Former Pitt, Burrell football star John Brown dies at 58
John Brown, a former Pitt and Burrell High School football star, died Friday after an undisclosed illness.
Brown is best known for his game-winning catch in the 1982 Sugar Bowl.
His son, John Jr., said his father died at his Lower Burrell residence. He was 58.
Brown was a 1977 Burrell graduate and was known for his dramatic fourth-down, 33-yard touchdown pass from Dan Marino gave the Panthers a 24-20 victory over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl at New Orleans Superdome.
Brown caught 43 passes for 530 yards and eight touchdowns that season as Pitt compiled an 11-1 record.
Brown and Marino re-enacted the play during halftime of a 2000 Pitt game at Three Rivers Stadium.
“I know my father will be remembered for his sports stuff,” John Jr. said. “While that is great, he needs to be remembered as a man of faith and a man who was always willing to help people.”
In fact, Brown Sr. said as much in a 1999 interview when the play was voted the fifth-greatest sports moment in local history by Valley News Dispatch readers.
“I have that notoriety, and it's something that's become an identity thing with me,” Brown said. “I hope people who watched my career throughout saw a guy who worked hard and was consistent and reliable.”
Pitt executive associate athletic director E.J. Borghetti said the school lost a great person.
“When you talk about iconic Pitt football moments, the name John Brown is always prominently mentioned,'' Borghetti said. “John was on the receiving end of the greatest touchdown pass in Pitt history. Dan Marino's throw was on the money in that 1982 Sugar Bowl, but I always remind people that John took a vicious hit from a Georgia safety and still wouldn't let go. His hands were like a vise.
“When I had the opportunity to meet John many years later, I was struck by what a gentle and humble person he was. He was almost sheepish about being part of this incredible moment, yet his love of Pitt was boldly on his sleeve. John was proud to be a Pitt man, and we were proud to call him one of our own.
“On behalf of Pitt athletics, I want to extend our heartfelt condolences to the Brown family, and especially John Jr., who followed in his dad's footsteps as a Pitt football player and is now an invaluable member of our academic support services staff. They are on the hearts and minds of our Pitt family.”
Former Burrell football coach Tom Henderson had John Sr. as an assistant on his staff from the late-90's until the early 2000's, remembered him as a “fun guy and a most-caring guy.''
“As a coach he was very demanding of his players and they responded positively to his coaching style,'' Henderson said. “His expectations for his players as a wide receivers coach was very high.”
During his tenure as Burrell coach, he guided his sons John Jr. and Aaron.
“He's a guy who, in the last nine or 10 years, helped out a plethora of people with Alcoholics Anonymous,” John Jr. said. “He was already an outstanding father to us. There was a man who stopped by the house the other day, even when my dad was sick, he offered him encouragement.”
The memorable play at Pitt almost never occurred. Panthers play-by-play man Bill Hillgrove had the night off with Mutual Broadcasting doing the game and Pitt trailed 20-17 in the final minute.
Hillgrove told the Valley News Dispatch in 1999 that assistant coach Sal Sunseri was pleading with head coach Jackie Sherrill to go for a field goal. But Marino, on the sidelines for a drink of Gatorade, told Sherrill to “give me the ball, I'll win the game.”
Brown missed much of the 1982 season with a knee injury. By the time the Cleveland Browns invited Brown to training camp in 1983, his knees were no longer able to endure the grind of the game.
Brown was inducted into the Alle-Kiski Valley Sports Hall of Fame in 1996, along with his younger brother Tom, who followed John at Pitt.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by the Rusiewicz Funeral home in Lower Burrell.
George Guido is a freelance writer.