Dorsett was the first player ever to win the Heisman Trophy, a national championship, a Super Bowl and be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Martin, who also went to Pitt, retired as the fourth leading rusher in NFL history with 14,101 yards.

Running backs that earn honorable mention include Larry Brown, who was selected to four Pro Bowls,  rushed for over 1,000 yards twice and was the NFL’s leading rusher in 1972; Chuck Muncie, a three-time Pro Bowler that rushed for more than 1,000 yards twice in his career; Cookie Gilchrist, the first player to rush for over 1,000 yards in the AFL and league MVP and is a member of the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame; Mercury Morris, who rushed for over 1,000 yards in a season with the Miami Dolphins, Dick Hoak, who played 10 years in the NFL was named to a Pro Bowl; Fran Rogel, who played eight years in the NFL and was also named to a Pro Bowl and Ed Modzelewski, an All-American at Maryland and Sugar Bowl MVP and was the sixth overall pick of the first round of the 1952 NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

One would think having so many great quarterbacks from Southwest Pennsylvania there would also be a lot of great wide receivers as well, but that’s not the case. The best would be Steve Breaston, a 1,000-yard receiver in 2008 in his six-year NFL career; Brian Baschnagel, a nine-year NFL veteran and Greg Garrity, a seven-year NFL veteran. Currently, Tyler Boyd is in his third year with the Cincinnati Bengals.

With Southwestern Pennsylvania having been known for steel mills and hard-working, blue-collar jobs, one would think the offensive line would be very good, and it is. The starting offensive line would consist of: NFL Hall-of-Famer Russ Grimm, Rich Saul, a six-time Pro Bowler in the NFL; Bill Fralic, a four-time NFL Pro Bowler and a three-time All American at Pitt and one of college football’s all-time greatest offensive lineman and the second overall pick of the 1985 NFL draft; Jeff Christy, a three-time Pro Bowler and Jimbo Covert, a two-time NFL Pro Bowler.

The offensive linemen that would earn honorable mention would include: Ron Saul, who played 12 years in the NFL; Al DeMao, who played in the ‘40s and ‘50s and was voted one of the 70 greatest Washington Redskins; Steve August, the 14th overall pick of the 1977 NFL draft and played eight years in the NFL; A.Q. Shipley, winner of the Rimington Award at Penn State as college football’s best center and current member of the Arizona Cardinals; Dan Mozes, winner of the Rimington Award at West Virginia; Jim Wilson, an All-American tackle at Georgia in 1964 and Stefan Wisniewski, an All-American at Penn State currently playing for the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.

If any position on this team symbolizes western Pennsylvania’s hard work ethic, it would be tight end. Two players stand out above the rest with two others currently making his mark in the NFL. The first would be Mike Ditka, a Pitt All-American and NFL Hall of Famer, and Ted Kwalick, a Penn State All-American and a three-time NFL Pro Bowler. Both Ditka and Kwalick were voted to Sports Illustrated’s NCAA All-Century Team. Having attended Woodland Hills High School, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is a force in the NFL and current Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James merit honorable mention.

The kicker would have to be the ageless one, Hall of Famer George Blanda. When Blanda retired at the age of 48, he was the NFL’s all-time leading scorer and was a very good quarterback in the AFL. The backup kicker would be Fred Cox, who played at Pitt and was the Minnesota Vikings placekicker in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Cox was selected to one Pro Bowl in his 15-year career with the Vikings and was one of the last of the straight-on kickers.

Handling the punting duties would be Ohio State great Tom Skladany. Skladany was a two-time All-American in college and a Pro Bowler in the NFL. His backup would be Pat McAfee, an All-American at West Virginia, who played eight years for the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL.

In turning to the defense and beginning with the defensive line: Hall-of-Famer Jason Taylor, a six-time Pro Bowler and two-time AFC Defensive Player of the year. Taylor was also named to the NFL 2000’s All-Decade team and recorded 139 ½ sacks in his career; Aaron Donald, NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2017 and a four-time Pro Bowler in his four seasons in the NFL. Donald won every major award that a defensive lineman possibly could except the Heisman Trophy in his final season at Pitt.

Dick Modzelewski, an All-American at Maryland and the Outland Trophy winner in 1952. Modzelewski played on the great New York Giants teams in the ‘50s and set a then-NFL record for durability, playing in 180 consecutive games; Leon Hart, a Heisman Trophy winner at Notre Dame and the last lineman to win the Heisman Trophy. Hart also won the Maxwell Award while at Notre Dame and was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame and was an NFL Pro Bowler in his eight-year career in the NFL.

Honorable mention:  Sean Gilbert, an NFL Pro Bowler who played 11 years in the NFL: Bruce Clark, a Lombardi Award winner at Penn State who played in one Pro Bowl in the NFL; Greg Meisner, who played on some of the University of Pittsburgh’s greatest teams and played 11 seasons in the NFL and Leo Wisniewski, who played three years in the NFL.

Linebackers:  Joe Schmidt, NFL Hall of Famer for the Detroit Lions and was named to the 1950’s NFL All-Decade team and was a 10-time Pro Bowl selection. In 1999, Schmidt was ranked number 65 on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 greatest football players. Schmidt played for Pitt and was also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. We have another NFL Hall of Famer at linebacker in Bill George, who played for the Chicago Bears and was an eight-time first team All-Pro selection. George, like Schmidt, was also named to the 1950’s All-Decade team. In 1999, The Sporting News ranked George number 49 of the 100 greatest football players. Lavar Arrington would round out this position as a three-time Pro Bowler and a Butkus and Bednarik Award winner while at Penn State.

Honorable mention:  Myron Pottios, a three-time Pro Bowl selection in his 11-year NFL career; Paul Posluszny, a two-time Bednarik Award winner at Penn State, and selected for the Pro Bowl once in his 11-year career; Brandon Short, an All-American at Penn State and made the Pro Bowl once in his seven-year NFL career; Mike Lucci, named to one Pro Bowl in his 12-year NFL career; Jim Laslavic, who played 10 years in the NFL; Rich Milot, who played nine years in the NFL; John Skorupan, an All-American at Penn State and had an eight-year career in the NFL; Eric Ravotti, who played three years in the NFL and Sean Lee, who was named to the Pro Bowl in 2016 and is in his ninth season with the Dallas Cowboys.

At defensive back, we have Darrell Revis, one of the greatest cornerbacks in NFL history, and at the other cornerback spot we have Ty Law, a five-time Pro Bowler with 53 career interceptions in a 15-year career. The two safeties would be Tom Flynn, who had a five-year NFL career, and Mark Kelso, who played eight seasons with the Buffalo Bills.

As for the coaching staff, you have your pick of three Super Bowl-winning head coaches. There’s Da Coach, Mike Ditka, who coached the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl victory. There is also Bill Cowher, former head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers who coached them to victory in Super Bowl XL, and there’s Mike McCarthy, current head coach of the Green Bay Packers, that coached the Packers to a Super Bowl victory. Two other head coaches that deserve mention are Marty Schottenheimer, who won 205 regular season games and his teams qualified for the postseason 13 times, and Chuck Knox, who amassed 193 wins in the NFL with his teams qualifying for the playoffs 11 times.

It’s unlikely that any region less populated than Southwest PA could produce a lineup that could match this one.

John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites. This and other articles written by him can be found on his blog:

Photo credit: fabfiver5 on Visual hunt / CC BY

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