With all due respect to our western neighbors in Canton, Ohio, the capitol of American football is unquestionably located within the borders of Pennsylvania. From cleat-chewed youth fields to epic high school champions to National Football League powerhouses, the Commonwealth overflows with football legends and lore ready to explore.
Spend a day in just about any Pennsylvania town or neighborhood and you will undoubtedly encounter gridiron glory from past and present. As birthplace of 27 NFL Hall-of-Famers, Pennsylvania provides a rich landscape for fans to revel.
Let’s take just one Keystone-State son as example: Brian Westbrook. Westbrook ran through Pennsylvania lore like he did through countless backfields. First, while a running back for Villanova University where he became the only player to gain more than 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in a season in 1998.
He set other records on his way to eventually being drafted and playing professionally for the Philadelphia Eagles. In their second Super Bowl appearance, on February 6, 2005, Westbrook led the high-flying Eagles with 104 yards of combined offense and scored a touchdown. They would eventually succumb to the New England Patriots, 24-21.
The Eagles would avenge that loss 13 years later in Super Bowl LII on February 4, 2018 — beating the Patriots, 41-33 — a game highlighted by a 4th-down-and-goal trick pass play to quarterback Nick Foles that is immortalized as the “Philly Special.” The Eagles franchise also won three NFL championships before the establishment of the Super Bowl — in 1948, 1949 and 1960 – providing the foundation for a proud football tradition.
Western Pennsylvania, as you may have heard, also has a proud football tradition including ––but far from being defined by – the six-time Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
Despite these proud traditions, Pittsburgh never has played a championship versus Philadelphia. However, in 1943 in the middle of World War II, sports teams were struggling to find enough men to suit up on the playing fields instead of the battlefields. Those who wanted to play also had to work a full week’s shift in the mills and other factories crucial to the war effort. So, for this one season, the Eagles and the Steelers merged into a team that became known to fans as, naturally, the Steagles. Despite the difficulties of bridging the miles and personalities, the team finished with a respectable record of 5-4-1, better than either had achieved on their own at the time.
Philadelphia owner and co-founder and coach Bert Bell, who briefly had coached the Steelers, too, may not have set any coaching records. But he does have his own blue Pennsylvania Museum and Historical Commission marker in Narberth, and the Pennsylvania native is worth remembering as a member of the inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963, as well as the driving force behind the creation of the NFL Draft. His legacy helped plant the seeds for the football we see today.
The fact that we literally can see a lot of football today harkens back to Mansfield University of Pennsylvania and the world's first electrically lit nighttime football game – Mansfield vs. Wyoming Seminary on Sept. 28, 1892. Historical accounts do not describe a halftime show, and the contest was called early at 0-0, but according to a chronicle on NCAA.com, the game itself was entertaining in that “the teams were often unaware of which squad had the ball. Anyone in a uniform was liable to be tackled” and “at least one player collided with the light pole in the middle of the field.”
Since then, college football has become an enormous enterprise, and it doesn’t get much bigger than at Penn State University's main campus in State College. There you'll find Beaver Stadium, the second biggest stadium in the Western Hemisphere, which has a seating capacity of 106,572 (just shy of University of Michigan's 107,601).
Beaver Stadium, named for onetime Governor James A. Beaver, has been since 1960 home to the Big 10 Conference's Nittany Lions, several of whom – including Heisman winner John Cappelletti – are enshrined in Penn State's All-Sports Museum. Located at the stadium's southwest corner, the museum offers views of the stadium during some of its open hours, which change on home football Saturdays, based on what time kickoff is. Some people go on game days just for the acres of tailgating outside.
The very first football player to play professionally did so in Pennsylvania. William “Pudge” W. Heffelfinger was a Minnesotan and a Yale College football guard, whose services were solicited for a big game between rival Pittsburgh amateur teams, the Allegheny Athletic Association and the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. Following an illicit bidding war for him, Pudge played for the 3As at Recreation Park, the location of which now has a historical marker on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, for a payment of $500. The 3As won the controversial game on Pudge’s lone touchdown.
Western Pennsylvania is considered the cradle of gridiron greats. As chronicled in the book “Legends of Pennsylvania Football,” the area has raised numerous football icons including Johnny Unitas and Dan Marino (Pittsburgh), Jim Kelly (East Brady), Joe Montana (New Eagle), Joe Namath (Beaver Falls), and George Blanda (Youngwood). And those are just some of the quarterbacks. One in six Hall of Fame QBs is from Pennsylvania, which has produced many more great ones, such as Philadelphian Rich Gannon, Exton’s Matt Ryan and Rochester’s Vito "Babe" Parilli.
Other Pennsylvania quarterbacks of note include Willie Thrower (yes to that name), born in New Kensington, where he has a state historical marker for becoming one of the first Black quarterbacks in the modern NFL when he was thrown into a Chicago Bears game in 1953. And in Washington, Pa., there is a marker that immortalizes how, while a student and football player at Washington & Jefferson College, Charles Fremont West became the first African-American quarterback in the Rose Bowl in 1922.
It's not just quarterbacks who make up our rich football heritage. There are other state markers commemorating renowned football names, including John William Heisman – as in the trophy – in Titusville, Arthur J. Rooney in South Versailles, as well as places and events such as the Lafayette-Lehigh Football Game, which the NCAA and others recognize as college football's most played rivalry since 1884.
And, of course, there’s a monument to the most famous play in Pittsburgh Steelers, and perhaps American football’s, history: the Immaculate Reception, by the legendary Steelers player Franco Harris, who passed in late 2022 nearly 50 years later. He was beloved for helping lead the Steelers to winning four Super Bowl rings in the 1970s, which are on display at Pittsburgh’s Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum inside the Senator John Heinz History Center.
Nearly a century and a half of playing, watching and celebrating football later, others are continuing to make history in the state, such as those playing on women’s teams including the Pittsburgh Passion, the Harrisburg Havoc and the Philly Phantomz. There’s even adaptive touch and flag football. Football is part of Pennsylvania’s very fabric, and now’s as good of a time as ever to celebrate its storied place in our Commonwealth’s history.
Bob Batz Jr. is much more a hockey guy than a football one, but for many of his years in Pittsburgh he lived just up the street from the house where Pro Football Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas grew up. He now lives in Mt. Lebanon, home of the 2021 state champion Blue Devils football team. That was a great game.