Paul Zolak reflects on long career in sports
Paul Zolak is a man who has been around the sports scene for many years.
The Belle Vernon resident (who also spends time in Florida) is a 1965 graduate of Donora High School, where he starred in baseball and football as a two-year starter as a tight end, punter and placekicker.
At Cal U, he was the starting kicker and backup quarterback behind a two-time All-American, Jeff Petrucci. In 1968, his Vulcans shared the PSAC championship.
With his playing days over, his involvement with sports rolled on. Zolak spent several decades working with the Ringgold and Bethel Park school systems, serving as a football coach under Lou DeFelices and Chuck Abramski (8 years) and as a director of athletics (29 years).
He has won the Region IV Athletic Director of the Year award, and in 2004, the Pennsylvania State Athletic Director Association's Distinguished Service Award. He served as president of the WPIAL Athletic Directors (133 schools) for two years and was on the WPIAL Board of Control for two years.
He is also the father of Scott Zolak, who was a quarterback for the Ringgold Rams. He played college ball as a starter for the Maryland Terrapins after serving as the backup for Neil O'Donnell, who later guided the Pittsburgh Steelers into Super Bowl XXX. Scott Zolak spent nine seasons in the NFL with New England and Miami.
Paul's brother Chuck played quarterback for the University of Delaware in 1963.
“They were to play for the national championship of that level,” Paul Zolak said, “and the day before that John F. Kennedy got shot and the country was in mourning. The game was cancelled and never played.”
Delaware had to settle for a co-championship.
Paul Zolak can rattle off many contrasts between the world of high school sports from the days of Joe Montana to today.
“There's such a wide range of diverse interests now,” he said. “It stems from the social changes, and I think that's probably the biggest (difference in eras).
“Kids were able to stay focused back in the days when there were only three sports. When I retired a few years ago from Bethel Park, we had 29 varsity sports and 102 coaches. In the fall you played football or you didn't play anything.”
Paul Zolak spoke of the many “adverse conditions” players faced.
“They didn't have Astroturf, and they didn't cancel games on a Friday night,” he said. “You played—if it rained, you went.”
Zolak reflected about other factors for western Pennsylvania churning out so many great athletes — with a focus on quarterbacks.
“A lot of that starts with their culture and their families and work ethics that their grandparents and parents had — working in the steel mills, working in the mines, things like that,” he said.
Success at the high school level also stemmed from good coaching and firmly entrenched programs. The combination of teaching fundamentals of the game and stability within a coaching staff was unbeatable.
“You look at the coaches,” Paul Zolak said. “In those days, it was nothing to have coaches for 30 consecutive years. Now every three years, there's a new coach.”
Zolak shared a story about legendary coach Rab Currie, who guided Charleroi for 32 seasons, beginning in 1945. Over his long tenure, including four years at Monessen, Currie notched 212 victories, making him the winningest coach in the history of the Mon Valley Conference.
“Coach Currie said, ‘Think, Paul, all the years I've been coaching, how many parents disliked me,'” Paul Zolak recalled.
When Paul Zolak asked Currie why, he replied, “Well, you've got the son that's playing guard and his parents want him to be the fullback so he can carry the ball. Then you have the second team's guard whose kid's not even playing. You got the tight end's parents who feel he's not catching enough passes. Look how many enemies I've made over the years.”
That aspect of sports, Paul Zolak knows, will never change.
Wayne Stewart is a freelance writer.