Rich Kriston, a former high school administrator and record-holding Fox Chapel athlete who played linebacker for Penn State University in the mid-1970s, died Thursday from complications of Huntington's disease. The O'Hara man was 58.
Mr. Kriston is all over the record books at Fox Chapel Area High School, where the 1971 graduate was a three-time heavyweight wrestling champ, a power-hitting third-baseman and scored 45 touchdowns as a running back -- 15 every year from his sophomore through senior seasons. His brother Doug, three years his junior, said "When I was in high school every day when I came home there would be a coach at my front door" to recruit him.
He was in the first class inducted into the high school's Sports Hall of Fame in 1997. "Among a lot who have been fans at Fox Chapel since its inception in 1962, they believe Rich Kriston was the best athlete who ever walked the halls," said Ron Frank, the school's longtime wrestling coach.
He was only 5 foot 9 and weighed 215 pounds, but played linebacker on great Penn State teams from 1973 to 1975, including the squad his sophomore year that went 12-0, defeating Louisiana State in the Orange Bowl. The next year he came home to play Pitt and star running back Tony Dorsett in Three Rivers Stadium on Thanksgiving night and made 17 tackles in a 31-10 win over the Panthers.
The inside linebacker always played with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, probably no more so than that 1974 night: Pitt, unlike Notre Dame, Michigan or the other top programs that recruited him, had never visited his parents' porch.
"He was a hard hitter, very disciplined," said fellow linebacker Buddy Tesner, who towered over his teammate. "He was small, he was slow, but man could he make tackles. He was tough, really tough."
Graduating with a degree in physical education, Mr. Kriston dabbled in substitute teaching and briefly worked as a wrestling coach for Mr. Frank at Central Catholic High School, as an assistant football coach at Fox Chapel and owned a Nautilus gym equipment franchise before becoming athletic director at Pine-Richland High School.
The job, which he held through most of the 1990s, was "very rewarding," his wife, Natalie, said. "With his friends and contacts in the sports field it was right up his alley."
In 1997, his father, Louis, died at age 61 of Huntington's disease, a genetic disorder with no cure that leads to dementia and difficulty speaking and moving. It is passed from parent to child and Mr. Kriston, too, began showing its behaviors, and was diagnosed with Huntington's in 2003. Two years ago his older brother, Louis Kriston Jr., died of the disease, also at age 58.
His parents had urged him to go to Penn State in 1971 after being wowed by coach Joe Paterno and his wife, Sue, at a dinner they held at their State College home for the parents of recruits. Like many other former players, Mr. Kriston remained a Penn State booster through the decades, including through Mr. Paterno's November 2011 firing and subsequent death in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal.
Though he was in a wheelchair, his wife helped him attend Mr. Paterno's viewing and funeral in January 2012, where he was interviewed by The Daily Collegian. Speaking with difficulty, he told the student newspaper, "I had to come."
Two weeks ago she took him to a screening in Oakmont of a film called "The Joe I Know" in which former players laud the late coach, and when members of the "Letterman's Club" in the theater were asked to stand, other former players lifted the former linebacker out of his wheelchair.
Mr. Kriston is survived by his wife; a daughter, Dana of O'Hara; and a brother, Doug of Aspinwall.
Visitation is scheduled for 2 to 9 p.m. today at Thomas M. Smith Funeral Home at 930 Center Ave., Blawnox. A Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Monday in St. Mary Assumption Church, 2510 Middle Road, Hampton.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Huntington's Disease Society of America via www.hdsa.org/wpach/wpadon.html.
Tim McNulty: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1581.