Kevin Gorman: Farewell to Bill Fralic, a larger-than-life legend
They all had their own stories to share about Bill Fralic, but every conversation Friday with friends, coaches and teammates started the same way: This is a sad day in Pittsburgh. We lost a legend.
That’s the best way to describe Fralic, a larger-than-life legend who died at age 56 Thursday after a long battle with a rare, incurable cancer. To hear his coaches tell it, Fralic was a legend even before he was a legend.
They called Fralic a man amongst boys, a man amongst men, a man’s man. They called him the greatest offensive lineman to ever play college football.
Mostly, they called him a humble and generous friend who gave everything he could, whether it was on the football field or to charitable causes. Fralic owned an insurance company and made more money insuring the commercial trucking business than he did playing football. It was common for Fralic and his wife Susan to pick up the tab, whether it was for tickets to Pitt football and basketball games, dinners with friends at Villa Mosconi Italian restaurant in New York City or by donating golfing trips to Oakmont Country Club for the Bully Ball gala in Atlanta.
“Even as he gained that status, he never changed what he was,” said Andy Urbanic, who coached Fralic at Penn Hills and Pitt and considers him like a son. “He was special in every walk of life.”
Before Fralic was a four-time Pro Bowl pick with the Atlanta Falcons, he was a three-time All-American at Pitt and before that a Parade All-American at Penn Hills and before that an oversized wunderkind who played for the Morningside Bulldogs youth program.
Bill Hillgrove, who covered Fralic at Pitt and later worked alongside him on Pitt football radio broadcasts, loves to tell the story about Fralic’s father asking Joe Natoli if he’d allow an 11-year-old to play for his 15-and-under team. Natoli was adamantly against it, until he saw Fralic, who was already pushing 200 pounds.
“Well,” he said, “we do make exceptions.”
Fralic became not only the exception but exceptional.
Jackie Sherrill tells the tale of Fralic caddying for him at a charity golf tournament, and asking where the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder was going to school. Sherrill meant college. To his surprise, Fralic informed Sherrill that he was only 14 and headed to Penn Hills.
Fralic led the Indians to a prominence, including a pair of WPIAL football championships, and won a WPIAL title as a heavyweight wrestler. He was named Parade national lineman of the year in 1980, and when the WPIAL started its Hall of Fame in 2007, he was a member of its inaugural class.
“Billy was the first of that breed of lineman that coaches were looking for,” Urbanic said. “He was an offensive lineman with a defensive lineman’s temperament. He changed the profile of how they recruited offensive lineman. He just brought a whole different size and skill level to the game. I’ve never seen a lineman — and he played both offense and defense — who was just as dominant on one side as he was on the other. He played every play as if it was his last. He was a dominant force.
“He was such a leader, on and off the field. Very few people have worked as hard at their craft as Bill did. That’s different for an offensive lineman, because they’re doing the grunt work. To do it the way he did, in such a forceful manner, was an indication of what he was going to be and what he turned out to be.”
Fralic was a sculpted 6-5, 280 by the time he played for the Pitt Panthers, and it only took him putting on pads for teammates to recognize his talent. Fralic started his first game as a freshman, something only Hugh Green and Dan Marino did for Sherrill, and became an anchor of the line at offensive tackle.
“I’ve never seen a freshman come in, especially on the offensive line, and do as well as he did,” said Emil Boures, who played center for the Panthers. “In two minutes, (then-Pitt offensive line coach) Joe Moore came up and said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘He’s the best I’ve seen.’ He was an unbelievable talent on the offensive line. … If he was blocking you, you were going down.”
By Fralic’s senior season, Pitt sports information director Jim O’Brien coined a statistical term to capture Fralic’s penchant for putting opponents on their backside: the pancake block. Fralic would become the first offensive lineman to finish in the top 10 of Heisman Trophy voting, placing sixth as a junior and eighth as a senior.
John Congemi had narrowed his college choices to Alabama, Michigan and Pitt when he saw Fralic on the cover of a game program. The sheer size of Fralic left an indelible impression on the quarterback.
“I went, ‘Wow, if I went to Pitt, I’d love to have this guy as a teammate. I’d hide behind him. He’d be my personal protector,’” Congemi said. “That’s how good he was. He was so dominant. When you were in the huddle, you were happy to see his face on your side, that’s for sure.”
Fralic had a mean streak on the football field that Hillgrove called an indomitable spirit inherited from an uncle, Charlie Mehelich, who starred for the Steelers in the late 1940s.
“He didn’t want to block you,” Hillgrove said. “He wanted to embarrass you.”
Added Sherrill: “If you played in front of him, you were glad when that last second of the 60-minute clock ticked off because he was going to wear you out.”
How dominant was Fralic? At Pitt, he followed Mark May, a Outland Trophy winner, and Russ Grimm, a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, and played on the same line as Jimbo Covert, a top-10 NFL draft pick. May and Covert have their jerseys retired at Pitt.
Yet, the late Joe Moore didn’t hesitate to call Fralic the best.
“If you can find somebody better, bring him to me,” Moore once said of Fralic, whose No. 79 was retired by Pitt at halftime of his final home game. “I’ve been privileged to find some good ones here, but none better than Bill Fralic. Those kind only pass through once.”
Fralic made it not only fashionable to play on the offensive line but to do so for the Panthers. As a star offensive lineman at Steel Valley, Bill Cherpak idolized Fralic and followed him to Pitt.
“He was the epitome of an offensive lineman,” Cherpak said. “He was dominant. That’s what everybody who was a lineman wanted to be. He was the benchmark.”
Yet, Fralic’s dominance on the football field was exceeded by his generosity away from it. As friends say, he was a better person than a player — if that could be possible.
Fralic’s philanthropy is as legendary in Penn Hills as his football lore, and he continued giving back until the end. In 1999, Fralic donated a large chunk toward the school’s $1 million state-of-the-art athletic center — named in his honor — that houses an indoor turf field, a locker room, weight and training rooms.
“Just an unbelievably generous guy,” said Paul Dunn, a close friend who played right guard next to Fralic at Pitt and stayed at his home upon being hired as an Atlanta Falcons offensive line coach. “I know what he did with Penn Hills. That probably is the way he would want to go out.”
That will go down as Fralic’s final gesture of gratitude. Last weekend, Fralic paid for Penn Hills’ hotel in Hershey for the PIAA football finals, allowing the team to avoid a one-day trip. The school’s most famous football alum watched from Atlanta as the Indians won the PIAA Class 5A championship.
“It was neat that he got to see Penn Hills win one more championship before he passed,” Penn Hills athletic director Stephanie Strauss said. “I know he loved Penn Hills and followed us all season. Hopefully, we kept his spirits up. It’s heavy hearts here for a guy who’s done so much. It’s sad to lose him so young. He’s a big part of Penn Hills, Pitt and a legend throughout Western Pennsylvania.”
A big part who is a bigger loss. Farewell to Bill Fralic, a larger-than-life legend gone far too soon.
Note: This story was updated to correct Mark May winning the Outland Trophy.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.