Mutual admiration society in Pitt football


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In 1979, George Chryst was hired as the football coach at Wisconsin-Platteville. He and his family -- including 13-year-old son Paul -- moved from Madison, Wis., to Platteville for the new job.

For all his teenage years, Paul Chryst lived the life of a coach's son, something that undoubtedly factored heavily into his decision to pursue the same career.

"I loved the way we grew up as kids and, if I can be half the man he was, I'd be doing all right," Chryst said Friday. "Obviously a big influence period, and then the coaching part. We just grew up around it, so I was comfortable with a lot of the things."

Chryst is living proof of the impact fathers can have on their sons' lives, and he recognizes the importance of that unique bond. Friday, Chryst's Panthers welcomed more than 40 fathers to their 10th spring practice.

Dads came from as close as Pittsburgh and as far away as Wisconsin and Tennessee to see their sons prepare for the 2014 season. Some have been regulars at the Panthers' South Side facility, while others saw their sons practice in a Pitt uniform for the first time.

"I know as a parent, when you know and get to know the other kids playing, it makes it that much more fun," Chryst said. "I think it makes it different. We've got a lot of different people from different backgrounds and we want our players to be exposed to all that."

For Gary Voytik, watching his son's practices is nothing new.

Even as an orthopedic surgeon in Cleveland, Tenn., Gary never missed one of Chad's practices -- let alone a game -- in the young quarterback's high school career. He also has been a regular presence at Pitt's games the past two years, attending every game, home and away, even though Chad has seen only spot duty as a backup quarterback.

So, when he got an invitation from Pitt to come to practice Friday, Gary didn't think twice, even if he did miss some fine print.

"On Monday [Pitt director of football operations] Chris LaSala texted me and said, 'Aren't you coming? You didn't respond,' " Gary said. "I went back and looked at the letter. I was so excited reading the invitation from coach Chryst that I never got to the bottom that said you need to respond."

Eventually, the details got sorted out. Gary arrived Thursday night, and Chad picked him up at the airport. The two had a chance to catch up on the first half of spring practice, an important time for Chad as he prepares to take the reins as starting quarterback next season.

And, even though Gary has been a constant presence on the sideline and (of course) has plans to attend every game in 2014, Chad said he feels no pressure, only love and support.

"You can't ask for much more from a father," Chad said. "Not many orthopedic surgeons can say they have that kind of commitment to go see every practice their son has. That speaks volumes I think. I'm just so lucky to have a dad in my life like that."

A California, Pa., native, Bob Rotheram grew up a Pitt fan.

When his son, Matt, began looking at colleges, though, Bob didn't want to let his preferences or opinions sway his son. He wanted Matt -- who grew up in North Olmsted, Ohio, outside of Pitt territory -- to make his own decision.

That doesn't mean he wasn't excited, though, when Matt did decide to become a Panther.

"I think just coming here, seeing the city, it lit a fire under him," Bob said. "He had a lot of offers, but I'm glad he chose Pitt."

Matt, the Panthers' right guard, gave then-coach Dave Wannstedt his verbal commitment July 5, 2009. That also was his 17th birthday, and it set off a celebration in the Rotheram household.

"[My dad] was excited," Matt said. "He was definitely real excited about it. We had a big party for it."

Friday was the second practice Bob has attended this season. He said he makes as many as he can and has been a regular at Pitt's games, home and away, the past four years.

"It means a lot," Matt said. "My dad's always been there.

"He never missed a game in high school, traveled with the team everywhere, just like in college.

"Now he's flying around, though."

Kevin Weatherspoon knows when it is time to defer to his elders.

Like, for instance, when asked who was a better football player in his prime, him or his father James, who played at Pitt and Washington & Jefferson?

"I don't know," Kevin said. "I don't want to put myself up there, and I always hear about how he was the man. I'll have to give it to dad."

James conceded that Kevin is "more offensive," and Kevin labels his dad as more of a hitter.

"Yeah, I would've broke his back," James joked.

Growing up, Kevin played just about any sport he could find, and his dad even said he thought baseball was his son's best sport. Kevin just couldn't shake the football in his genes, though.

"I think it was just a bloodline thing," he said. "Football was always just more fun."

Friday, James stood on the sideline as he watched Kevin, a receiver heading into his senior year, return punts and catch some passes. He has missed most of spring practice because of a foot injury, but persuaded the coaches to let him get just a few reps in.

"I wasn't really supposed to do anything today but I just told coach to let me get a little bit so my dad can see," Weatherspoon said.

"You're always looking forward to the family being out here to see you. It gives you almost sort of a boost. It makes you run harder, makes me want to still keep going."

James Weah never has deterred his son from trying new things.

Unlike a lot of his Pitt teammates, football was not an integral part of Jester Weah's childhood.

He played basketball and ran track, but didn't pick up football until his sophomore year of high school. When he told his dad, who was born in Liberia but immigrated to Madison, Wis., he wanted to try a new sport, he received only encouragement.

"He was very supportive," said Jester, now a redshirt freshman receiver for the Panthers. "He just wanted me to go out and try new things and put my effort into it."

Jester wanted to play basketball in college until around his junior year, when the football recruiting attention became impossible to ignore. He never received an offer from his hometown Badgers, so Jester chose to go 600 miles away to Pitt.

Just like when he told his dad he wanted to play football, James supported his son to get out and experience new things.

"That decision was his," James said. "He had other schools that were after him. He chose Pittsburgh over the other schools. I said, 'Well, from Wisconsin to Pittsburgh. We can fly and we can drive.' So, we'll be with you."

And, when James got an invitation to come to Pitt's practice Friday, he knew he couldn't turn down the opportunity to see his son, now competing for playing time, on the field in a Pitt uniform.

"I know he's glad to see me here, to be in his presence," James said. "I had to come here to show my support."

Dave Challingsworth had one of the shortest trips of any of the dads in attendance Friday, but that didn't make it any less special for his son, Zach.

"Being a local guy and whatnot, I have a better chance for my dad to come out, maybe unlike a lot of other guys whose parents are far away," Zach said. "It's nice having family close to myself, so having my family here, especially my dad, it means a lot."

Coming out of South Fayette High School, Zach very nearly went to Toledo, but instead chose Pitt. Not in small part because he wanted to stay close to his family and, in particular, his father.

For Zach, having the dads on the sideline Friday gave the session an almost throwback feel to it.

"Whenever you're playing football when you're young, the dads get into it, and they're all cheering for you on the sidelines and whatnot," he said. "I've always looked up to him growing up. Now I'm kind of looking down on him because I got a little bigger, but it's meant a lot. I wouldn't be where I am without him."

Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.


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