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Former Pitt player, RMU coach Walton shares wisdom with Panthers

Jerry DiPaola
| Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, 10:12 p.m.

Before he addressed assembled members of the Pitt football team Wednesday morning at the invitation of coach Pat Narduzzi, a short-statured man decided to remind the players that, yes, he did play tight end in his day.

“I told them I used to be 6-foot-4,” Joe Walton said, “but I hit so many big guys they just hammered me down. Now, you got this little old man who's not very tall.”

Perhaps so, but Walton, 80, also had a lot to say to Pitt's players before their morning practice. After all, he spent more than 60 years in football, first at Pitt as a unanimous All-American tight end in 1956, later as head coach of the New York Jets and offensive coordinator of the Steelers under Chuck Noll and, finally, as the founder and 20-year head coach of Robert Morris.

Narduzzi met Walton last year at a reunion of Pitt's 1956 Sugar Bowl team. Walton caught eight touchdown passes that season, but that was not his message Wednesday.

Narduzzi had not met Walton previously, but he thought the longtime coach's words on football and teamwork might impact his players.

“He was awesome,” junior running back James Conner said. “He was a big face in the football world. He said leave a legacy and play your heart out.”

During his 10-minute talk, Walton stressed the importance of teamwork.

“I told them this will be the only 2016 Pitt football team ever,” Walton said. “ ‘You guys are it. How do you want to be remembered? As winners? What will you think of yourselves 20 years from now? Will people still talk about that 2016 team?' ”

Walton also talked about the importance of role players.

“They get overlooked, guys who back up starters, special teams players,” he said. “I told them, ‘Maybe you're a nickel back who goes in on third down only. Maybe you're a running back who only goes in on third down. Whatever your role is, you will not become a team until all of you appreciate each other.' ”

Walton, who lives in his native Beaver Falls, retired from Robert Morris after the 2013 season but stayed for the next three years, helping athletic director Craig Coleman with fundraising. He compiled a 114-92-1 record, and won six Northeast Conference championships and two NCAA 1-A Mid-Major national titles. The stadium on Robert Morris' Moon campus, built in 2005, is named after him.

Walton led Robert Morris to a 7-1-1 record in the football team's first year of existence (1994) and won his first NEC title two years later.

“I remember when I first took the job,” he said. “We started from scratch. I thought I'd stay around for a couple years and it turned out to be 23.

“I'm very proud of what we've done. It's my second home.”

After his talk Walton watched practice, noting that it has changed dramatically in the past six decades — for the better.

“When I was playing for (coach) John Michelosen, we practiced the (day) before the game and we went after it just like it was game day,” he said. “Everything we did was live. We didn't have any of those walkthroughs.

“I think it's better (today). Too many silly injuries happen (when players are overworked). You get enough as it is. It's a long season.”

Even before Walton's talk, Narduzzi said he's been trying through 18 camp practices to keep his team healthy. But he said practice has become “a little tense” in recent days.

“We have to practice more maturely,” he said. “Too many guys laying on the ground.

“We try to eliminate cheap shots, and there's maybe one or two of those. It's usually that young freshman who doesn't know how to control his emotions. We can't lose a guy to something that's not what we teach.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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