Former Highlands coach, Steelers standout dies
Fran Rogel never had a game plan, but the former Steelers standout and Highlands football coach navigated his way through football and life almost flawlessly.
Rogel, considered the Jerome Bettis of his era while he played for Penn State and the Steelers during the late 1940s and '50s, died Monday at 74. The Bakerstown resident and North Braddock native was stricken with Parkinson's Disease.
"Football was his life," said Tom Stabile, an assistant under Rogel at Highlands. "He had a game plan, but you know how coaches go through and chart plays, he could go see a team in person, and he knew exactly what he wanted to do. It was amazing.
"He was able to see things that most people would have to go back through a tape to see."
Rogel's running style made many people look twice.
The 5-foot-9, 210-pounder, who was a 1987 A-K Valley Sports Hall of Fame inductee, led Penn State in rushing from 1947 to 1949. The following spring, he was drafted by the Steelers in the eighth round of the NFL draft.
Rogel led the Steelers in rushing in 1951 and then again from 1953 to 1956 in an era when he never made more than $10,000 in a season. His 3,271 yards rank ninth on the team's all-time list.
"He typified Pittsburgh when he played for the Steelers," Stabile said. "He was a hometown boy. He had a tough worth ethic. He never smoked. He never drank. He was quite an icon."
"I've never been around anybody who had the toughness he had," said long-time friend and former Steelers teammate Bill Priatko. "Bobby Layne probably said it best, 'The toughest football player, not necessarily ability-wise, he ever saw in the National Football League was Fran Rogel. I always remember him saying that."
Because of Rogel's head-first style, and the Steelers' conservative play calling, fans at Steelers games at Forbes Field from 1950 to 1957 coined the term, "Hi-diddle-diddle, Rogel up the middle."
It stuck with him until his death.
"In his junior year, he should have been an All-American," Stabile said. "He was a bull."
A Korean War veteran who never married, Rogel was equally demanding as a coach. But, Stabile said, his players were genuinely devoted.
"The kids loved him. The administration didn't love him, but the kids loved him. He was his own person," Stabile said. "Franny was one of those (people) who had the work ethic. He knew how to handle kids. He knew how far to push them, but then he was probably one of the most reasonable people."
Rogel's stint as Highlands coach from 1971 to 1978 included the school's first football conference championship - the 1976 West Penn Conference title. It also was characterized by two things: a wide-open offensive style and religion.
"He would say, 'I want to see a circus on the field,' " Priatko said. "He had a sense of humility about him. He would just kid around so much, you had to know him to know where he was coming from. ... He would just make you laugh. But when he was on the football field, he was tough as nails."
Priatko said Rogel had a special place his heart for his mother, for prayer and for football.
"The day before a game, we had no practice, no matter what. We went to church," Stabile said. "Blessed Sacrament Church after school. We had a moment of meditation, then he would turn around and put the challenge to the boys, and we went home."
"He was just a magnetic personality who loved the game of football. That was his life. Football."