One man, two teams

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Cardinals who were once Steelers are nearly as common in Arizona's Valley of the Sun as cactus needles and gila monsters.

Steelers who were once Cardinals aren't exactly unheard of, either, although punter Mitch Berger is the beginning and the end of the current list.

But guys who were both Cardinals and Steelers and who are 89 years old and went shopping in Sarasota one morning this week are a little harder to come across, so, when you get a chance to chat with Ernie Bonelli on the phone, you can't pass that up.

"Just got in from shopping," he confirmed.

"Looking for a surfboard?" I said.

"No, it's too damn cold."

That's what happens when it dips into the mid-50s on Florida's Suncoast. The people like Ernie and Ruth, his wife of 62 years, who split their sunset years between Sarasota and some snowbelt haven like Friendship Village, start to wonder if the forces of nature are playing tricks on them.

Ernie promised a week of mid-70s temps for anyone headed to Tampa for the Super Bowl, which is as valid as any meteorological forecast you're likely to come across. Here is the other highly relevant prediction, the one concerning the winner of Super Bowl XLIII.

"Well, I played for both of them," Ernie said. "But I'm gonna go with the Steelers. They should win. If we can control that end [Arizona uber wideout Larry Fitzgerald], we'll have an easier time."

Which is not to say it will be easy.

"No, no, no, I don't think so," he said. "21-17."

That's what I'm thinking as well, but I don't have quite the life perspective that comes with earning engineering and business degrees from Pitt, from raising five highly successful children, from having been part of the original landing force in the invasion of French North Africa at Casablanca Nov. 8, 1942, from playing for football Einstein Jock Sutherland both at Pitt and with the Steelers, or, for that matter, even from shopping in Sarasota.

"Sutherland had eyes in the back of his head, knew what was going on everywhere at all times," Ernie said. "When I was with the Cardinals, we used to practice two hours and it was done. When I got back to Pittsburgh with Jock, it was just like in college, practice two hours in the morning, two in the afternoon."

Bonelli inherited Pitt's fullback position from none other than Marshall Goldberg in 1939. After taking his two degrees and helping to win World War II (the big one between whole bunches of teams that didn't like each other), he played in a Chicago All-Star game where he met Charlie, Bidwill then owner of the then Chicago Cardinals, and the father of current Arizona Cardinals owner William V. Bidwill.

Bidwill signed him for the 1945 NFL season.

"We beat the Bears!" Ernie said, like it was yesterday.

And that's true. The raggedy Cardinals beat the Bears that year, 16-7, which was a pretty big deal, especially since the Cardinals lost the rest of their games.

When Bonelli was traded in the off-season to Pittsburgh, no one could have guessed that he would one day be the oldest living person to have played for the Cardinals and the Steelers.

"Last of the Mohicans," he said.

Technically, not quite. More like Next-to-Last of the Mohicans.

The year before Bonelli got to the NFL, the Cardinals and Steelers were the same team, Card-Pitt (or "the Carpets"), as rosters were merged during the war. So there's at least one person alive -- Chet Bulger, 91 -- who played for the Cardinals and Steelers and is older than Ernie. But Bulger played for what amounts to both teams simultaneously. Ernie's the oldest to have played for both as separate entities.

He spent his only year with the Steelers (1946), sharing the backfield with Hall of Famer Bullet Bill Dudley, then got on with his life's work. He applied his industrial engineering degree at Armco Steel in Butler, then sold hospital supplies in Pittsburgh for a St. Louis-based firm until he retired some 20 years ago.

"I still watch the Steelers every game I can get them," Ernie said. "I still enjoy them. Sometimes, I even talk to myself when I'm watching them."

Bonelli's split NFL personality resulted in no ambivalent allegiances.

"I'm a Steelers guy all the way," he said.

"And our five kids, there's not a Cardinals fan among them."


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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