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John Kratsas filled with football memories

| Saturday, April 7, 2012

Kratsas filled with football memories Byline: by RICK BRUNI JR. Text:

An offensive lineman by trade, John Kratsas is used to laboring in anonymity.

That's a good thing considering the famous names that surrounded Kratsas at Louisville, where he played from 1968 to 1972.

Kratsas, an Oakmont graduate and Harmar resident, will be inducted into the Alle-Kiski Valley Hall of Fame on May 19 at the Clarion Hotel in New Kensington along with seven other nominees.

ESPN college football personality Lee Corso was Kratsas' head coach at Louisville.

"He's a really good guy. He was always more of a showman," Kratsas said of Corso, who is known for donning mascot headdresses for the network's College GameDay program. "He wrote me a letter my senior year and said, 'We're looking for big things from you, you're going to be the leader.' I thought that was pretty special."

One of Kratsas' favorite anecdotes came during his sophomore year, his first on varsity since freshmen weren't eligible to play. Louisville was on the wrong end of a blowout at North Texas State when Corso made a decision that would ripple throughout Kratsas' college career.

"We're getting beat pretty bad and Coach Corso yells, 'Put everybody in ... everybody but Kratsas,' and he pointed to me and said 'I'm saving you,' so I kept my redshirt," Kratsas said. "(Steelers Hall of Famer) Joe Greene was playing for North Texas and I'd have had to play against him. It hurt because I didn't end up playing that other year of eligibility."

Kratsas and other ex-players still reunite every year, usually centered around a Louisville game. The 1970 Pasadena Bowl team also has been honored over the years.

"We were the second bowl team in Louisville history," Kratsas said. "Johnny Unitas played in the first (1957 Sun Bowl)."

Kratsas can rattle off a long list of teammates who played in the NFL. They include linebackers Tom Jackson (Denver Broncos and current ESPN sportscaster), Larry Ball (Miami Dolphins), Amos Martin (Minnesota Vikings); and defensive linemen Richard Bishop (New England) and Horace Jones (Oakland Raiders).

"Horace Jones was the one who almost knocked down (Terry) Bradshaw's pass (before the Immaculate Reception)," Kratsas said. "If you see No. 82 in the film, he almost tipped the pass."

Kratsas formed a special bond with quarterback John Madeya, a 1973 draft choice of the Atlanta Falcons, who later survived a life-threatening fall.

In high school, Kratsas played offensive and defensive tackle and ran track at Oakmont for legendary coach Chuck Wagner. As a sophomore starter, Kratsas helped win a WPIAL championship for Wagner, who retired last fall after 50 years in coaching.

"The one thing with Chuck Wagner, he would help the second teamers the same as the first teamers," Kratsas said. "If you want to play football, he'd give you a shot somewhere. He wouldn't forget about you."

Wagner was integral in getting Kratsas a full scholarship to Louisville. Kratsas still wonders what might have happened had he played out his final year of eligibility.

"It was a difficult decision, especially after my mother died in 1970. Corso felt I'd have had a good shot at being drafted," Kratsas said. "He wanted me to play my (final) redshirt year, but there were no Masters programs, so I graduated. I got a job, and a year later, I got married and everything worked out."

Even though Kratsas never gained fame on the national stage, he's always in good standing with ex-teammates. And that's all the credit Kratsas needs.

"Four years ago, we went down to Louisville and one of my old running backs, Howard Stevens, who played for Baltimore, was there," Kratsas said. "He introduced me to his wife as, 'That's my pulling guard!' It's such a short time in your life, but the memories last forever."

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