Bernie Galiffa came from a family of quarterbacks
Not too many Valley athletes can stake the following claims: 1) having played for a head coach who ranks as the winningest ever at a major college (Bobby Bowden); 2) having an uncle who was an All-American quarterback and two brothers who also quarterbacked at the college level; 3) holding major quarterback records in high school and college.
The only man who has such a resume is Donora's Bernie Galiffa.
From his days of youth baseball where he pitched to Speer Ruey (when he wasn't catching), to his days quarterbacking the Donora Dragons from 1965 through his senior football season (1967), all the way to his stint playing quarterback at West Virginia University under Bowden, Galiffa's career was a glorious one. Furthermore, with All-American Arnold “Pope” Galiffa of Army for an uncle, his bloodlines are strong.
Bernie Galiffa said he was always aware of his heritage.
“That was always there,” he said. “They wrote and compared me to him, but there was no comparison—he was just something special.”
Galiffa, who also starred in high school basketball and baseball, said he didn't try to emulate his uncle.
“Every time I did something, good or bad, his name was always brought up. I was always ‘the nephew of Pope Galiffa.' That's just the way it was.”
Galiffa was close to his uncle, but Pope never really became an unofficial coach for Bernie. Once, though, Pope posed with his three nephews in his backyard. The treasured photo features Pope showing the boys how to hold a football properly.
“Other than that, he pretty much stayed out of it,” said Bernie. “He just wanted to let my coaches coach me.”
But Pope faithfully attended football games at Legion Field to see his nephews play. They would all go on to become college quarterbacks, with Ron at Geneva College (in Beaver Falls) and Art at Tennessee.
Bernie related an incident from his sophomore season when Ron was a senior.
“They put me at quarterback and moved him to running back. They said, ‘You can't quarterback anymore.' I don't think he liked that too well.”
As a kid Bernie never pretended to be a famous quarterback, but he was aware he was growing up in Western Pennsylvania, a factory for quarterbacks from George Blanda to Joe Namath.
Speaking of Namath, Galiffa recalled “in high school I broke his records,” earning him mention in the prestigious “Faces in the Crowd” column in Sports Illustrated. The article stated Galiffa clicked on 88 of 149 passes as a senior, good for 22 touchdowns and 1,873 yards, “to surpass Joe Namath's Western Pennsylvania mark (77 of 125 for 17 and 1,115).” Galiffa didn't just break Namath's records. He annihilated them.
Galiffa said his best college game was when he faced Penn State in a televised contest.
“That was back when they were giving away the Chevrolet Player of the Game award—they gave $1,000 to the school in your name and I won that even though we lost the game. It was one of those kinds of games where I just couldn't miss.
“But at the beginning of the game, the first two passes I threw were interceptions. One I threw slipped out of my hand and went straight up in the air. The next pass I threw, my receiver slips and falls and a defender got the ball.”
As a senior, his Mountaineers went 8-4 and were ranked as high as No. 18 nationally before they lost in the Peach Bowl. That year Galiffa's quarterback rating stood at 118.5. By comparison, Joe Montana's rating as a Notre Dame senior was 124.9.
Galiffa also became the first quarterback in West Virginia history to throw for over 2,000 yards.
“I was in their record book for total passing yards in a season (2,496),” he said. “And the guy that broke it was Mark Bulger [in 1998]. So from the time when I left there in '72 I held that record.”
Stars such as Oliver Luck, Jeff Hostetler and Major Harris couldn't eclipse the mark.
“Now they're just blowing that record out of the water. Those guys throw the ball every down,” Galiffa said.
The same holds true for career passing yardage. For a time, Galiffa held that WVU record with 4,426, but by the late 1990s men such as Bulger were heaving the football for 3,000-plus yards.
Galiffa said WVU “ran the triple option so I was supposed to run, but I did. I made sure that the [defender] took me; I pitched the ball because I had good running backs. I had Kerry Marbury, I mean he was outstanding.”
Considering Galiffa's bad knee, he was wise to let others lug the football. Galiffa laughed when he pointed out that he posted negative yardage, minus-132 for the 137 times he did run.
It didn't matter.
“I had great receivers like Danny Buggs, Marshall Mills and Bernie Kirchner. They made me look pretty good.”
So good, he wound up throwing 17 touchdowns as a senior and 28 overall, connecting on nearly 50 percent of his passes.
Those numbers impressed the New York Giants.
“I had a contract in my hand from them” he said. “I even had a phone call from Bert Wolf. Back then he was a big agent. He only took first-round, second-round guys. He called me up. He said, ‘When you get up here to New York, I want you to give me a call.' I'm thinking, ‘Hmmm! OK, I'll call you.' Galiffa is now retired, living in Wilmington, N.C., with his wife Rose and his 16-year-old daughter Julia. Now, instead of dodging blitzing linebackers, he takes it easy, enjoying life on the beach.
Wayne Stewart is a freelance writer.