There was a time that Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania was known as the Cradle of Quarterbacks because of all of the talented collegiate and professional quarterbacks that came out of local high schools.
But as the third decade of the 21st century nears, it might be time to find a more appropriate nickname for the alumni of the WPIAL. After all, these days, Pittsburgh is much more synonymous with defense.
According to the Professional Football Researchers Association, the first openly professional football player was quarterback John Brallier of the Latrobe Athletic Association, who was paid $10 to play in a game against the Jeannette Athletic Club is 1895.
From Brallier, the tradition of Western Pennsylvania quarterbacks continued unabated for several decades.
Connellsville grad Johnny Lujack won three national championships with Notre Dame in the 1940s and went on to play for the Chicago Bears, where he briefly shared time with Youngwood native and Kentucky alum George Blanda. Blanda went on to win three AFL titles in the 1960s with the Houston Oilers and Oakland Raiders.
In 1968, Blanda’s Raiders were foiled in the AFL Championship by the New York Jets, who were led by Beaver Falls native Joe Namath. Namath went on to guarantee and deliver an upset victory in Super Bowl III over the Baltimore Colts and Johnny Unitas, who was a graduate of St. Justin’s High School in Pittsburgh’s Mount Washington neighborhood.
So on and so forth, Pittsburgh-area quarterbacks dominated through the years from Franklin’s Ted Marchibroda and Rochester’s Babe Parilli to Terry Hanratty (Butler), Tom Clements (Bishop Canevin) and Chuck Fusina (Sto-Rox) before another wave of Pennsylvanian mega-stars came through in Joe Montana (Ringgold) Dan Marino (Central Catholic), Jim Kelly (East Brady) and Jeff Hostetler (Conemaugh Township).
The reasons for Western Pennsylvania’s early success as a quarterback breeding ground are multiple, but can be boiled down to a simple essence. Football is a blue-collar game, gladiatorial in nature, and came naturally to the immigrant sons of immigrants working in the region’s steel mills and coal mines. The game grew up here, from the first professionals to Jock Sutherland and Pop Warner’s innovations at Pitt. It made sense for this region to produce an outsized number of players at the highest level.
By the early 1990s, it was obvious that things were changing. With football’s popularity across the country, talented athletes from all over became high-level collegiate and NFL quarterbacks. Longtime Pittsburgh Press editor Roy McHugh wrote for the New York Times in 1991 that “no longer is western Pennsylvania football superior or even equal to the football in several warm-weather states or in certain other parts of the north.”
Of the best of the group of quarterbacks that entered the NFL near the turn of the century, there is no inherent geographical bias. The Manning brothers are from New Orleans, Tom Brady from California, Drew Brees from Dallas, Brett Favre from Mississippi and Ben Roethlisberger from Northwest Ohio.
It’s not that Western Pennsylvania has been replaced as the Cradle of Quarterbacks, it’s that one of the most challenging athletic positions in all of professional sports is being filled by the very best athletes from all across the country.
But that doesn’t mean that the region is lacking in contributions at the game’s highest levels. For the 50th anniversary of the Super Bowl in 2016, the NFL honored each high school that had sent a player to the game, and 43 Western Pa. schools were honored.
The majority of the recent contributors have come from less glamorous positions. Of the 22 local players that suited up in the NFL in 2017, 13 played on the defensive side of the ball, another four played offensive line and two, including the Steelers’ Jesse James, were tight ends. None played quarterback, not even former Jeannette passer Terrell Pryor, who after spending three years trying to stick at quarterback , has finally become an NFL regular as a wide receiver.
It follows that the same traits that made Western Pennsylvania the original football hotspot should help the region become a producer of players with physical, blue-collar mindsets that want to play tackle, linebacker or cornerback.
The absolute best of the region’s contributions over the last decade includes likely future Hall of Famers Darrelle Revis (Aliquippa) and Aaron Donald (Penn Hills), both on the defensive side of the ball.
As the next generation of football players took to the region’s backyards, there is just as much talk about who would be the next Revis as there was about being the next Dan Marino. At Aliquippa, where Revis followed Ty Law to the NFL at corner, Drayvon Henry-Askew has started 39 games over the last three seasons as a defensive back at West Virginia. He’ll be joined there this fall by another safety, Kwantel Raines, the top-rated Aliquippa alum in 2018. The Quips’ top prospect for 2019 is another defensive back, corner M.J. Devonshire.
Most of the top players in high school play on both sides of the ball, but the physical nature of defense is a draw for many.
“I’m a defensive guy,” Raines said back while he was still deciding his collegiate future. “I like to be the one hitting instead of being hit.”
There might not be a better place to watch that play out in 2018 than with the Pitt Panthers. Pitt has historically built its teams on local recruiting, from Marino and Tony Dorsett (Hopewell) in the 1970s to Curtis Martin (Allderdice) and Sean Gilbert (Aliquippa) in the 1990s and down through Revis and Donald.
That’s no different this season, and the way the team has been built has been molded by the way the talent of the region has developed. Starting quarterback Kenny Pickett is from New Jersey, as is freshman third-stringer Nick Patti, while backup Ricky Town hails from Ventura, California.
But on defense, it’s essentially a WPIAL all-star team. Defensive end Rashad Weaver (Central Catholic) is expected to start and his high school teammate Rashad Wheeler will be in the rotation at defensive tackle.
All three starting linebackers are WPIAL alums, with Quintin Wirginis (Fox Chapel) flanked by a pair of North Allegheny grads in Elijah Zeise and Seun Idowu. In the secondary, it’s more of the same. Dane Jackson, who played football at Quaker Valley while attending Cornell, will start at one corner spot. Paris Ford (Steel Valley), Damar Hamlin (Central Catholic) and Dennis Briggs (Shady Side Academy) could very well hold down the other three positions.
“We all grew up together, so it’s fun,” Ford said. “It’s all familiar faces. We all like practicing with each other.”
Jackson, who played quarterback at Quaker Valley, has bought into the idea that Western Pennsylvania is now a place that’s more well known for defense than it is for quarterbacks.
“There’s a lot of tough, physical guys that come out of Western Pa.,” he said. “Maybe they played offense in high school, but, you know, I like saying the dogs are on defense. Everybody wants to play defense. Everybody’s aggressive, they want to compete.”
It seems, then, that the region’s football talent production has grown up a bit. No longer the Cradle of Quarterbacks, but something else. The Den of Defenders, perhaps, or the Home Turf of Tacklers? Regardless of the nickname, Pittsburgh’s place in football remains secure.
Alan Sunders is a contributing writer with Pittsburgh Current. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org