“Playing for a Hoagie and a Beer.”
Now there’s a book title that’s hard to resist.
But it perfectly sums up Mark Speck’s look into the world of semi-pro football in central Pennsylvania from 1975-78. Because the men who played for the Central Pennsylvania Whitetail Bucks played for little more than a sandwich and a six-pack.
What they did play for was a deep-rooted love of the game that drew them into the unpredictable, hardscrabble, play-for-fun game that they could not let go of after their high school, or in some cases, college careers were over. The lure of making one more catch, one more tackle, one more broken field run, was too strong for them to resist.
And so there they were, lacing up the cleats, strapping on the shoulder pads and buckling the helmet again — not so much chasing glory as trying to experience the adrenaline rush that the game provides one more time.
The Bucks were a dream of Philipsburg-Osceola graduate Mike McNeish and backed by Clearfield attorney Jim Naddeo, the Johnson Coal Company, of Snow Shoe, and Philipsburg businessman Hymie Ziff. Later, Al Sigel, of Clearfield, also wound up writing checks for the team in addition to playing as an offensive lineman.
The roster was made up primarily of players from State College, Altoona, Clearfield and Philipsburg-Osceola, with others from Bald Eagle Area, Bellefonte, Glendale, Tyrone and West Branch helping to fill out the roster.
There were coaches like Tyrone’s Tom Miller, who coached the Golden Eagles on Friday night and played for the Bucks on Saturday, wrestlers like Clearfield’s Bill Bailey, who quit the Bucks to concentrate on his wrestling career at Pitt, and former PIAA champion Jerry White from West Branch who later became an All-American at Penn State.
And there were characters. A lot of them.
Start with George Walker, a State College graduate who went to work as a meat cutter at Weis Markets after high school. He also got heavily involved in weight lifting and was generally considered the strongest Buck. He later became a fixture on the State High athletic scene, helping coach and working with athletes in the weight room.
Walker, a lineman, was so eager to play he was sometimes seen on Atherton Street, dressed in full practice gear, waiting for his ride to practice in Philipsburg, Clearfield, Madera or wherever the Bucks were able to secure a site to work out. A fierce competitor, he once threw one of his own defensive backs across the locker room after the back gave a semi-effort to tackle a runner in the open field.
There was Darrel “Mad Dog” Rutter, a defensive end for all four years of the Bucks existence who had been a walk-on at Penn State in 1968 and 1969.
And BEA graduate Joe Crestani, who had served two tours in Vietnam with the U.S. Navy before finding a spot with the Bucks as a tight end and offensive tackle.
There are numerous humorous anecdotes scattered throughout the book to go along with the game-by-game recaps and statistics.
After a game in Philipsburg, a bunch of the Bucks were at a local bar and at some point a fight started between the players and the patrons, one of whom pulled a knife on one of the Bucks.
“... We were supposed to be their team,” Rutter said.
After one road game, there were no shower facilities available so the team stopped at a state park on the way home and one of the players went into the lake in full uniform. Park rangers failed to see the humor in that and chased the team out of the park.
If these vignettes bring a smile to your face, there are many more in this 254-page tribute to a team that played on dirt fields strewn with rocks, sometimes on a field with no scoreboard or clock, often with only a couple hundred fans on hand. And with little to show for their efforts except for the satisfaction that comes from having played the game one more time. And maybe a hoagie and a beer.
The book is available through Amazon. It makes for a good summer read.