By Matt Popchock
One of the highlights of the NFL Draft, which was held almost a month ago, was the selection of Aliquippa/Pitt star Jonathan Baldwin by the Kansas City Chiefs, continuing the proud tradition of WPIAL greats who make it to the pros.
At this point, however, Mr. High School Sports really has to wonder when Baldwin, or the rest of the 2011 draft class, will get to put on his NFL uniform for the first time. During the void the lockout has left, he’s been thinking about the greatest WPIAL players ever to be drafted and make an impact in the NFL.
Be aware that this top-ten list is not intended to rank high school accomplishments alone, nor is it intended to rank NFL accomplishments alone. Rather, Mr. High School Sports is trying to measure the combined success of guys who played in the WPIAL and NFL. Some of these players are best known for what they did in high school, while others are best known for what they did in the NFL. But each of them has enjoyed success at both levels. Collegiate achievements are left out of the equation, which could level the playing field for some of our nominees.
Feel free to comment below and leave your own rankings. In the meantime, here is our list of players who enjoyed the greatest success on Fridays and Sundays altogether. Let the debating begin!
10. Ty Law – Can you imagine one of the top defensive backs of the past decade sitting in some Boston nightclub playing jazz flute instead of helping the Patriots smother opposing offenses? Law once said that’s what he’d want to do if not for being drafted into the NFL, and fortunately for a lot of people, he’ll never have to find out where that alternate reality would have taken him. He was a key player on Aliquippa’s PIAA Class AA championship team as a junior cornerback/safety/receiver/tailback in 1991, and he later earned three Super Bowl rings in New England. Law was a member of the Pennsylvania Big 33 roster and the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 2000’s, and his 53 interceptions put him among the NFL’s career top 25 in that category.
9. Bill Fralic – Whether or not the current Pitt football color commentator was the greatest offensive lineman in Panther history is something we’ll leave up to your imagination, but no one can deny he was one of the greatest linemen to play in the WPIAL, and parlayed in into a lengthy NFL career. He was part of a Penn Hills squad that shared the WPIAL Class AAA title with Butler in 1977 and won it outright in 1978, and he was named to The Pennsylvania Football News’ All-Century Team. Fralic was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons and earned four straight Pro Bowl trips. He made the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1980’s, and was one of the first players in history to get rich off free agency when he signed a short-lived deal with Detroit.
8. Jason Taylor – He was a fearsome linebacker for an elite Quad-A program, and not only was he a presence on the NFL gridiron, but based on Kristi Yamaguchi’s humble account, a presence on the dance floor in “Dancing with the Stars.” Not a bad rap for one of many players to find football success coming through the Woodland Hills pipeline. Although he was home-schooled throughout his sophomore, junior, and senior campaigns, Taylor was named the Post-Gazette’s WPIAL Player of the Year in 1992, lining up at tight end and free safety for George Novak’s Wolverines. After a solid collegiate career at Akron, he did something quite difficult for any NFL player: be dominant on teams that didn’t always have realistic championship hopes. While playing outside linebacker/defensive end for the Dolphins (twice), Redskins, and Jets 2000-2011 he earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2006, and made six Pro Bowl squads. His six career fumble returns for touchdowns remain the most in NFL history.
7. Tony Dorsett – We’re well aware of Dorsett’s dominance at the University of Pittsburgh, but how good was he as a tailback in high school? For the past ten years, Hopewell’s stadium has been named after him, let’s just leave it at that. But if you want further proof, he rushed for 1,000 yards as a junior and senior for the Vikings, who, with Dorsett’s leadership, finished 9-1 in both 1971 and 1972. After winning the Heisman Trophy and national championship at Pitt, he helped the Cowboys win Super Bowl XII as their starting running back and 1977 NFL Rookie of the Year. It was quite serendipitous he lined up against the hometown Steelers in Dallas’ Super Bowl XIII defeat the next year, and he ran for over 1,000 yards in eight of his first nine NFL seasons. With 12,739 career yards in 11 seasons he is the No. 7 all-time rusher in league history, and his 99-yard TD run on Jan. 3, 1983 against the Vikings remains an NFL record.
6. Mike Ditka – With the possible exception of Woodland Hills, no WPIAL school has had greater success matriculating players to bigger and better success than Aliquippa, and we’d be remiss if we mentioned that legacy without mentioning “Iron Mike.” One could argue he was the LaVar Arrington of his era, as he helped guide the Quips to the 1955 WPIAL Class AAA championship, and ultimately played four positions with the varsity squad: fullback, tailback, linebacker, and lineman. After a stellar career at the University of Pittsburgh, Ditka was drafted by the Chicago Bears, the team he would later lead to its only Super Bowl title as head coach in 1985. He caught 43 touchdown passes as an NFL tight end, racking up over 5,800 yards and winning the 1963 NFL title with the Bears, not to mention Super Bowl V with the Cowboys. Ditka is, in fact, the first man to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a tight end, and the first man in Super Bowl history to win the game as a player and coach.
5. Joe Namath – He lit up the city of Miami–and the Baltimore Colts–with an MVP performance in Super Bowl III, one of the greatest upsets in professional sports history, and he lit up quite a few opposing defenses as the starting quarterback at Beaver Falls as well. Namath led the Tigers to the 1960 WPIAL Class AA championship as a senior, and with him at the trigger they fielded some of their most competitive teams in program history. Before leading the Jets to glory against the Colts in a game that historians agree was an inspiration behind the AFL-NFL merger, Namath earned 1965 Rookie of the Year honors with that team in the old American Football League. Injuries hampered what might have been an even greater NFL career, though he did win the league’s Comeback Player of the Year award in 1974 for helping the downtrodden Jets to a .500 finish.
4. Joe Montana – If we honor the man behind “The Guarantee,” we’ve got to honor the man behind “The Catch.” Like a couple of the athletes on our list, Montana excelled at multiple sports while he was a high school student (he helped Ringgold win the 1973 WPIAL Class AAA basketball title), and similar to Dorsett, the on-campus stadium at Ringgold was renamed in his honor several years ago. A two-year starter at QB for the Rams, he was named to the 1973 Parade All-American Team. While leading the San Francisco 49ers to a 4-for-4 mark in Super Bowls, the Hall-of-Famer set NFL records by winning three Super Bowl MVP awards and throwing 45 career postseason TD’s. His career passer rating of 92.3 ranks seventh all-time, ranks tenth all-time in passing yardage (40,551), and was named to both the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team and the 1980’s All-Decade team.
3. George Blanda – He wasn’t the most decorated player in WPIAL football history by any stretch of the imagination. But with all we now know about the physical toll professional football takes on those who play it, it really is somewhat mind-blowing he was able to be so successful at multiple positions–and for so long–regardless of era. A quarterback at Youngwood High School (now known as Hempfield) who later played at Kentucky, Blanda, the 119th pick of the 1949 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears, was the quintessential diamond in the rough. A 26-year veteran of the league, and one of just two NFL players ever to play in four decades, Blanda retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in extra points converted, the all-time leader in career longevity, and accounted for 3,418 points overall as a QB and kicker, an unofficial league record. He threw for 26,000-plus yards with the Bears, Oakland Raiders, Baltimore Colts, and Houston Oilers in both the NFL and AFL. There is a stretch of Route 119 named after the Hall-of-Famer in the Youngwood area.
2. LaVar Arrington – He never won a Super Bowl, and he didn’t even have as gaudy an NFL resume as a lot of the people on our list. But remember: the goal of the list is to measure combined success in the WPIAL and NFL, and few can argue that Arrington might be the greatest football player in WPIAL history. By the time he graduated North Hills, he was Class AAAA’s all-time rushing leader (4,357 yards), he had helped guide the Indians to three playoff appearances and a WPIAL/PIAA championship as a freshman in 1993, and he had appeared on just about every national highlight reel in the country for his end-to-end touchdown run on a botched punt snap. Stories about that and the tailback/linebacker’s “LaVar Leap” were legendary…and still are. Arrington was the 1996 Parade Magazine National Player of the Year and USA Today Pennsylvania Player of the Year. By the time he finished playing for Joe Paterno, he was a much-hyped No. 2 overall pick of the Washington Redskins, for whom he played linebacker from 2000-05. LaVar made three straight Pro Bowls 2001-03 and made two All-Pro teams in that span. A knee injury, and later, an Achilles tendon injury forced him to retire after spending the 2006 season with the Giants and earning 23.5 career sacks, obviously just missing out on that team’s improbable title run. Once again, although Arrington was not the most accomplished WPIAL alumnus to play in the NFL, he was certainly no disappointment as a pro ballplayer, and we would argue his injuries leave him in the category of great players whose health denied them even more fruitful careers. He is to be inducted into the WPIAL Hall of Fame this summer.
1. Dan Marino – When someone utters the name Daniel Constantine Marino, someone else automatically thinks of greatness at the quarterback position. No matter where you rank Marino in the pantheon of elite QB’s, it is indisputable he was one of the best gunslingers in WPIAL history, and one of the best in NFL history. A child of the Oakland area, he was such a great multi-sport athlete he was drafted by the MLB’s Kansas City Royals in 1979, but fortunately for history’s sake he went the “other” way. He was a Parade All-American at Pittsburgh Central Catholic in his 1978 senior season, a year in which he led the team to the WPIAL Semifinals, and had built a resume with the Vikings that made him one of the most sought-after recruits in the nation. The list of career records he either tied or attained with the Miami Dolphins is simply too voluminous to list here. But by the time Marino retired, he was the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yardage (61,361), touchdowns (420), and single-season touchdowns (48). He still has the greatest TD-INT differential in league history, and, believe it or not, even more fourth-quarter comebacks (36) than another player on this list, Joe Montana. One of the great travesties in NFL history is the fact that the Dolphins never won a Super Bowl with him at the trigger, but that will never delete one of the greatest legacies in the history of pro football, not to mention the legacy he left on Parkview Avenue.
HONORABLE MENTION: Willie Thrower – Okay, I know what you’re thinking…Willie who? But remember, this list spans a number of generations, and this guy, though not the biggest name, was pretty important, and the only reason we didn’t put him in the list was because he was never drafted. If not for him, Eagles fans wouldn’t have had a QB to complain about for the past decade, Doug Williams wouldn’t have won the Super Bowl, and…well, let’s just say a lot of future NFL history wouldn’t have come to fruition. That’s because Thrower, after leading New Kensington (now known as Valley High School) to back-to-back WPIAL Class AAA titles as their quarterback/single-wing halfback in 1946 and 1947, became the first black signal-caller in NFL history in 1953 when he appeared in a game for the Chicago Bears. There wouldn’t be another black QB in the NFL for another 15 years. In 1948 Thrower was a Parade All-American and All-PIAA team member, a year in which New Kensington suffered its one and only loss in his three years as a starter.
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