“That skinny Italian kid from Pittston,” is what Joe Paterno used to call Jimmy Cefalo.
And he was right.
The 1973 Pittston Area football game program during Jimmy’s senior year of high school listed him as 6’1, 185, but that was wishful thinking on Coach Bob Barbieri’s part. Jimmy was probably more like 170 pounds, if that, and 155 when he broke on the scene as a sophomore.
And most of that weight was in his powerful thighs. I ran into his mom at the mall one evening. She was shopping for jeans for Jimmy and told me his waist was 30 inches but she had to buy 36-inch jeans and alter them. His legs wouldn’t fit in anything smaller.
I wrote sports during the Cefalo years and have always said, even though he was one of the most highly recruited running backs in the nation as a senior, his sophomore season was his most impressive. And he wasn’t even a starter when it began. He carried the ball fewer than 10 times a game that year and still rushed for more than 1,000 yards. I’m speaking from memory not from research, but I recall Jimmy Cefalo the sophomore having games where he’d gain something like 99 yards on 3 carries, or 126 yards on 4 carries. It was that ridiculous.
At a testimonial dinner for Jimmy in Pittston near the end of his NFL career with the Miami Dolphins, Mickey Gorham, the late, lovable, legendary coach of Meyers High School in Wilkes-Barre, told the gathering, “When we played against Jimmy when he was a sophomore nobody had ever heard of him and he faked us out of our jock straps all night. The next year we were ready for him. We didn’t wear any jock straps.”
Meyers was a good team and that meant they got the full brunt of Jimmy Cefalo. Coach Barbieri would not leave Jimmy in for a full game against a weak team, but that was not the case against Meyers. He gained more than 800 yards against them in three games, topping 300 in his senior year.
I’m writing about Jimmy today because he’s in town this weekend as grand marshal of the Pittston Tomato Festival. He’s a busy guy and doesn’t get back home often but this is his second visit in three years. He was on hand for the dedication of the Inspiration Mural, of which he and Coach Paterno are the centerpiece, in the summer of 2015.
At that time, he spoke of his love and respect for the late Penn
State Coach. “I’d be honored to be in a painting, on a billboard, on a poster, or on a postage stamp with that man,” he said.
The mural depicts the scene in Gertie Cefalo’s kitchen where Paterno, as the story goes, got Jimmy to choose Penn State by winning over his mother.
As I said, I wrote about Jimmy when he was in high school. In fact, I was on the sidelines for every step of his storied three-year career. But I’ve known him since he was 8 years old. He played on my Uncle Eddie Strubeck’s Little League team and the two of them became great friends.
Uncle Eddie often told the story of treating Jimmy to an ice cream cone at Grablick’s after a game and even though he was only 12 years old, Jimmy talked about college. “I know where I want to go to college,” he told my uncle. “Acropolis.”
“Acropolis?” Uncle Eddie asked. “Do you mean Annapolis?”
“That’s the place,” Jimmy answered.
Last time Jimmy was in town I told the story of arriving at one of his high school games a bit late and sprinting toward the field not wanting to miss even one play. There was always the chance he’d return the opening kick for a touchdown or rip off a 75 yard run on the first play.
The game was at Plains Stadium and not only were the bleachers filled but fans ringed the field 4 or 5 deep. There had to be 10 or 12 thousand in attendance. I trotted up behind this little kid, tapped him on the shoulder, said, “Excuse me, champ,” and jumped over the retaining wire and dashed through the end zone to the far sideline.
I learned the next day that as I ran off, that little kid turned to his uncle standing next to him and said, “Gee, that was my brother Eddie and he didn’t even know me.”
That’s how focused I was.
At the mural dedication Jimmy said I had inspired him to become a journalist. “I’d see Eddie Ackerman on the sidelines and I thought he had the greatest job in the world,” he said.
I did. During Jimmy’s career I’d often look up at the packed stands and think there wasn’t a person there who wouldn’t gladly trade places with me.
But the job wasn’t just great when Jimmy Cefalo was on the field. Covering high school sports was the greatest job in the world for the entire 15 or 16 years I did it.
Odd as it may sound, I never saw Jimmy play a single game with the Nittany Lions or the Dolphins. When he went off to college, I was still back here on the sidelines at Pittston Area and Wyoming Area games. There were plenty of other skinny, Italian kids to write about, whether or not they were skinny or Italian.
And for the record, not one of them ever went on to play at Acropolis.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.