Presently, there are 26 quarterbacks in the NFL Hall of Fame from the modern era. Of those, six of them hail from our own backyard–more than any other place in the country. Why is this area such a seedbed for superstar quarterbacks? Let’s examine each Hall of Famer for clues. Here are their stories presented in the order of their induction into the Hall of Fame.
Johnny Unitas: 1979
Johnny Unitas was born in Pittsburgh on May 7, 1933, to parents Leon and Helen who were of Lithuanian descent. He grew up on Mt. Washington and attended St. Justin’s High School. His father died when he was five, leaving his mother to work two jobs to support her family. He was offered a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh but failed the entrance exam. He did play for the University of Louisville and did well enough to be drafted in the ninth round of the 1955 NFL draft by the Steelers. The team was flush with quarterbacks then, and he never got into a preseason game and was released, too late to be picked up by another team. Unitas worked construction and played semi-pro football for the Bloomfield Rams. The Baltimore Colts signed him, and when their starting QB broke his leg during the 1956-57 season, he took over the helm, beginning a career that would span 17 years with the Colts and one final season with the San Diego Chargers. During his legendary career, he would win three NFL Championships, appear in 10 Pro Bowls, and be named the NFL Man of the Year in 1970. He was also named the NFL MVP three times and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979. He died September 11, 2002 at the age of 69.
George Blanda: 1981
George Blanda was not only a Hall of Fame quarterback, but he was also a kicker and played a record 26 seasons. He was born September 17, 1927, in Youngwood, Westmoreland County, the son of a Slovak coal miner. He had seven brothers and played football at Youngwood High School. He was a quarterback and kicker at the University of Kentucky, under famed coach “Bear” Bryant. He entered the NFL in 1949 with the Chicago Bears and the next year played for the Baltimore Colts. He came back to the Bears and put in eight years with them. He then spent six years with the Houston Oilers and capped his career with eight seasons as an Oakland Raider. Blanda finished his career as the NFL’s all-time leading scorer with 2,002 points. He retired from football at the age of 47. Blanda was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1981, and died on September 27, 2010, at the age of 83.
Joe Namath: 1985
Joe Namath became one of the first celebrity quarterbacks. He was born May 31, 1943, in Beaver Falls, to Rose and John Namath, a steelworker. His parents were of Hungarian descent, and Namath excelled at sports at Beaver Falls High School and was offered to join several MLB teams, but he decided to play football at the University of Alabama under Coach “Bear” Bryant. Namath led the Crimson Tide to a National Championship in 1964. He joined the New York Jets and became the toast of the town, earning him the nickname of “Broadway Joe.” He immortalized himself when he boldly predicted that the Jets would beat the favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, which they did. He played the 1977 season, his final, with the Los Angeles Rams. Namath crossed over to acting and did a stint for a few years as part of ABC’s Monday Night Football broadcast team. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985.
Joe Montana – 2000
Often considered as the best NFL quarterback ever, Joe Montana was born June 11, 1956, in New Eagle, Washington County, but grew up in Monongahela with parents who were of Italian background. He played numerous sports at Ringgold High School, leading his basketball team to the 1973 WPIAL Class AAA championship. He was also named a Parade All-American for his prowess on the gridiron. Molntana went on to Notre Dame University and was selected in the third round of the 1979 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers, where he led the team to four Super Bowl victories, being named the MVP three times. He holds numerous records and was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2000—during his first year of eligibility.
Jim Kelly: 2002
Jim Kelly grew up in East Brady, Clarion County, the son of Alice and Joe Kelly, who worked as a machinist. Kelly was a star basketball and football player at East Brady High School. He was offered a scholarship to Penn State, where Joe Paterno wanted to channel his talents into another outstanding PSU linebacker. Kelly, however, opted to attend the University of Miami, where he could still play quarterback. He had no desire to play for a cold-weather team but was drafted by the Buffalo Bills. He opted to play for the Houston Gamblers of the USFL for two years until the league folded. He joined the Buffalo Bills in 1986 and played there for 10 years, earning five trips to the Pro Bowl. Kelly founded the nonprofit Hunter’s Hope organization after his son Hunter, who was diagnosed Krabbe disease. Hunter died in 2005. Kelly also has battled oral cancer. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2002.
Dan Marino: 2005
Dan Marino was born September 15, 1961, to Daniel and Veronica Marino and was raised in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. His father was Italian and delivered newspapers and his mother was of Polish ancestry. He attended Central Catholic High School, where he excelled in both baseball and football, for which he was named a Parade All-American. He attended the University of Pittsburgh and was selected by the Miami Dolphins in the 1983 draft. He made the Pro Bowl nine times. Marino also tried his hand at acting and sports broadcasting. He also established the Dan Marino Foundation after his son was diagnosed with autism. Marino was taken into the Hall of Fame in 2005.
So how is it that Southwestern Pennsylvania has produced so many outstanding quarterbacks? The common denominator is the character of Pittsburghers. All the QBs come from working-class backgrounds. Like many people who came to this area, these QBs are the descendants of blue-collar, European immigrants who worked diligently to make a better life for their families. These gridiron greatest are no different from the thousands of other people in the area who have worked hard, honed their talents and made successes of their lives, making Pittsburghers and the quarterbacks the area produces some of the best ever.
By Janice Lane Palko