Pigskin memories: High school football teaches players about more than the gridiron

On Oct. 4, 1987, I attended my first high school football game. I was 14 and saw a legend’s record shattered that Saturday afternoon.

Jeff Johnson of Hopewell High School rushed for 306 yards, breaking the school record held by former Pitt and Dallas Cowboys star Tony Dorsett.

There was one problem. I was rooting for the opposing team.

I went to watch my older brother play for Keystone Oaks. The 31-6 loss was the fifth consecutive to start the season en route to a winless campaign for the Golden Eagles.

Despite that ominous outcome, I still decided to go out for the KO varsity team the following year. It was one of the best decisions of my life.

Playing football in Western Pennsylvania is special.

For those who are willing to pay the price, it provides life lessons.

It provides terrific competition.

It provides opportunity.

And it provides a lifetime’s worth of memories. Those memories — the good ones and the ones that, well, left a lasting impression one way or another — were rekindled last week when high school football practice began on Aug. 11 around Western Pennsylvania. The season opens for most schools on Aug. 29, a week from tomorrow.

Just as I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing when the space shuttle exploded — snow day, at home, playing board games when ABC News broke into programming — I can tell you the video that was on MTV as I left the house on the morning of Aug. 15, 1988 for my first day of high school football camp.


Because our brains store the most random and minute details of life’s big events, and for me, high school football was the most important thing in my life at the time.

The video: Van Halen’s “When It’s Love.” I would find out during the next two weeks another title from the OU812 album was more appropriate for my first experience with high school football: “Finish What Ya Started.”

“What was I getting myself into?” That’s what I was thinking.

We practiced twice a day, five days a week for two weeks. The first practice was at 8 in the morning and the second was 5:30 in the evening. There was a 12:30 p.m. practice three days a week. All were in full pads.

The middle practice was an hour of “special teams.” It wasn’t as taxing as the other two, but let me tell you something: Nothing says misery quite like stepping into a pair of soaking wet football pants that hadn’t had time to dry out from the morning practice.

There is nothing that prepares you for a high school football camp. I swear there were some days I never stopped sweating: conditioning stations to kick off the morning practice; sprints to cap the night practice; actual football practice that seemed like it would never end in between.

Rinse and repeat.

Eventually, it got better, but only when camp ended.

I made my first start one month later. One of our starting inside linebackers was injured, and I was pressed into duty as a sophomore, all 160 pounds of me.

Like many kids growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s and ’80s, I had Jack Lambert as my idol. If an old film exists of that game at Belle Vernon, you’d see me wearing white forearm pads mimicking the ones Lambert used to wear for the Steelers.

There was no storybook ending. We lost to the Leopards, 24-0. I have a few memories of what transpired during the game, but the most vivid one is what happened after the game.

We took two school buses to the game — one for the varsity and the other for the junior varsity. Even though I started the game, I didn’t feel confident enough to walk onto the varsity bus before or after, so I sat on the JV bus with my sophomore classmates and a few juniors who didn’t play much.

We were eating our postgame meal — a hoagie, an apple and a brownie — and waiting for the coaches to board so we could leave. A couple of players who didn’t know any better were talking too loud.

The next thing I knew, senior lineman Lou Spanos jammed down his window on the varsity bus and spewed a few choice curse words, as well as his half-chewed brownie, toward the JV bus. The words echoed for a moment and the brownie bits landed around us.

And then, there was silence.

Those guys learned really quickly that you don’t talk on the bus after getting shut out.

Football remains important to Mr. Spanos. He is now the linebackers coach for the Tennessee Titans. This will be his 19th consecutive season making a living as a football coach.

Another player who competed in that game was Belle Vernon’s Joe Rudolph, who went on to become an All-Big Ten lineman at the University of Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez and played two seasons in the NFL. Football remains important to him, too. He is the offensive coordinator at Pitt.

In Western Pennsylvania, you never know who you might come up against.

Before my senior season in 1990, one week before our season opener, we had a scrimmage against Allderdice High School.

A little running back coming out for football for the first time as a senior played against us that Saturday morning at Dormont Stadium. Twenty-two years later, I covered his enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the Post-Gazette.

That little running back was Curtis Martin.

The competition during the regular season of my senior year was pretty good, too. The final two games of my high school career were against Parkway Conference foes Hopewell and Seton-LaSalle. A few weeks later, they played at Three Rivers Stadium for the WPIAL Class AAA championship.

We lost both games, but I was lucky enough to get noticed. A few months later, I signed a letter of intent to play at Holy Cross, a Division I-AA program in the Patriot League.

High school football provided me that opportunity and paid for almost all of my college education.

Another high school football season kicks off Aug. 29 in Dormont as well as most other small towns around the WPIAL.

Much has changed in the past 24 years in the tiny world where I grew up. Due to dwindling enrollment, Keystone Oaks has dropped from Class AAA to Class AA. All of my coaches have passed away or retired. Heck, the new athletic director there was a ball boy during my era.

But it’s funny how things come full circle, too. My nephew is 14. He is a freshman at KO and growing up in the same house, sleeping in the same bedroom that I did. He’ll dress for his first varsity game against Quaker Valley in eight days.

I tried to prepare him as best I could, but I figure there are just some things he has to experience on his own.

If he’s lucky, he’ll avoid a brownie shower.

Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.

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