“How I Became a Pitt Fan” Redux

Do you remember a couple of years ago when the regulars on here submitted articles regarding “How I became a Pitt fan”? Here is a follow-up on that by our good friend Gordon…

Pick-Up Games

A couple things today made me want to bring out my soap box, add a little to my bio and express a few more opinions that don’t exactly fit with the current thread. Anyway it is a very slow period for football and basketball so my mind drifted in other directions.

While Pitt football and basketball are minor blips on the overall sporting world, even in Pittsburgh, I want to focus on the importance of athletics in general and my hope that Pitt has finally recognized the value of sports that you probably won’t make a living at. All I can say is what has taken so freakin’ long, and is it really going to happen?

As you may know, I grew up in Penn Hills in the 60’s during the height of the baby boom.  Most of us had one car, one bathroom, one TV with channels you could count on one hand, poor programming and even poorer reception. For you young guys, there were no remote controls and a lot of the time one of the kids had to stand and hold the antennae to get any reception.

So from dusk to dawn we would go to the ball field and play, baseball, basketball, football, wrestling without rules, a little hockey and a lot of other hide and seek kind of games. Soccer hadn’t been heard of unfortunately or we would have played it. Jogging hadn’t been invented yet. We ran for pure joy! Everyone knew everyone’s relative value at each individual sport. All were pick- up games, except for Little League.

Sports were a major part of your identity, playing that is, didn’t do much watching or listening as today since there really only was the Pirates who weren’t any good until 1960.

It was hard to stand out because of the numbers, the age differences and cliques. So entering junior high (seventh grade at the time) it really was a tough time, fitting in, puberty and all that stuff. The fear of being made fun of or getting beat up was real.

I was too skinny for football and not quite talented enough or tall enough for basketball.  In gym class one day the teacher was instructing us on high jumping in the gym. When it was my turn, he moved the mats for the left handers, I jumped, cleared the bar and landed on the hard wood floor.  He laughed as did the whole class, but then told me to go out for the track team. Back then, there were so many kids they had light, middle and heavyweight classes in the field events.

I had found my identity. The next week in my first meet, I placed and my name was announced to the whole school, pretty heady indeed to make the varsity as a freshman. During the next two years I rarely lost. At my fiftieth reunion one guy was telling me what a great high jumper I was so I guess the identity stuck.

Two things triggered me writing this today. The WPIAL medal on the trophy on the article I submitted and the anniversary of the Assassination of Medgar Evers. Let me explain. I have a gold and silver WPIAL medals from the West Penn Relays. They were won with my team mates and good friends John Wilborn and Larry Johnson. Sports gave me the opportunity to work out, hang out and have friendships with black kids. Something I will always be grateful for.   

John went on to high jump for Pitt, I didn’t because a guy named Bryant Salter was jumping and was near world class before Fosbury invented his flip. Salter also went on to play for the Redskins and was one of the few Pitt guys to distinguish himself in that era.

I did set the intramural high jump record at Pitt and have been told I still hold it after almost 50 years. As long as they don’t reinstate the games it is mine.

I was told Larry Johnson passed a while back, he was one of the finest guys I’ve ever met.  I mentioned Medgar Evers, because I and most of my white peers had no idea of how blacks were treated in our society. Pittsburgh wasn’t Alabama or Mississippi, so until Martin Luther King was killed we had no idea.

In any case, the points I wanted to make were that sports give kids a chance to find themselves; they also give us a chance to get to know people that we might not get to know. They teach us how to work as a team and how to compete, as well as the importance of hard work.  It also feels good to be good at something.

I also found gymnastics in High School and worked my way into being pretty good. I lettered at Pitt and it hurt when they shut down the Men’s Gymnastics program. Gymnastics is one of the purest forms of athletics that exists.

It is a shame that Pitt has never valued Athletics for Athletics sake. My roommate freshman year was on the Golf team, another sport that is no more.

I have always believed that strong, varied, athletic departments are what lead to great football and basketball teams and not the reverse.  A culture that doesn’t value all sports creates an apathetic fan base.

Since kids no longer grow up playing sports unless their parents take them to organized activities, it will be harder to grow a fan base that identify with athletes. 

It is easy to bash our coaches, but they are just the symptoms and not the root of the long standing malaise that is Pitt Sports.

One other quick aside, sports were important to me for fitness. Playing games kept us fit. Work outs were to make us better at the games we played.  While I see the value in weight lifting, Marathon running, Pilates and Yoga, I am bored silly on the elliptical and long for the days when I could play tennis, softball or volleyball. At least I still have golf, for how long is anyone’s guess.

If anyone else wants to write a follow up, maybe to update how you view, or feel about, Pitt athletics or maybe additional stuff about growing up – whatever, please do so.

Submit them to me at rkohberger@gmail.com and good things will happen…maybe.