Pittsburgh and Marchibroda go back a long way together

September 08, 1996|By John Steadman

PITTSBURGH -- This is a veritable homecoming for Theodore Joseph Marchibroda, the son of a steelworker, who grew up to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers and now comes back to try again to beat them as a coach on their own turf, which hasn't happened in previous efforts with teams known as the Colts, first in Baltimore and then Indianapolis.

Now, he has the Ravens of Baltimore, an old team with a new name that has played only one game, so his memories are mostly about Pittsburgh. It was a bitter end last January when his squad from Indianapolis visited this same Three Rivers Stadium and fell, 20-16, coming as close to going to the Super Bowl without having to buy a ticket as any team ever has.

A desperation pass that was almost caught in the end zone was the difference as the game came down to the final play. Marchibroda walked away, realizing a superb effort had been made, but gaining no solace from the result. Another bad experience in Pittsburgh.

But without Pittsburgh and the Steelers' being interested in him as a player, there would be no Marchibroda coaching in the National Football League. So much of what he has become has its roots in this city that makes football a way of life. Ted is conversant with his Pittsburgh past, how it all started, and remains forever thankful.

He began with the Steelers when they were playing in Forbes Field, 17 years before Three Rivers Stadium was created. It was during what could be called a modest slump. The franchise never won so much as a divisional championship from 1933, when the team was founded as the Pirates, until 1972.

The best thing about playing in Pittsburgh was the opportunity to know a gracious and humble man -- team owner Art Rooney.

"In my lifetime, I guess I've known only three men with the kind of qualities of Art," says Marchibroda. "I have to believe people who never met him wonder why so many tributes are paid, even now that he has been gone since 1988. The way he led his family, how he lived his life, from the religious aspect, and the kind manner in which he treated everyone, regardless of their social or financial status, made him an extraordinary person."

Marchibroda was the Steelers' first-round draft choice in 1953, after playing at St. Bonaventure University and the University of Detroit. He left St. Bonaventure when it abandoned football. But he came back for the final semester to make sure his degree was from the school that had first given him a scholarship.

It was a natural evolvement that he become a Steeler. His St. Bonaventure coach, Joe Bach, had been named to lead the Steelers, and he wanted Marchibroda as his quarterback. And, from another aspect, Rooney's brother, the Rev. Silas Rooney, was athletic director at St. Bonaventure, so Marchibroda-to-Pittsburgh was a perfect fit. And the Steelers also trained on the Bonaventure campus in Olean, N.Y.

His first contract, after being the No. 1 draft pick, was for $7,500 and a bonus of $500, but he still had to make the 33-man roster. And then the NFL had only 12 teams, so it was difficult to qualify. Did he use any of the money to buy a car? "Oh, no, in those days, you seemed to share everything with your parents and never thought twice about it," he said.

When Marchibroda arrived, the incumbent quarterback was Jim

Finks. After only brief opportunities as a rookie, Marchibroda went to Fort Lee, Va., for a year of Army service, and when he came back, in 1955, Finks was still there. In training camp, there were two other quarterbacks, Vic Eaton of Missouri and a hometown product, John Unitas, who played at the University of Louisville.

Coach Walt Kiesling didn't believe Unitas could comprehend the offense and sent him packing to the waiver list without so much as giving him a chance for even one play in an exhibition.

In 1956, under Kiesling, Marchibroda became the starter when Finks decided to become an assistant coach at Notre Dame. The Steelers also had Jack Scarbath, gifted with a powerful arm, who had been the Washington Redskins' No. 1 choice from Maryland three years before. Marchibroda played most of the time, but the next season he was gone. The Steelers took on Raymond "Buddy" Parker as head coach, a man of many moods, and one day, for no pressing reason, he added Marchibroda's name to the waiver wire.

"I had hurt my arm the last week of the previous season, when we practiced every day in the rain, and it was never right again. But the next year, after throwing two touchdown passes in the final exhibition, I was cut and the Chicago Cardinals claimed me."

The quarterbacks the Steelers retained when they sent Marchibroda away were Earl Morrall and Jack Kemp, who now, almost 40 years later, is running for the vice presidency of the United States, a backup QB of sorts if he makes the cut. But in 1957, until he was hired by Bill McPeak as an assistant with the Redskins, Marchibroda made a living operating an athletic equipment reconditioning company in Pittsburgh.

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