Ron Cook: Joe Walton deserves praise

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The framed handwritten letter from the most powerful man in sports hangs on Joe Walton’s office wall at Robert Morris University.

“I’ll always be grateful for everything you did for me,” Roger Goodell wrote to Walton soon after being named NFL commissioner in August 2006.

Goodell is just one of hundreds and hundreds of young people Walton touched in a positive way during his 60-plus years in football.

Walton’s wonderful career quickly is coming to an end. He announced his retirement plans before the season and will coach his final home game Saturday against Sacred Heart. The game will be played at Joe Walton Stadium on the thriving Robert Morris campus in Moon.

Not Joe Walton Memorial Stadium, thankfully.

The Robert Morris brass had the good sense to name their new stadium in 2005 after the man who started their football program from scratch in 1993 and turned it into one of the top Division I-AA schools in our little corner of the world. If Robert Morris beats Sacred Heart and wins its final game Nov. 23 at Saint Francis, the Colonials will win their seventh Northeast Conference championship and go to the playoffs.

“I like to think I had a part in the transformation of this school,” Walton said this week. “We used to be a business school for commuters. Now, look at us. This place is amazing. I’m so proud that maybe I had a little bit to do with it.”

As a part of the weekend festivities, Robert Morris will induct Walton into its sports hall of fame tonight at the Pittsburgh Airport Marriott. Former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann will be the master of ceremonies. “He’s probably the best player I ever coached,” Walton said.

It should be a grand time, but one night is barely enough to cover Walton’s playing career let alone his coaching days. He was a schoolboy star at Beaver Falls High, a two-time All-American at Pitt and a tight end for eight seasons in the NFL with Washington and the New York Giants.

Talk about following in your father’s footsteps. Frank “Tiger” Walton also played for Beaver Falls, Pitt and Washington. Joe Walton became the first son of an NFL player to play in the league.

“I always thought that was kind of neat,” Walton said.

Walton said he was crushed when Washington traded him to the Giants after the 1960 season. His disappointment lasted only until he took a good look at his new teammates. Walton’s Giants made it to the NFL championship game in three consecutive seasons and had future Hall of Famers Y.A. Tittle, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, Andy Robustelli and Roosevelt Brown.

“It was the most magical time of my life,” Walton said. “We were celebrities in New York. We were treated like show-biz people. We were rock stars.”

Right knee and left shoulder injuries ended Walton’s career before the 1965 season. A scouting job with the Giants eventually led to assistant coaching positions with the Giants, Washington and New York Jets. He became the head coach of the Jets in 1983 — that’s when he met Goodell, an intern in the team’s front office — and lasted seven seasons before he was fired after the 1989 season with a 53-57-1 record and two playoff appearances. There were a lot of “Joe Must Go!” chants from the New York fans at the end. Walton wasn’t nearly as successful with the Jets as another Beaver Falls Joe had been a few years earlier.

“I can’t complain,” Walton said. “I had my shot.”

Walton’s next NFL stop was his final NFL stop. His two seasons as Chuck Noll’s offensive coordinator with the Steelers went horribly. You might have been among the fans screaming that there was no “O” in Joe. Quarterback Bubby Brister didn’t help, complaining about the complexity of Walton’s playbook. Of course, Brister also complained about the “wind off the lake” making playing conditions difficult at Three Rivers Stadium.

“It’s the same playbook I use here,” Walton said, tapping on his desk. “I took the fall there. That’s OK. I moved on.”

The Robert Morris opportunity came up unexpectedly. The school was looking for a chance to enhance its appeal and increase enrollment and fundraising. It thought a football program would help.

The timing was right for Walton, then 56. He wasn’t ready to retire but wasn’t ready to jump back into the stress, high pressure and long hours of the NFL, either. He gladly took the Robert Morris job in the summer of 1993, although those early days weren’t easy.

“No players, no locker room, no practice field, no equipment, nothing,” Walton said.

Once Walton got started, he saw no reason to leave. He said he had two or three chances to return to the NFL but turned down each one over the objections of his dear friend, longtime NFL assistant coach and member of his first Robert Morris staff, Dan Radakovich.

“Rad always said, ‘We’ve got to get back to the NFL. The money’s so much better,’ ” Walton said. “I told him, ‘I’m not going anywhere. It’s not worth it.’ ”

There were other factors in Walton’s decision to stay at Robert Morris.

“One, my wife’s health wasn’t good,” Walton said.

Ginger Walton had a liver transplant in the early 1990s. She later developed cancer and died in 2007. The Waltons were married for 46 years.

“Two, I liked the proximity to my home,” Walton said.

Walton still lives in Beaver Falls, 25 minutes from the Robert Morris campus.

“Three, I wanted the challenge,” Walton said. “I had never coached college kids. I wanted to see if I could do it.”

Walton did it.

“I never had so much fun,” he said.

The Robert Morris program is in great shape. Longtime Walton assistant John Banaszak — a defensive lineman with the Super Steelers of the 1970s — will take over the team in December.

“I’ll continue to work some for Robert Morris,” Walton said. “I’ll try to help out [athletic director] Craig Coleman where I can. He’s been nice enough to ask me to stick around a little.”

Walton will turn 78 on Dec. 15. He has had his share of health problems, beating prostate cancer in 2001 and colon cancer in 1999. A year ago, after having his right knee replaced, he had a heart attack while rehabbing.

As much as Walton is looking forward to retirement, he said he gladly will delay it for a week or two. He said he would love to get Robert Morris to the playoffs.

“That would be awesome.”

No matter when the season ends, Walton and his second wife of nearly two years, Patty Sheehan Walton, will spend the winter months in their paradise, Puerto Rico.

“I’ve been going for January, February and March for years,” Walton said. “I always came home in early March to get ready for spring ball. This time, I’ll be able to stay the whole month.”

Can we all agree?

Walton deserves his time in the sun.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the “Vinnie and Cook” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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