Donald Gruda hit his teen years in Heidelberg wanting to do one thing — play soccer — and he maintained his devotion to playing the sport through age 40.
The tall, curly-haired, blond center-forward became one of the best adult soccer players in the area in the 1950s and ’60s. Mr. Gruda helped lead teams from Heidelberg, Beadling and Harmarville to success in an era when the sport was big in many suburbs containing large communities of European immigrants. He received a Post-Gazette Dapper Dan Award in 1963 recognizing him as the area’s best soccer player.
Mr. Gruda, of Carnegie, died Saturday of congestive heart failure at Family Hospice and Palliative Care in Mt. Lebanon. He was 78 and had been in failing health since suffering a stroke 2 1/2 years ago in Florida, where he and his wife, Mary Louise, began spending their winters after his 1998 retirement as a truck driver.
Mr. Gruda spent 43 years as a driver, delivering blocks used for the foundations of new homes, but his passions in life were always soccer and playing country music on the guitar. He quit high school to spend more time playing soccer, which he did year-round. He and many other young, blue-collar men would work their day jobs, then head to wintertime practices to take advantage of whatever daylight remained.
A longtime friend, Michael Zimbicki of Carnegie, said Mr. Gruda was a skilled midfielder known for his ability to set up front-line players for goals. They and teammates, playing for teams sponsored by bars and clubs, often traveled to Midwestern cities such as Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago for big amateur matches.
“In the olden days you didn’t have anything else to do in the wintertime, so you played soccer,” Mr. Zimbicki said. “The fields weren’t too good — it was sloppy and bad — but we played because we loved the game.”
Mrs. Gruda remembered her husband’s unusual commute to work: jogging back and forth along the railroad tracks between Carnegie and Bridgeville to build up the extensive aerobic stamina demanded by soccer.
Mr. Gruda was low-key and humble, but he had no shortage of intensity about the sport. He was a key member of the 1955 Heidelberg team that won the national Amateur Cup over a squad from Chicago, in addition to playing for numerous Keystone League and West Penn Challenge Cup champions.
He was good enough that he was one of the players a squad from Harmarville was willing to pay in the 1960s to lure him away from other teams, when such compensation was uncommon.
Mrs. Gruda said her husband also competed in the trials for the U.S. Olympic team in 1964. He had a large collection of trophies and plaques, including a 1958 Pittsburgh Bicentennial Sports Award for soccer, but his wife said he never paid attention to them. He just wanted to play.
“He was on the field every day, from 13 on,” Mrs. Gruda said, until family priorities took over, including a lot of weekend camping trips with their children. But until his stroke, he always remained able to show his children and grandchildren how to handle a soccer ball, including kicking it over and off his head and back onto his feet without it touching the ground.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Gruda is survived by a son, Donald M. Gruda of Yardley, Bucks County; a daughter, Carol A. McNavish of Houston, Texas; a brother, Walter Gruda of Carnegie; and four sisters, Alice Annesi, Larraine Fleck, Sandra Lamb and Debbie DiNardis, all of the Carnegie area; and six grandchildren.
Mass of Christian burial is at 10 a.m. today at Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, 330 Third Ave., Carnegie.
Memorial contributions may be made to Family Hospice and Palliative Care, 50 Moffett St., Pittsburgh, PA 15243; or to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Food Bank, 330 Third Ave., Carnegie, PA 15106.
Arrangements are by Szafranski-Eberlein Funeral Home Inc., Carnegie.
Gary Rotstein: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1255.