Varsity Xtra: Men of Iron and Steel
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The Steel Valley High School football program was turning 11 years old in 1982, but was still barely past the crawling stage.
The baby steps were a few winning seasons, but rarely did this program even show signs of teeth in its first 10 years. The Ironmen were more like Papermen. Steel Valley had a 32-game losing streak from 1972-75 and another 18-game winless streak from 1978-80.
Then all of a sudden, things turned magical for the Ironmen in the fall of 1982. Steel Valley put itself on the WPIAL map, won a championship with a perfect 13-0 record and used football to galvanize the people in the Mon Valley steel towns of Homestead, Munhall and West Homestead.
This is the 30-year anniversary of the 1982 Steel Valley Ironmen. While winning the WPIAL Class AAA title that year was an extraordinary feat for a program that suffered through so much losing, it was the Ironmen's makeup that made it one of the special teams in the WPIAL over the past 40 years.
It is remarkable the number of highly successful high school coaches who came from the 1982 Steel Valley team. And among the players were a future WPIAL championship coach (Bill Cherpak); a handful of future Division I college players, including one (Melvin Anderson) who played a few games in the NFL; a receiver (Clinton Davis) who would become the greatest sprinter in the history of Western Pennsylvania track; four players who combined for a state championship relay team in track; a future superintendent of schools (Ed Wehrer); and a cast of characters who were described by their coach as "guys who liked to clown around a lot."
"There was just some great chemistry there among the kids and the staff. It was a great, great year. Special," said George Novak, coach of the '82 Steel Valley team.
This is the same George Novak who left Steel Valley in 1987 to become the coach at Woodland Hills, where he has won five more WPIAL championships.
Steel Valley High School was formed in 1971 when Homestead and Munhall high schools merged. Novak, a Munhall graduate, was a Steel Valley assistant for a few years before becoming head coach in 1979 and he won only three games in his first two seasons. He holds the '82 championship in high esteem, not only because it was his first title, but because of the coaching staff that was with him.
On the Steel Valley staff in 1982 were:
• Jack Giran, the defensive coordinator who would become Steel Valley's coach when Novak left for Woodland Hills. Giran won back-to-back WPIAL titles in 1988 and '89.
• Ray Braszo, who is in his second stint as West Mifflin's coach. Braszo has guided West Mifflin to two WPIAL championship game appearances and his team is 10-1 this year. In between his two stints at West Mifflin, Braszo also coached Steel Valley for a few seasons.
• Jack Garrity, who had some highly successful seasons as Thomas Jefferson's coach before Cherpak took over
• Frank Brettschneider, who is now the offensive coordinator at Thomas Jefferson.
• And don't forget about Cherpak. He was a sophomore player who started on the defensive line for the '82 team. He went on to a successful career as a Pitt offensive lineman and is now one of the most successful coaches in the history of the WPIAL. He is in his 18th season as Thomas Jefferson's coach and has a 191-36 record (.841 winning percentage) with four WPIAL championships.
The player-coach bonds from that 1982 team are still strong. Giran is now Cherpak's defensive coordinator at Thomas Jefferson. Giran lives in Florida most of the year, but comes back to the Pittsburgh area for football season. Brettschneider is Cherpak's offensive coordinator and Garrity sometimes sits in the coaches booth with Brettschneider at Thomas Jefferson games.
"Back then, each one of us on that staff kind of had our own expertise and fortes -- and it just all worked together," Giran said. "I think George and Ray Braszo are still doing some things today and using some of the plays we came up with back then."
As for the players, when the seniors on the '82 team were in ninth grade, Novak thought he might have a special group. By the time they were seniors, a number of the players started on offense and defense, but the team didn't have one star player. Many shared the spotlight.
Defense was the backbone of the team. The season started with a 6-0 shutout of Churchill and ended with a 10-0 shutout of Aliquippa in the WPIAL title game. In between were three other shutouts. In a year when Olivia Newton-John's "Physical" topped the Billboard charts as the No. 1 song, Steel Valley played a physical style on defense.
The team also adopted "Pac-Man" as its unofficial mascot. "Pac-Man" was a popular video game at the time where "Pac-Man" would gobble up power pills and attack bad guys. Novak's wife even made a "Pac-Man" costume for a student to wear at games.
But these were also speedy Ironmen. Anderson and Duane Dutrieuille were fast receivers and Anderson also played defensive back. Anderson played a few games for the Steelers in 1987. Both he and Dutrieuille signed with the University of Minnesota and became four-year lettermen with the Gophers. The '82 team also had Brad Jones, a slotback who ended up going to Georgia Tech, Novak's collegiate alma mater.
The fastest player on the team, though, was unquestionably Clinton Davis. To this day, he still holds PIAA track records in the 200- and 400-meter dashes and he also won the 100 as a senior with a record time. Davis didn't catch many passes in 1982, but defenses were petrified of his speed.
"Clinton hadn't played all that much football in his life and what people didn't realize was he couldn't catch a cold at receiver," Novak said with a laugh.
"Teams would double team Clinton," Giran said, chuckling. "They didn't know he couldn't catch a cold, but it opened up things for other people.
"One of the things I will always remember is we used to put Melvin and Clinton out wide when we would punt the ball. We used to punt the ball and they were so fast that they used to end up standing with the returner from the other team. It was incredible how fast they got down the field."
Davis, Anderson, Dutrieuille and Jones won a PIAA 400-meter relay championship in the spring of 1983.
John Theofiledes was Steel Valley's quarterback in 1982, but the Ironmen didn't throw all that much. Shawn Phenizy led the team in rushing, but Dwayne Todd became the go-to back in the playoffs.
On defense, Wehrer was a standout linebacker who also started at center. Wehrer is now the superintendent of Steel Valley schools. Jim Kupec was a talented guard-defensive end.
"Jim was a captain sometimes because we rotated captains in games," Novak said. "I told Jim before one game that if we won the toss, we wanted to defer until the second half. The other team won the toss and deferred. He got mixed up on what to do and we ended up kicking off both halves."
Cherpak laughed when he said, "The guy I remember most on defense was Sam Sherlock, our middle linebacker. He was a Jack Lambert-type of guy who was just nuts in every possible way. You can't write some of the things that went on with him and this team, but he was just nuts."
In 1981, Steel Valley showed signs of promise, finishing with a 7-2-1 record. But when the 1982 season started, the Ironmen still weren't ranked among the top five teams in Class AAA.
"The game that put us on the map in 1982 was Seton-LaSalle," Novak said. "They were supposed to be one of the best teams that year."
But Steel Valley clobbered Seton-LaSalle, 34-7.
Steel Valley finished the '82 regular season 10-0 and made the playoffs for the first time in school history. After defeating Moon, 21-14, in the first round, the Ironmen had to play Burrell in the semifinals on a muddy field at Gateway on a Saturday afternoon. Burrell featured standout running back Tom Brown, a future Pitt player. But Steel Valley "held" Brown to 106 yards on 23 carries and won, 14-0. Todd ran for 120 yards in the game.
In the championship game at Mt. Lebanon the night after Thanksgiving, Steel Valley faced an Aliquippa team that was coached by Don Yannessa and had just defeated Churchill, 27-0, in the semifinals. While Aliquippa moved the ball some on Steel Valley, the Ironmen defense never broke and defeated the Quips, 10-0.
Todd scored all of the points in the title game. He kicked a 23-yard field goal in the first quarter, the Ironmen's first field goal of the season.
Steel Valley's Chris Slekar recovered a fumble to set up a Steel Valley touchdown in the fourth quarter. Todd scored on a short run, kicked the extra point and also intercepted a pass later in the fourth quarter to snuff out one last Aliquippa threat.
A few days later, the team had a parade through Homestead and Munhall.
"It was one of those times where the entire community was into the football team," Cherpak said. "How high school football united everyone in the community was just amazing. It doesn't happen like that enough today."
1982 Steel Valley Ironmen: opponents and score
Thomas Jefferson: 13-0
Keystone Oaks: 18-9
Belle Vernon: 28-7
Bethel Park: 27-12
Peters Township: 26-13
Elizabeth Forward: 35-16
West Mifflin North: 21-0
WPIAL Class AAA playoffs
First Published November 16, 2012 12:00 am