Chunky Trance By Rob Erdeljac

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CHUNKY TRANCE

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REMEMBERING OAKMONT’S JOHN BRISCOE

By Robert Erdeljac

February 24, 2018

Candy was the objective! All you could gather for simply the effort of running door to door and yelling, “Trick or treat.” Halloween 1962 was the last time I disguised myself and participated in the childhood adventure. My costume was rags; I was a “hobo.” It wasn’t about the costume to me; it was about the candy. And yes, I ran from house to house avoiding the ones with a lot of steps and the ones that reportedly passed out apples. My booty was Milky Way, Three Musketeers, Mars, Good N’ Plenty, Butterfingers, OH HENRY!, Hershey, Necco Wafers, and several other candy treats. That evening was my Payday in more ways than one. Caramel surrounding salted peanuts with a nougat center satisfied my candy delight as much as solid chocolate.

Candy aside, I vividly recall approaching a row of white stucco houses between Sixth and Seventh Streets on Delaware Avenue in my gathering ground of Oakmont. Knowing who lived within one stucco home, I dared yell through the screen door into the living room the proper warning, “Trick or treat.” I anticipated the lady of the house to protect her home from soapy windows with a forward pass of a bag of M&M’s, and I would scurry on my way. To my surprise, I was invited into the living room by several deep voices that scary night.

Seated within were five Oakmont High School (OHS) football players and their head coach, Mr. Charles Wagner. Nary a one knew me, costume or not. I took a Navy Seal skill-like observation of the room which I had been invited into that eerie eve. The tables had been turned on this hobo; I stood like a wax statue. I have carried those images for fifty-five years, and they continue to warm my heart.

Mr. Wagner sat comfortably, still dressed professionally after a day’s teaching at the high school that I attended the following fall. In ’62 I was still a student at Saint Irenaeus Parochial School in our quaint town. As always, Mr. Wagner’s smile and his twinkling eyes captured my attention. We had not yet formally met. I hoped and believed in the moment that he and I were destined for great times together.

I did not know the names of Coach Wagner’s athletes who filled the room with handsome faces, crew cuts, strong bodies, and preppy dress. Their letter jackets of distinction told of their status, and they gleamed in my eyes. I wondered if I might one day wear penny loafers and dress so stylishly. Might there be a letter jacket in my future? The smiles worn by the gridironers imitated their leader’s grin. They seemed to be a welcoming committee, or were they his body guards, protecting him from the ghosts and goblins of the dark? I was, for the first time all evening, slowed to the pace of a turtle. Pun intended. I believe had I been invited to stay, I may have decided to forsake tens more candy bars.

For all I knew, a print of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Last Supper paintings may have been hanging on the living room wall. I noticed only one photograph and stared at it for approximately the time it took a thirteen-year-old boy to eat a Chunky. There on the end table beside Coach was a 10 X 12” black and white photograph of former OHS football superstar John Briscoe, an All-American at Arizona University. Big and strong, wearing his Wildcats’ uniform number 66, John was high-stepping for a publicity photograph. His fiercely fetching face was not covered with a football helmet. Were these other young men with whom I was in the company in store for such athletic triumph?

John grew up in Indianola and crossed the Allegheny River via the Hulton Bridge to attend OHS & play football. He was a quarterback in the single wing offense* of Coach Elmer “Tuggles” Gross’ football squad while at OHS. He called the signals as a T-formation quarterback, although he was not under center. His alignment and responsibilities in the backfield were more like that of the conventional T-formation fullback—or blocking back. Coach Wagner was an assistant during John’s senior season at Oakmont and took the head coaching responsibility the following autumn.

John’s senior high school yearbook, “Periscope,” described him in the following manner: “Our snappy quarterback … cute but quiet … ‘ready, set, signal, shift’ … senior class veep.” I am old enough to remember the 1960s and that word “snappy” was considered one of the most flattering expressions for a smart, stylish, and quick-witted young man.

Alas! I never met John Briscoe; but, as a boy striving for athletic accomplishment, I carried in my heart his rough and tough image. Two score and fourteen years later, during the spring of 2017, an early order of business of mine as a new committee member of the Allegheny-Kiski Valley Sports Hall of Fame was to nominate John for induction. Seven of Coach Wagner’s gridironers had been inducted within the past decade, and I recognized several of Coach Gross’ players were worthy of the distinction, but no one had nominated them.

Significantly, I harbored some guilt over my own induction into the hall which preceded John’s and other’s whom I consider more meritorious than I. Admittedly, the selection process is subjective, but the essential act for induction that had to follow an athletic career of distinction was simply being nominated for the hall of fame. I was informed by the committee that many sports fans of the A-K Valley inquire regarding their favorite player’s absence from the hall of fame. Nominate them; that is step one.

The committee agreed that with his All-American status at Arizona University, co-captain at Arizona, and a short professional football career with the Cleveland Browns, among other honors, John was deserving of induction.  

October of 2017, I had the privilege and the honor to inform John of his favor. I called his California home, and we spoke. The man I knew only from the photograph was humbled and joy-filled. His words I heard were about Coach Gross, his teammates, and his high school as if those days were but a decade ago. I enjoyed his comments and knew he was capable of a thrilling acceptance speech. I requested he deliver a photograph for publication within the month, and we agreed to keep in touch as the May event approached.

January 19, 2018, John E. Briscoe went to be with the Lord, months shy of his seventy-sixth birthday. His obituary assured the world that he “cherished family.” He is survived by his daughter Christie Briscoe Pillsbury, two sisters, three granddaughters, nine nieces and nephews, and many Oakmont friends and teammates who were touched by his personality and athleticism; and one who as a child was inspired tremendously by his photograph.

I watched John’s Memorial Service this morning, February 24, ‘18, streamed from Walnut Creek, California. His devotion to family transcended all other worthy acclaims. Christie, John’s daughter, was certainly the “apple of his eye.” In addition to memorials declaring his love for family, his general good nature, his passion for sports, and his generosity, there was a video of photographs depicting the many phases of his joyous journey. Three songs were audible during the slide show at John’s wake: “Tears in Heaven,” by Eric Clapton; “Broken Halos,” by Chris Stapleton; and “Go Rest High on the Mountain,” by Vince Gill. John was a huge country music fan, and several friends spoke of his love for that sound.

Moments ago, I selfishly beckoned John’s teammate Len Nolan for a copy of a photograph of John that caught my eye during the streaming. Therein, John received instructions from his mentor Coach Gross during a football game. I was convinced the photograph would enhance my words about this gridironer. Len promptly delivered the beautiful memory. I had already secured the very photograph that I viewed at Coach Wagner’s home in ’63, from a longtime friend of John’s, Coach Wagner’s, and mine: Frankie Bonaroti.

The A-K Hall of Fame will induct John posthumously on May 19, 2018. I will be there to support his induction and will do my very best to encourage other OHS athletes in the hall and otherwise to honor this brother of ours through football while wearing the Oakmont red and black. John’s former teammate at OHS and lifelong friend Ed Houston is scheduled to receive the honor in John’s stead. John and Ed met when they were twelve years old.

John entered my world as a photograph, and I am proud he will finally be in this locally famous hall. The following is a list of other Oakmont athletes and coaches from both Oakmont High School (Circa 1916) and Riverview High School, located in Oakmont and serving the communities of Oakmont and Verona since 1970, who have been so honored by the Allegheny-Kiski Valley Sports Hall of Fame:

Charles V. Wagner Jr.

athlete and coach

1983

Elmer “Tuggles” Gross

coach

1991

Al Kennedy

Athlete and coach

1994

Jacob Cappa

coach

2001

Jack Schmidt

coach

2004

Bill Beebe

coach

2006

Richard Carlberg

athlete

2008

John Miceli

athlete

2009

Rob Erdeljac

athlete

2010

Bob Shoop

athlete

2010

William Skinner

athlete

2010

Ron Cecil

athlete

2014

Jay Kumar

athlete

2014

“Skip” Cady

athlete

2015

Warren Riddinger

coach

2015

Rich Cecil

athlete

2016

Ben Erdeljac

athlete

2016

 

 

These members, along with scores of other splendid athletes of our humble A-K Valley will warmly welcome John Briscoe as part of the class of 2018—long overdue.

God bless John Briscoe. He lived a fine life and played a rough and tough sport with the passion admired by Theodore Roosevelt.

THE MAN IN THE ARENA
 It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech "Citizenship in A Republic"  delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April 1910

 

CARRY ON!

Afterthought: “Turtle,” for clarification of the aforementioned pun, was the nickname Coach Wagner gave me my sophomore season on his football team.

To order tickets for the May 19, 2018 banquet ($30 each) phone committee member Steve Meanor (724 224-6767)

Editor’s Note: Elmer “Tuggles” Gross ran the ‘double wing’ formation when he coached the OHS football team.

Biographies

The Oakmont Historical Society

The Oakmont Historical Society is dedicated to preserving the history of Oakmont, Pennsylvania. We are located at 628 Allegheny River Blvd. Oakmont, PA 15139. Our Curator/Archivist, Colleen McGuigan may be reached at: (412) 828-3022, (412) 607-4782,  mcpedder@hotmail.comoakmonthistory@gmail.com 

 

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