Some athletes earn the nickname “Iron man.” There’s at least one Penn State football usher who also deserves the moniker.
Joseph Furfaro, 85, hasn’t missed a single Penn State home game in 50 years — that’s 315 home games he’s ushered in a row. It’s also 251 times he’s cheered Penn State to a win and 64 times he’s watched the team lose.
He has gotten used to ushering on the visitor side’s 50-yard line, but the view from his Spring Township living room might be Furfaro’s new vantage point for Penn State home games.
A flat screen TV is just a few feet, maybe three steps, from Furfaro’s couch. It would be a much shorter than the walk he said he has to take for work on game days.
“I have a great distance to walk from where I’m able to park to get into the employee entrance,” he said. “That is something that in the future that will prevent me from being able to do it. I’m not sure how I’ll do it again. I don’t know what next year will bring.”
Furfaro has accepted that he might not work another game, but he is as committed to his 50-year job as ever.
He made sure to schedule open heart surgery in June 2006 so that he could fully recover for the football season. He suffered a stroke on Oct. 6, 2015, stayed in the hospital three days and ushered Penn State’s 29-7 win over Indiana.
“The joke was that he should just stay in the hospital until it was time to go usher, given the proximity of the hospital to the stadium,” his daughter Joyce Furfaro said.
Others have asked when he plans to stop.
“A lot of people have been inquiring if I’m going to be there, because a lot of people don’t want me to quit,” Furfaro said. “And, well, I don’t know. I can’t do this forever, and I’m going to have to give it up and let’s assume when I do that I’ll be at home sitting on the couch. From year to year it’s a matter of health whether I will continue.”
“It’s always his decision,” Joyce Furfaro added. “I wouldn’t want him to stop unless he felt it was too much for him.”
How and when Furfaro stops is unknown even to him, but he remembers how his streak started.
He was hired by a family friend, Larry Riley, at a time when Penn State football would have been unrecognizable to most of today’s fans.
At the first game he worked, a 15-7 win over Maryland, there were about 41,000 fans — Beaver Stadium’s highest turnout in 1966. There wasn’t a gray hair on Joe Paterno’s head. And the program had only ever turned out two first-round NFL picks, Pro Football Hall of Famers Dave Robinson and Lenny Moore.
Beaver Stadium can seat about 107,000 fans. Paterno became the winningest coach in college football history. The program is a pipeline for NFL talent in every draft.
Furfaro has seen it all.
He watched with throngs of fans when John Cappelletti, the only Penn State athlete to ever have his number retired, rushed into the record books and won a Heisman Trophy in 1973. Cappelletti is Furfaro’s favorite player, though he rattled off about 20 more in a single breath.
“I can’t remember all their names,” he said. “There have been so many.”
There are a lot of plays that stick out, too, but two in particular.
The 1982 Penn State football team won a National Championship but got some help from a referee halfway through the season. A then-record 85,304 fans at Beaver Stadium and Furfaro could probably tell you the same story about how the Nittany Lions came back to win a 27-24 game against the Cornhuskers in the last minute.
Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge dropped a pass in between Nebraska defenders near the sideline intended for Mike McCloskey. The play has been reviewed more than a half-million times on YouTube, probably by disgruntled Cornhuskers fans, to see McCloskey clearly catch the ball out of bounds.
The official nearest to the play called it a catch at the two yard line.
“And then (Kirk) Bowman caught the touchdown,” Furfaro said.
Blackledge faked a handoff, spun around and barely floated a pass over the outstretched arms of Nebraska linebackers. Bowman made a shoelace snag in the back of the end zone. Paterno’s jaw dropped, and he shot his arms in the air when the referees, correctly this time, signaled it a catch.
Furfaro’s fly-on-the-wall view just might not come from inside Beaver Stadium anymore.
He might not continue to get an in-person perspective of what he believes is a program on the rise.
“Now that the sanctions are virtually lifted I think recruiting is coming along, and I think they’ll get better and that James Franklin will have success in future,” he said. “He always goes around to greet and talk to employees. One fella who is a friend mentioned my 50 years to him, and he put his arm around me and gave me a hug before the (Michigan) game. I wasn’t expecting that. There’s a lot of good things you can say about James Franklin and his personality.”
Franklin feels the same way about Furfaro.
“Joseph is another example of what makes Penn State so special, it’s the people,” Franklin said. “He has been giving his time, energy and passion to Penn State football for 50 years, and we are so thankful to Joseph and so many others like him that are making a positive impact in our really special community.”
There’s also a limit to how much Furfaro can give to Penn State football, and it may have been reached.
“I’d like to be back, because I would miss it even after all these years,” Furfaro said. “I’ll miss the people, the many, many, many friends I’ve had all these years. I’ll miss that the most. If I’m able, I’ll be there for the Blue-White game and the season. There’s just no way to tell.”
His streak has lasted longer than anyone else’s.
Cal Ripken Jr. played in 2,632 consecutive games. Brett Favre started 297 straight games under center. A.C. Green dribbled on the basketball court 1,192 successive times.
But none of their streaks spanned 50 years — and possibly counting.