GUARD ELIGIBLE – A Play in Infamy
written for the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat
Local coaches influenced PIAA rule change.
Over forty five years ago a series of events in local high school football forever changed the PIAA and the regulations governing players’ jersey numbers. Two local coaches were instrumental in forcing the state governing body to change the rules. Implementation followed quickly, statewide.
The story unfolds.
At the time, very little was known about the shenanigans that took place in consecutive games between Northern Cambria and Forest Hills. But resounding echoes could be heard clearly throughout the county and state soon after.
In the fall of 1967, Forest Hills’ John Hostetler was returning a Northern Cambria punt at the Rangers’ home field in Sidman. He was well on his way to an apparent touchdown when a Colts player jumped on the field from the sideline and tripped him. The visitors were flagged for the infraction, but there was no pay dirt for the Rangers and Northern Cambria went on to win that game by one score.
Excuses soon surfaced that the Colt player was caught up in emotion when he made his leap to fame. But, months later, rumors evolved that an assistant coach may have pushed the player onto the field to cause the inadvertent tackle.
Years afterward, legendary Colt Head Coach Dan Miller vehemently denied any knowledge of the incident.* But the stage had already been set for a barnburner in Barnesboro the next season.
“We practiced a few special plays all year,” admits Northern Cambria’s Joe Corio. “In the 1968 season, my play was called the ‘guard eligible’ and we had it down pat.”
“I was a junior and I wore number 67 all season, but I played halfback,” explains Corio. “You didn’t have to wear a number that identified your position back then. Our right guard was Joe Perrone and he wore number 68. When we got the play from the sideline we all knew exactly what to do. I lined up at right guard and Joe (Perrone) took my place in the backfield. At the snap of the ball, all of our receivers cleared the middle of the field by running ‘out patterns.’ Perrone filled my guard hole with a block, and I went down the middle of the field totally alone.”
“I remember hauling in the pass against Forest Hills somewhere around the 25 or 30-yard line and running into the end zone for the winning score. I also remember bobbling the ball before the reception. Dropping it would have been embarrassing considering how open I was. (After the score) I flipped it to an official who immediately asked me if I came out of the backfield on that play. I said, ‘sure, I’ve been there the whole game.’”
Very Different Views
“The record books only say that Northern Cambria won that game,” said Coach Miller. “Funny though, our film of that game disappeared soon afterwards,” he added with a grin.* “If I remember correctly, the camera may have broken that night too.”
Ranger Head Coach, Chuck Sponsky didn’t share the same cavalier view about that game for many years.
“That game was a classic,” says Sponsky. “I remember asking Rege Endler, our defensive back coach, ‘Who blew the coverage?’ right after that play. He said, ‘No one, we don’t cover the guards in our man to man defense.’”
“After seeing our film I pulled a Bobby Knight, before Bobby, when I threw a few chairs around in the locker room,” admits Sponsky. “I was ticked off, big time. My impression of that play and of Coach Miller was not good, back then. I thought he totally ruined one of the hardest fought football games in my tenure as a coach.”
“Dan continued to joke about it though for years,” adds Sponsky. “He told me he wasn’t smart enough to put a play like that in – that the kids made it up on their own.”
Long time Dan Miller-colleague, Bill Scott of Brockway remembers the play too. “One of the officials during that game (Don Bishop*) was a friend of mine and he saw the infraction. He said he observed #67 go shooting by him and ‘thought’ he came from the line of scrimmage. Don reached for the flag but then realized that #67 had been carrying the ball the whole game, so he never pulled the flag.”
“I told him (Don) - when Sponsky sees the film there is going to be an explosion in Sidman that will rock Ebensburg and I was right,” concludes Scott.
This author can testify to that explosion in Sidman. As a member of the Ranger squad, I can vividly recall Coach Sponsky angrily throwing those chairs around the locker room the following Monday after that game. I think the projector went flying too at the conclusion of that film session.
The team members were told that he and some of the assistant coaches paid a visit to some of the officials later that night – with film in hand.
Burnt spots from the repetitive viewing are now permanent on that film, and in my mind. Coach Sponsky’s assessment is correct. That game was a classic.
“I had the privilege to play for Dan in high school and he is the reason that I am in coaching today, explains Dave Rackovan, now Offensive Coordinator at Princeton. “I was actually the quarterback in that game…and I threw that pass to Joe Corio, “ admits Dave. “Out of respect for two great coaches, let’s just say, ‘blame the officials.’ They are always a great target anyway.”
“I have been in this game for a long time, and I have never met anybody that loved and respected this game more than Mr. Miller.”
Revenge, then Serenity
“I had that spot saved on our film and ran that play over a hundred times the following year as motivation for the ’69 game against them,” says Sponsky. “We thumped them in another wild shoot-out, 46-34, at Sidman. That game was awesome. Our players responded to the motivation from the previous year, as a number of fights broke out too. The revenge was sweet at the time, but I buried the hatchet long ago regarding Dan.”
“Later, as Chairman of the Nominating Committee for the PA Football Coaches Hall of Fame, I nominated Dan and introduced him as he was inducted into the society.”
“And an interesting side note - When my wife and I realized that we forgot a suitcase at home that weekend, we made a phone call to have it brought to Hershey the next day. And guess who brought it to us? - Dan Miller.”
Echoes Still Resounding
“You know that play, that game, and Coach Miller are legendary,” says Gene Zanella of Northern Cambria. “ Even Joe Paterno has mentioned Dan and his antics at various banquets throughout the state. It was good to see the coaches (Miller and Sponsky) together at the Hall of Fame ceremony in Hershey. Those coaches had their differences, but they had a mutual respect for each other too.”
“In many ways, Dan was a football coach pioneer,” concludes Sponsky. “He is also an unforgettable character.”
To read related stories concerning Dan Miller and Chuck Sponsky, go to www.pospeek.com and click on “Sports Nostalgia” in the menu.
* Coach Dan Miller has since passed away, but spoke freely to the author about those games while attending coaches’ meetings in Cresson in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Football official Don Bishop has since passed away also.