My friend Joe l. has chipped in with his Bio here also. I had a great dinner with Joe and his daughters before a Pitt bowl game two years ago… Great kids and a great Pitt fan.
I am a native Pittsburgher, born in Suburban General Hospital in Bellevue in January of 1960. My parents were both from Richmond, VA and were brought to the Pittsburgh area in 1959 when my Dad took a job at the Shippingport Nuclear Plant (Beaver County) following his graduation from UVa. We lived in the Sewickley Manor apartments just off of Ohio River Boulevard, behind the then Holiday Inn (later featured in the movie “Jack Reacher” as the motel Reacher stayed in while in town).
I am told that at nine months, I was sitting in my dad’s lap when Bill Mazeroski hit the home run over the left center wall (and Yogi Berra’s head) to beat the Yankees and win the 1960 World Series.
When my younger brother was born in 1962, we moved up to Coraopolis Heights directly beneath the water tower with a full view of the Ohio Valley. In 1965, my parents then bought a house in Mount Lebanon off of Beverly Road so that we could attend the local school system.
In the late 60’s, I attended my first big sporting event with my Dad – a Pirates game at Forbes Field. We entered the ballpark with “knothole club” tickets through a nondescript door down Bouquet St. Our seats were high up and I seem to recall that the ramps had railings made of bull rope as we ascended to the upper level.
As a part of the knothole club experience, the Pirates sent up two players to meet with our group before the game. As luck would have it, the two players were from Virginia – Jerry May and Gene Alley. Like my father, Alley grew up in Richmond and the two remembered each other from their high school playing days. I can imagine that it was special for my dad and I thought it was really cool that he knew one of the players.
On the way home from the game, I had my first sight of the monolithic edifice that was Pitt Stadium at the top of the hill. It was gone in a flash as we passed by and I asked my Dad what it was. He told me that was the place where the Pitt pennant on my bedroom wall came from and that we’d go there someday. He occasionally went there with friends and I recall that after one Notre Dame game, he came home and went right to bed – with his clothes still on and on top of the sheets. My mom explained that he had a “virus” but she didn’t seem too sympathetic to his plight.
Between that first Forbes Field game and his untimely passing in 1973 at age 38, we attended many sporting events together: Steeler and Pirate games at the new Three Rivers Stadium, as well as the new Penguins hockey team. But unfortunately, we never made it to a Pitt game together.
Aside from the pennant and drive-by view of Pitt Stadium, my exposure to Pitt football was limited until I started playing pee-wee football. One of the dads who attended a couple practices was Ralph Jelic, who was on the on the Pitt football coaching staff as well as a former player. Mr. Jelic’s son’s Jeff was in the program and all the other kids noted with interest that he had Pitt gear, including these things called helmet stickers.
Jeff was involved in football early, but his sport would become wrestling where he enjoyed success as a WPIAL champ and an All-American at Pitt. Jeff’s younger brother Chris would quarterback the Mount Lebanon Blue Devils and played both quarterback and punter at Pitt. (I will share a story about Chris that I hope you will enjoy following my story) Knowing that we had a Pitt coach in our neighborhood really piqued my interest in Pitt football. It wasn’t long after meeting Mr. Jelic that he left Pitt.
With my father’s passing at age 38 in July of 1973, I really didn’t think too much about Pitt football until a friend’s father asked me if I’d like to go with the two of them to a game. Knowing that our neighbor wasn’t with the program anymore made the opportunity less appealing, but my mother encouraged me to go anyhow. I cannot remember who Pitt played that day – all I remember was the hike up that hill and that we won the game.
In my high school years, a couple friends and I decided to purchase season tickets for the 1976 season. We knew that it was going to be a big year. After all, Tony Dorsett was going to be a senior and we thought he’d have a special year. One buddy usually drove and he had a yellow AMC Pacer (just like Wayne’s World). That car was funny even back then.
I will always remember the game against Army when we had a comfortable lead when the PA announcer informed the crowd that #1 ranked Michigan had lost its game, which meant Pitt was going to be ranked #1. The crowd roared and it was really something special.
For the big night game against Penn State at Three Rivers Stadium at season’s end, we must have piled 10 kids in my mom’s station wagon to get to the North Side. Aside from the great victory, I will always remember locking the keys in the car in a not-so-nice part of the North Side. Poor mom had to get a friend to drive her down to us with a spare key. I’m grateful she didn’t spell my beer breath.
I went away to college (Bethany College outside of Wheeling) but would regularly come home for some night life with high school friends. A number of them were attending Pitt, where I had the pleasure of attending a couple parties in the Towers (some of the images are burned in my memory!) and a few at the fraternity houses. We’d go to meet girls at the Sanctuary and either end up at the O or at Primantis in the Strip – when it was really just a hole in the wall.
I transferred to the University of Richmond and any chance of becoming a diehard Spider football fan was killed when Paterno (among others) pushed for separating the bigger schools from the smaller ones, which eventually led to the creation of Division I-A and I-AA. The Spiders with a small stadium did not make the I-A cut and our scheduling went from playing the likes of Maryland, Wake Forest, Virginia, & Virginia Tech, to smaller lesser-known programs. At the same time, Pitt was a national power and was getting nice national coverage (for that time).
I watched with interest as other kids from my high school made their way onto the Pitt team: Cesar Aldisert, Bob Schillken, John Rees and Chris Jelic. Of course, there was also this Marino kid (who later married Claire Veazey, who was from another family from my neighborhood and just around the corner from the Jelics).
Upon graduating college, I took a job with Westinghouse through their Graduate Placement Program, hoping to land a spot at one of their locations in the Southeast. Well, I got the east…just not the south. I started in the East Pittsburgh works right around the corner from USS’s J. Edgar Thomson Works. At that time, Pittsburgh’s steel industry was imploding and interest rates were sky high. The prime rate was 20% and when I went to finance my first car purchase, I got a “sweetheart deal” from Ford Motor Credit of 15.15%. I wanted a Honda for its reliability and mileage, but decided it wasn’t smart to park a foreign car in East Pittsburgh or drive it through Braddock on the way to and from work. Especially as work was being moved out of the East Pittsburgh plant for places like South Carolina and Puerto Rico. Those of you who are my age or older may recall the feeling people had about Japanese steel and auto producers back then as well as the general malaise in Pittsburgh as its industrial base collapsed.
Having arrived back in Pittsburgh, I restarted my season tickets and was excited to see what Dan Marino would do in his senior year. We went to the first game of the year – a night game at Three Rivers Stadium for a national TV audience – and watched our #1 ranked Pitt Panthers struggle to beat the UNC Tarholes 7-6. Following the dramatic win in the Sugar Bowl just months earlier, I thought we would simply rack up the points in the coming season. Notre Dame knocked us off midseason at home and the chance at another national championship was gone. Then the awful Cotton Bowl game against SMU.
I still remember the pain of losing at home in consecutive weeks to Robbie Bosco and unranked Brigham Young and #15 Oklahoma in the 1984 season. My car got towed during that game to add insult to injury. Jim Everett came to town the next year with the Purdue Boilermakers and thankfully we held on to win with a defensive stand at the end of the game. But it was clear that the magic at the Pitt program was gone. And yet we still went to games, hoping for a return to greatness.
I got married a shortly after that and my wife (expecting our first daughter) and I headed for Richmond for better job opportunities. To those who asked where I was from, I described myself as a Yinzer Expatriate – located away but a Pittsburgher at heart. Career and kids meant my attendance at Pitt games would take a pause for some time, but I always watched them on TV when the games were available.
Unlike many who went to Pitt, I wasn’t all that enthralled with the process of attending game at Pitt Stadium. Having said that, I would have been OK if they had decided to renovate it, but when Heinz was built and I learned Pitt was going to play there, I decided to get back in as a season ticket holder. I’ve been going since then, making 4-5 games a year.
These days, my seats are in the lower level on the visiting team side facing the band. We have a great group of mostly the same people around us year in and year out. Trips from Richmond take about 5.5 hours and we always come up the night before to meet friends and have drinks and a nice dinner. For many years, we’ve been tailgating in the Blue 10 garage and have tried to make our gathering something to look forward to. Win or lose, at least one should have fun at a tailgate! For this season, we are moving to Red Lot 5, with the hope of helping Fran with his special gatherings. Its been great to meet many of you at those gatherings and the bowl games and I hope to meet more of you. I don’t care what anyone says – we Pitt fans are special people. And screw the Nits, btw.
Five years ago, my youngest daughter delighted her father by stating that she wanted to go to Pitt because of all the trips we had taken up there to visit during her childhood. She graduated last Spring and she had a great four-year experience. If any of you took a Pitt Pathfinder tour of the campus during that time period, she may have been your guide. I’m very proud that she selected Pitt and lived vicariously through her these past years.
Chris Jelic story – As many of you probably know, Chris Jelic was not only a Pitt quarterback, but he also excelled at baseball. After Pitt, he turned his sights to baseball as a career. I was able to follow his progress within the Mets system thanks to The Sporting News, which was really a great weekly sports rag before we had the Internet. Chris made it to AAA, playing for the Tidewater Tides in Norfolk.
At the end of one season (1989?), I went to a Richmond Braves game (Atlanta’s AAA affiliate back then), who happened to be hosting the Tides. I went down near the dugout and asked the batboy if he could find Chris. Chris comes out and we have a really nice chat. I was looking forward to watching him play, but he said he was a scratch that day. Later, my buddies teased me that Jelic must not have been very good if he was scratched and of course I was hot about that and said, maybe they are going to send him up.”
Two or three days later, I was home sick with a bug and flipped on the TV to see what was on. ESPN was carrying the businessman’s special from Three Rivers – the Pirates were hosting the Mets. You can probably guess what happened. Chris Jelic was sent in to pinch hit and tags a home run. That may have been the only homer of his MLB career, but how nice that it happened in his hometown.
Final thought on the Jelics – Mr. Jelic passed away on May 28th. My thoughts and prayers are with Jeff and Chris and their families. They unknowingly played a big part in my becoming a Pitt fan.