Joseph Natoli, the founder and longtime coach of the Morningside Bulldogs football team who taught the sport to hundreds of young players, including Pitt All-American Bill Fralic, died Wednesday. He was 85.
Mr. Natoli, who resided in Morningside, was so well known for his coaching that the football field in Morningside is named in his honor and a book was penned about his coaching exploits. The book, "We Flew on a Single Wing," details the story of the Bulldogs, who were 271-19-8 from 1950 to 1980.
"Joe Natoli was a great man," Mr. Fralic said. "He meant a lot to a lot of people. The Morningside Bulldogs is where I first learned how to play football. There was not a better place to get your foundation."
Mr. Fralic, who played in the NFL from 1985-93 and was named to the Pro Bowl four times, played for the Bulldogs for three years before enrolling at Penn Hills High School. The Bulldogs fielded football teams composed of players ranging in age from 11 to 13 and accepted children from all parts of the city and its outskirts.
In the 1970s, the team began adding older players and started competing against junior varsity teams from local high schools and teams from out of state because other local teams in the same age group in the area could not compete with them on the field.
Mr. Natoli employed the single wing offense, which he learned from an old playbook he got from University of Pittsburgh coach Jock Sutherland and some ideas he gleaned from Princeton coach Charlie Caldwell.
The unconventional offense was part of the reason the Bulldogs became, as Mr. Fralic and many other Bulldogs alumni proudly note, "the winningest football team in the world."
"When we came out on the field and ran it, we confused the heck out of teams because they weren't familiar with it," said Tony Ferraro, who was a water boy for the team in the 1960s. "He was a mentor, a teacher and a friend all in one."
Thirty-three years after the team folded it remains a presence in the city. When Mr. Natoli's son, Joe, wears shirts with Morningside emblazoned on the front he is invariably asked about the Bulldogs.
"It's been over 30 years, but the aura is still there," his son said. "From the players to the coaches, it's a brotherhood."
The team stopped playing in 1980 because it became too expensive to play out-of-state teams. There was some thought to keeping the team going, but Mr. Natoli wanted to keep the team's record and its good name intact.
"We thought about giving it to someone else to run, but we were afraid they'd destroy the name," Mr. Natoli told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in January 1980. "We're going to bury it with dignity, so some other jerk doesn't screw it up."
Mr. Natoli attended Central Catholic High School but never graduated because he had to work in the mill to help support his family. He later earned a GED.
He worked for the city's recreation and parks department for 40 years, working his way up from laborer to assistant director. From 1986-94, he worked for Allegheny County, serving two stints as parks director with two years as head of veterans affairs in between.
Mr. Natoli had been moved from parks to veterans affairs by the late commissioners Chairman Tom Foerster as part of a reorganization, even though he wasn't a veteran and had no experience there. Two years later, when Republican Larry Dunn took over as chairman, he met resistance from veterans when he moved Mr. Natoli back to parks.
"Joe wasn't a vet, but he was so great with people that after two years they didn't want me to take him away," Mr. Dunn said. "I really respected Joe and I was happy to have him back in the parks department."
Mark A. Machi, head of the Laborers Union at the county's Kane Hospital regional nursing homes and a personal trainer, said he spent the past two years driving Mr. Natoli to monthly luncheons and other events. Last month, Mr. Natoli rode in his Corvette convertible during the Columbus Day parade, which he had helped to found.
"We were riding in the parade and someone yelled, 'There's the legend Joe Natoli,' And I said, 'See, Joe, that's why I ride you around,' " he said.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, noting Mr. Natoli served a brief appointment on county council, said he "touched the lives of hundreds of children and families." Councilman Jim Burn said his "legacy of commitment to public service and devotion to his family and community will live on forever."
In addition to his son Joe of Shaler, Mr. Natoli is survived by another son, Thomas Natoli of Upper St. Clair; brothers Dom and Felix, both of Morningside; and three grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 1 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. today and Sunday at McCabe Brothers Funeral Home, 6214 Walnut St. The funeral Mass will be held Monday at St. Raphael Church.
The family suggests donations to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, 960 Penn Ave., Suite 1000, Pittsburgh, PA 15222, or www.westernpa.jdrf.org.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.