The Italian American stars in US sports: Football 3 of 3 (from 80s to 90s and College Football)
- WTI Magazine #95 Sep 15, 2017
“The Italians were better fitted for games of quickness, dexterity, and skill, rather than rugged strength, and were too fiery and impulsive of feeling for contact sports”. Compared to American athletes, Italians' “tendency to the extreme of elation, or to the opposite extreme of despondency” made them “fearless, daring, and reckless” but also “more easily stampeded into a rout if beaten”. These are words from “Racial Traits in Athletics”, written in 1922 by Elmer Mitchell, a nationally prominent physical educator.
Half a century after the Italian Americans of third generation are perfectly integrated in that formidable crucible which is the United States, the memories of grandparents or great-grandparents who came from afar have faded away, and they set off on an equal footing in sports and in life.
From the Eighties to the Nineties
Joseph C. Joe Montana, born in 1956 in Pennsylvania, is the son of Joseph Montana Sr. (whose grandfathers with the true surname Montani or Montagna had arrived from Verbano Ossola in Northern Italy) and Theresa Bavuso, whose parents Vincenzo and Josephine Severino emigrated from Sicily in the twenties. After the seasons at Notre Dame University and a muted NFL draft (Joe will be selected only at the end of the third round with the 82nd overall pick), in the mid 1980 season he conquers the director's cabin of the San Francisco 49ers and opens an era of extraordinary successes: 4 Super Bowl (XVI, XIX, XXIII, XXIV), 3 Super Bowl MVP (XVI, XIX, XXIV), 8 Pro Bowl. Joe Montana is one of the biggest quarterbacks in NFL's history.
Daniel C. "Dan" Marino was born in Pittsburgh to parents of Italian and Polish origin. He grew up on Parkview Avenue, a neighborhood traditionally inhabited by the working class. He was a multi-purpose athlete at high school and then a successful quarteback with the Panthers at Pittsburgh University. Selected in round 1 pick 27 of the 1983 draft by the Miami Dolphins, he will skillfully lead the Florida team (1983-1999) with a long series of successes and records: 1983 NFL Rookie of the Year, 1984 NFL MVP, 9 Pro Bowl (from 1983 to 1995), passages completed for 61361 yards. His no. 13 T-shirts were retired both by his college and by the Dolphins; and he was included in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He too is on the all-time list of the best QBs, certainly in the Top 10.
Vincent F. "Vinnie" Testaverde was born in Brooklyn (New York), son of the Sicilian bricklayer Alfonso "Big Al" and Josephine. His father's dream of raising his son as a future football star will mark Vinnie's choices: after high school, he will agree to attend a military preparatory school to discipline himself further in study and sports activities. In 1982 Miami University, at the top of college football for some years then, will be calling him. In Florida, he was initially closed by Jim Kelly and Bernie Kosar: but in 1986 he was able to start as QB, pulverizing his team-mates' fresh records and winning the Heisman Trophy as the best college player in the nation. In 1987 he is the first absolute choice of the NFL (round 1, pick 1), called by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Vinnie will stay with them for 6 years making 77 TD passes. In 1993 he moves to the Cleveland Browns (and then to Baltimore in 1997) passing more than 22,000 yards. But it's not over: after Baltimore he'll still play with the New York Jets (1998-2003), the Dallas Cowboys (2004), the New York Jets (2005), the New England Patriots (2006) and the Carolina Panthers (2007). 21 years in the NFL and 46,233 yards past in career!
Wince A. Ferragamo. Originally from Torrance (California), after killing it at high school and with the Cornhuskers of Nebraska University (All-American, Bluebonnet Bowl), at the 1977 draft he is picked on the fourth lap by the Los Angeles Rams. At the beginning Vince is the back-up of the falling star "Broadway" Joe Namath and then of Pat Haden, and will have to wait for the last 4 matches of the '79 season to be able to play. But he will do it perfectly, leading his team to the victory of the Western Division and then to a brilliant game defeating the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs and then to win the NFC Championship Game. Vince then will play in the 14th Super Bowl against the very strong Pittsburgh Steelers and, despite the defeat, he will close with 15 passes out of 25 for 212 yards. Ferragamo will confirm his talent in 1980, being the second best QB of the league and then, a little bit by surprise, at the end of the season he will move to the Canadian Football League signing for the Montreal Alouettes. He will later return to the NFL, with the Rams in the years 1982-1984 and then with the Buffalo Bills (1985) and the Green Bay Packers (1986). After his sporting activity, he will dedicate himself to real estate affairs and to the Ferragamo-Migneco winery.
Mark A. Bavaro was born in 1963 in Boston, in a family of Apulian origins. At Notre Dame he played as a tight-end, skillful in the blocks and, on the occasion, in receiving launches. In the 1985 draft he was picked on lap four by the New York Giants and the following year, during the regular season, he would earn 1,001 yards and 4 TDs. Then he will take part in the NFC Championship Game and then in Super Bowl XXI (Pasadena, New York Giants - Denver Broncos 39-20) where Mark will make a TD in the third quarter. Bavaro remained in New York until 1990, before moving on to the Cleveland Browns (1992) and the Philadelphia Eagles (1993-1994), with 39 TDs in career.
Dean Biasucci was a kicker from Niagara Falls, a free agent hired and then cut by Atlanta Falcons and Indianapolis Colts in 1984. The Colts will call him back in 1986, and he will remain in Indianapolis until 1994, to close his career with the St. Louis Rams in the two-year period of 1995-1996. For Dean also a call to the 1987 Pro Bowl and some significant presence in the record book: best all-time scorer of the Colts with 783 points; highest number of Field Goals scored in a season and kicked from a distance of more than 50 yards (8 in 1988). Once retired, he will also become an actor, playing himself in Jerry Maguire and then other roles in some minor films.
Don Anthony "Tony" Boselli, born in Modesto (California), was a dominant player already at the time of college (offensive tackle with the Trojans of Southern California, he will be appointed All-American and, in 2014, elected in the College Football Hall of Fame). In the 1995 draft he gest immediately picked (round 1, pick 2), being the first-ever draft pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the new franchise of the NFL. Impressive tonnage (324 lb, 6 ft 7 in), he will stay with the Jaguars until 2001 with 5 Pro Bowl (1996-2000) and the nominations to NFL Offensive Lineman of the Year (1998) and NFL 1990s All-Decade Team.
Anthony "Tony" "Goose" Siragusa has been a defensive tackle born in New Jersey, hired as a free agent by the Indianapolis Colts (1990-1996) and the Baltimore Ravens (1997-2001). Super Bowl champion (XXXV, Baltimore Ravens - New York Giants 34-7), he has totaled in career 562 tackles and 22 sacks. Once retired, in addition to managing his restaurant chain, he devoted himself to the actor's career playing, among other roles, a character in the Soprano TV series.
Tedy L. Bruschi, born in San Francisco with Italian and Filipino origins, has been a two times All-American and three First-team All-Pac-10 (1993-1995) linebacker at the University of Arizona, establishing some NCAA records; 1996 NFL Draft, Round 3 Pick 86 by the New England Patriots, with which he will play 13 years winning 3 Super Bowl (XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX). In 2007 Bruschi wrote "Never Give Up: My Stroke, My Recovery, and My Return to the NFL" a book about his heart problems in 2005 and the return to competitive activity until 2008.
Adam "Mr. Clutch" Vinatieri, born in South Dakota, descendant of Felice Vinatieri, director of the military band following General Custer and survivor to the battle of Little Big Horn, is a kicker and punter who arrived at the NFL passing by the experience of the pro-European championship WLAF (later renamed NFL Europe) with the Amsterdam Admirals. He will then return to the States to play with the New England Patriots (1996-2005) and the Indianapolis Colts (2006-present). A bright and winning career (4 Super Bowl XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX, XLI), 3 Pro Bowl 2002, 2004, 2014 and an inclusion in the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team. At the time of closing this article Vinatieri, at the age of 44 and at his 22nd season in the NFL, is still in the pre-existing 2017 roster of the Colts!
The Italian Americans and College Football
During the twentieth century, many Italian Americans had a national success in college football, leaving indelible marks in the sports stories of many universities. We will quickly remember some of them. Neno Jerry DaPrato plays with Michigan State's Spartans in 1915 and is named All-American: he's the first in college history. In 1936, Nello “Flash” Falaschi was All-American in Santa Clara and then in the College Football Hall of Fame. Ed Franco from Fordham University is 1937 All-American and then placed in the College Football Hall of Fame. Vic "Vallejo" Bottari from University of California is one of the protagonists of the Rose Bowl, All-American in '38 and then in the College Football Hall of Fame. Angelo "The Rifle" Berteli was a great multi-purpose athlete, winner of the Heisman Trophy 1943 as best player of the nation, later placed in the College Football Hall of Fame. Bruno Banducci, born in Italy (his story is recounted in the book "FIRST AND TEN Pro Football Players Born in Italy") played for Fordham, summoned in 1943 College All-Stars and then protagonist in the new pro AAFC league, NFL and also in the CFL. Paul Governali from Columbia University, 1942 All-American, winner of the Maxwell Award and selected at the All-Stars College. "Bimbo" Cecconi is one of the stars of Pittsburgh University portrayed in the popular cards.
Hank Lauricella, halfback with the Tennesse Volunteers in 1951, All-Stars and elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. Vito "Babe" Parilli was the quarterback of the Wildcats of Kentucky, 1950 and 1951 All-American, selected for the College All-Stars, elected in the Hall of Fame at the College Football, and later protagonist in the CFL, AFL, NFL and WFL. Frank D' Agostino played as tackle for the Auburn Tigers, 1953 All-SEC Team, 1955 All-American, fast and very skilled in the blocks. Joe Bellino was a halfback, son of Michele and Sara, originally from Sicily: enrolled in the Navy's team is appointed All-American, summoned at the All-Stars College and wins the 1960 Heisman Trophy. Cosmo Iacavazzi was the leader of the Tiger offense of Princeton who, in 1963-64, won two Ivy League championships: in 1963 Cosmo will make 14 TDs (national leader) and 24 in 2 years.
Joe Labruzzo, halfback at the LSU, with the Fighting Tigers will win the 1964 Sugar Bowl, the 1965 Cotton Bowl (his is the TD of victory) and will be selected for 1965 All-SEC Team, one of the most competitive conferences in college football. John Cappelletti as a child is forced to wear orthopedic shoes because of a congenital defect. Growing up he will be a very strong tailback and in 1973 in Penn State will run 286 times for 1,522 yards and 17 TDs, he will be named All-American and win the Heisman Trophy in 1973 and, later, he will be elected to the College Football Hall of Fame!
Ed Marinaro in 1970 and 1971 is Cornell's best running back and one of the first nationwide (he will be second at the Heisman Trophy); All-American, will set 17 NCAA records and will close the university career with 918 races, 4,715 yards and 51 TDs and the election to the College Football Hall of Fame. Johnny Musso, running back of Alabama University in the early seventies, twice All-American, summoned in the All-SEC Team, later will be protagonist in the Canadian Football League (1973 CFL All-Stars) and then in the NFL with the Chicago Bears. Tony Sacca, Nittany Lions' quarterback at Penn State, in 1969 led the team to the first of the three consecutive BIG10 Conference titles and to the victory of the first edition of the Blockbuster Bowl in 1990.
Massimo Manca is a kicker born in Sassari in Sardinia (also included in the book FIRST AND TEN), twice NCAA national champion in 1982 and 1986 with Penn State and then protagonist in the WAFL (hereinafter NFL Europe) with the Barcelona Dragons. Gino Torretta was one of the interpreters of the great quarteback saga of the Miami Hurricanes, a school that graduated athletes like George Mira, Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Vinnie Testaverde, Steve Walsh and Craig Erickson. Torretta is 1991 Player of the Year of the Big East Conference and national champion, in 1992 All-American and winner of the Heisman Trophy! In Pinole, a small agglomeration of California, Gino Torretta Day is celebrated every year.