The youngest and only boy, Joe had five sisters and went to a public high school on the southside of Pittsburgh, PA in 1943 wartime. They were second generation Polish immigrants. A poor, hardworking family, their dad toiled in one of the many steel mills for which the city was known in those gray, soot-filled days.
South High was both an academic and vocational high school that was in its early years. Joe was one of the new students. At that time, the high school had no athletic facilities of its own. The football team would travel by “streetcar” as it was called in Pittsburgh, to the athletic fields for a trolley fee of 10 cents. The players carried their equipment on the trolley and dressed at the field. The uniforms were poor quality and their relatively new football team had yet to win a game. They carried the uniforms home to be laundered when necessary.
Joe’s uniform never made it home. With an overprotective mom of her only son, Joe played football as the phantom of the family. He kept his playing a secret. All of his sisters were married and he knew his mom who had only a limited grasp of English would not tolerate him playing a collision game she surely didn’t understand. Joe would have his uniform cleaned by his brother-in-law and his second oldest sister. They were the only family members who ever knew Joe played football.
Since Joe’s mom worked nights and slept in the daytime she never caught on to her late-arriving son. He would have to wait for the uniform to be cleaned and then walk the extra two miles home.
Joe practiced and played anonymously. His parents never saw a football game. Heck, they never even knew he played. Being part of a team, the action was the elixir of his persistence in anonymity. No praise, no pats on the back and no one at home to lift his spirits when things weren’t going well on the field.
Many players entering their senior season opted out of school and enlisted to join the war effort. In Joe’s junior year, the quarterback was injured and with few players available he was called into action. He had never played QB, but coming off the bench Joe led his team to their only win of the season. He even scored the winning touchdown and kicked the extra point.
Joe would suffer in silence the aches and pains of practice and the games to keep his football secret. Even the thrill of victory became a burden of silence at home. The motivation was simply playing the game itself. Joe was a competitor with a strong will to win. Wins were scarce, but he was beyond his years in understanding they weren’t losses, as much as lessons to help in the next victory.
Always upbeat, Joe was an optimistic and charismatic presence on the field. He wasn’t vocal, but would be considered a quiet leader. He played with no training beyond what he was blessed with by God. He picked up the game and its strategies easily.
Joe is an example of someone playing truly for the love of the game. I’m sure there are many similar stories, not only in football but other sports as well.
I can relate to Joe and feel the same connection to the game of football. It must be in the blood because Joe was my Dad. He passed away April 15, 2011. I think about you every day. Wish you were here.