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Playing for Paterno
One Coach, Two Eras A Father's and Son's Personal Recollections of Playing for JoePa
By Charlie Pittman, Tony Pittman, Jae Bryson
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2007 Charlie Pittman, Tony Pittman, and Jae Bryson
All rights reserved.
Introducing the Pittmans
"I had no intention of going by the name Charlie after my playing days were over," says Charles Pittman, senior vice-president of Schurz Communications, Inc. "I didn't want to be known for scoring touchdowns."
If he did choose to use that as a calling card, his 33 touchdowns and career 4.9 yards average per rushing attempt would be among the top efforts at Penn State. Baltimore-born Charlie Pittman led the Nittany Lions in rushing for three straight years and was the top rusher (706 yards on 149 carries and 10 touchdowns) in a historic 1969 backfield that also included Hall of Famer Franco Harris and NFL Pro Bowl player Lydell Mitchell.
His son Tony proved just as dangerous on the other side of the ball. For those in the know, Penn State's 1994 football team was an offensive juggernaut that featured stars Ki-Jana Carter and Kerry Collins. Pittman's unit wasn't on the glamorous side of the ball in 1994, but his cerebral play at cornerback led to a respectable 39 tackles and an interception, following up a 1993 campaign in which he led the Nittany Lions with five interceptions. Like his father, he was undefeated in every game he started.
Their family legacy begins at 824 Appleton Street in west Baltimore, young Charlie Pittman's hometown.
Jean Pittman's husband, Charlie James Pittman, was always at work in the steel mills, so it was up to her to run herd on her children, especially her second born, Charles Vernon. The child was always fidgety; he seemed forever on the move. It was a lucky thing her oldest, Rosalind, just 10 months older than Charles Vernon — an Irish twin — was so precocious. It gave her another pair of eyes to keep watch over Junior and younger brother Jerome.
Charlie was a good student with very good grades, but most of all, he loved running. He ran to school. He ran to the library, the store, and everywhere he could.
He made a game of running as fast as he could on the edge of a curb to see how long he could go before losing his balance and falling off. While other 15-year-olds were outgrowing imaginary friends, he began inventing imaginary tacklers who would force him to swerve and spin as he ran. Or he would dodge cars or pick up cans as he ran. Baltimore police officers once ran after him because they thought he was doing something wrong. He wasn't. He was just running like he always did.
He was the running man of the family and the neighborhood. Rosalind was the smart one; she soaked up knowledge like a sponge and challenged Charlie to do better in school. Their brother Jerome was the quiet one; he studied voraciously. He would later earn valedictory honors at his high school.
The Pittmans were living through tough times. Around the close-knit family, the city of Baltimore had begun a precipitous decline that would make it one of the most dangerous cities in the United States by the end of the century.
Like many other west Baltimore families, there were times the few dollars they made were not enough to cover all their basic needs. There were a few winters when money was too tight to pay the heating bill, so the power company shut it off until it was paid. One of Rosalind's teachers chose that time to visit their cold, dark house to ask Mrs. Pittman to allow Rosalind to participate in a citywide spelling bee. Charlie knew it would be good for his big sister; he considered her the smartest person he knew. The teacher also thought highly of Rosalind and believed she could win the contest.
"No, Rosalind's not going to be in a spelling bee," Jean Pittman said. "She doesn't have nice clothes to wear for something like that."
Rosalind's disappointment welled up in her eyes and slid down her cheeks.
That's just not fair, Charlie thought. It seemed to him that Rosalind always had to sacrifice more than her younger brothers. He didn't care for spelling bees, but it was competition, and he wanted his sister to experience that joy.
He couldn't get enough competition. He lived for it. A few years later, in the late summer of 1963, his love of competition would set him down a path that would take him places far beyond their little house on Appleton.
"Bruh Boy, did you bring something to read from school today?" Mrs. Pittman asked, calling him by his family nickname. Charlie, who loved to read, had no reading assignments.
"No? Well, go get the newspaper, then," she said.
All of the Pittman kids knew the rules. After school, they had just a little time to play, and then their mother called them in to do their night's reading. If she asked, they had to discuss the day's schoolwork with her. If they had no schoolbooks, they had to read a newspaper or a magazine. Outside, the sounds of screeching children could still be heard as they played freeze tag, stickball, or just plain raced down the street. It seemed like the noise got louder — as if to taunt them — when they had to come in.
"Yes, ma'am," Charlie replied.
It was all he could do to stop from grinning as he read his newspaper. Charlie, as his friends called him, was a thin, raw-boned boy, tall for his age, with light eyes and big hands. He looked like he was moving even when he was standing still. On that day, the second day of football tryouts for Edmondson High School, Charlie officially became a football player! He ran faster than he ever had before to accomplish the feat, because on the first day of tryouts, he had missed the cut.
Anyone who knew him understood that meant he would move heaven and earth to make sure it didn't happen again. He couldn't resist a challenge.
His cash-strapped inner-city high school had a Darwinian method for selecting its players. Coach Augie Waibel only chose as many players as he had uniforms. The tryouts were without pads.
Seeing Charlie's evasive moves, which left defenders grabbing at air, he knew he had a keeper. "Get that boy a uniform!" he shouted to the equipment manager.
The Edmondson Redskins varsity never lost a game during Charlie's junior and senior years. At the end of his senior season, state high school officials presented him with a red and white football symbolizing his status as the Maryland high school football state scoring champion.
Yet football wasn't even his favorite sport. He liked football and basketball, but baseball was his love. He was a deadly infielder with quick hands, and his speed around the bases made each hit a headache for the opposing team.
Sure, Charlie could see the near horizon of his future; he'd get a job in the steel mills like his father and bring home $100 a week and raise his own family. But for right now, he could play ball almost all year long to his heart's content. And it did make him content.
Charlie lived for the challenges of sport; he played to win and he couldn't fathom the concept of playing not to lose. Football gave him answers to the questions that continually popped up in his mind: Am I faster than that guy? Can I leap that trash can? On the football field he learned the outer limits of his body's capabilities.
But it was on the baseball diamond that he learned what it meant to compete.
One summer, Charlie James went to see his son's all-black team play for the city championship against a white team. Young Charlie was playing first base when the white team's batter smashed a line drive between second and third bases. A critical double play was coming his way. A low throw from the shortstop squirted past his glove and the other team went on to win the state championship. After the game, his father called him over.
"Do you know why you lost that game?" his father asked.
"Because the shortstop threw the ball too low?" Charlie answered.
"No," his father replied. "You lost the game, Charles, because you missed the ball. 'The ball's too low' is an excuse, son. The ball can never get too low. You needed to field it."
From that day on, Charlie promised himself never to make excuses for his performances.
But it was Charlie's talents on the football field that were getting him noticed by a number of colleges. Though he expected to be working in a steel mill by the summer of 1966, suddenly he had opportunities to go to college. Notre Dame, Ohio State, Maryland, and Penn State were all interested in having him matriculate. They weren't alone in paying attention to him.
He was a legend at Edmondson: 35th out of 1,001 students academically; Parade Magazine High School All-American; Maryland Scoring Champion; High School Scholar-Athlete Award recipient, captain of the football team; and voted Most Likely to Succeed by his fellow students.
But it had all happened in the space of a few years. He still hadn't shaken the notion that he would be working in a steel mill in a year or two. And an aptitude test that he had taken and flunked worried him. Would he be able to cut it at a big college?
His English teacher, Mrs. Stella Gersek, tried to prepare him. Charlie was a special project for her, but not because of his athletic prowess. With classes full of teenagers who bragged loudly about their intimate knowledge of the street corners and seedy hangouts of west Baltimore, she knew Charlie and Rosalind were different. Even more, she was impressed by Jean Pittman's fierce protectiveness of her children. She knew the first-year English class was one of a college student's biggest challenges. She took it upon herself to at least try and prepare Charlie for what to expect.
Adults were making it their business to get to know Charlie to "help" him, but he had no clue how this thing, this whole recruiting process, worked. His parents didn't know what to do about it, so they washed their hands of it and went about their lives; there was no one in the neighborhood he could go to and talk about it. With nowhere else to turn to when the recruiters came by, he asked his girlfriend Mauresé, who years later would become his wife, to help him with the strange etiquette and protocols of the fancy restaurants they took him to.
When it came time to choose a school, one of his athletic heroes, Lenny Moore, dominant as a running back at Penn State back in the '50s, played a factor in his final selection. He told Penn State coach Rip Engle he had narrowed his choice to Lou Saban's Maryland program or Penn State. Engle sent his running backs coach, George Welsh, to recruit Charlie, and Welsh returned with a verbal commitment from him.
But a short time later, Engle announced he was retiring after the 1965 season. He telephoned Charlie to break the news that a guy named Joe Paterno would be the new coach that fall.
Charlie wanted none of it.
"If I'm coming to Penn State," he said, "I'm playing for Rip Engle. I don't know anything about Joe Paterno. So I'm not coming."
After he got off the phone, he called Saban to tell him he would be attending Maryland.
Within minutes, Engle called back with Paterno on the line. Engle swore Paterno, an old quarterback, would be a great coach for him and that he'd create a stable program. Charlie remained unconvinced.
The next day, when he called Saban again to talk more about the situation, the Maryland coach made a fatal miscalculation.
Sensing that the deal was almost closed, Saban dangled a carrot in front of Charlie.
"You'll start at Maryland as a sophomore," Saban said. "If you go to Penn State, do you really think you'll be able to start as a sophomore?"
In that instant, Charlie knew where he had to go: Penn State. Saban had inadvertently painted his own program as second-rate.
* * *
When Charlie Pittman made the long car ride into Happy Valley, the nickname for State College, Pennsylvania, where Penn State is located, he felt as if he were slipping into a different dimension. The Nittany Mountains surrounded the bucolic campus and African American people — not just African American students — were hard to find. Less than one percent of the students were black. Worse still, on the football field, there were All-Americans and All-State athletes coming out of the woodwork.
Charlie roomed with Jim Kates of Plainfield, New Jersey. Kates was a linebacker, and the two were Paterno's first African American recruits. To have them tell it, it seemed they were the only black people on the 15,000-student campus.
Not everyone could handle such a profound change. Fred Rush, whom Charlie would meet years later in Erie, was a walk-on for the team. Rush, a gregarious young Pennsylvania native, was also black and would later joke that he went out for the football team to get girls but ran into a little problem.
"I was a decent player in high school," Rush recalls. "But I realized after I walked on at Penn State that you eventually have to get to crunch time — when the hitting starts. I swear I heard a coach tell some guy to hit me and break me into pieces. And the guy says, with this big, blank stare, 'Do you want me to hit him and break him into little pieces or big pieces?' He was serious! About that time, I decided to walk off."
Charlie had spent the summer running, in an effort to get a head start on his freshman year. He never lifted weights. The workout he devised for himself was devilishly simple. He would run a full-out 100-yard sprint and time himself. After running 10 or 15 of these sprints, his objective was to run at least one of the last sprints as fast as his best time. Tired and dripping sweat, he pushed himself to equal his fastest time. All the while, the words "fourth quarter" echoed in his mind.
He thought he was ready for anything, but when he walked onto the practice field for the first time, he heard a sound he'd never heard before — college-level hits in an empty stadium. These were hard, violent-sounding noises that rolled through the empty bleachers. If he was going to be spending time at the center of that cacophony, he wanted to have the proper equipment.
Being hit was not the problem; he just couldn't abide being lost in the shuffle. In the 1960s, college rules forbade freshmen from playing on varsity teams, so he was stuck with freshman coach Earl Bruce, dozens of other guys looking for a varsity spot the next year, and a whopping two games to showcase his skills. The right equipment was essential — he needed the perfect number for his jersey.
"When I first went out for the team, they gave me jersey No. 17," Pittman recalls. "I told the equipment manager that nobody great ever wore No. 17. I told him, 'I don't want it. I want a better number than that.' Lenny Moore was my idol and they gave me his number — No. 24. At the time, he was the greatest runner in Penn State history. Even though he wore 42 in college, he wore 24 as a pro. He wore spats; I wore spats. He was an NFL scoring champion; I was the Maryland scoring champion. I was very satisfied with that number."
Eighteen-year-old Charlie was set to create his destiny. But one more thing was needed. He would have to face the adversity most college athletes face — and it wasn't the realization that his competition vastly improved in the jump from high school. Bigger and stronger was a given; the winning edge at Penn State meant finding a way to excel in the classroom, too.
The classroom challenges that Mrs. Gersek had warned him about were even more arduous than he expected.
Luckily, his English professor was intrigued by him. Obviously intelligent, Charlie had a strange way of composing his assignments.
"You write exactly the way you talk," she said. His inner-city Baltimore accent placed him at a disadvantage in a writing composition class, so the instructor took it upon herself to tutor him. Occasionally, Mrs. Gersek would even write him to offer advice and encouragement.
Charlie also feared his speech class, Speech 200 by course name. In fact, he was too terrified to finish his first speech in front of his classmates. Again his instructor came to the rescue, allowing his first several speeches to be made in private.
"How can you play football in front of a crowd of thousands and then get flustered by a speech in front of a room of people?" the instructor teased.
Charlie was nearing his wits' end. Struggling with tough coursework, buried on the depth chart as a third-string running back, he confided in his roomate Jim Kates that it didn't seem fair. None of it.
As much as he grumbled, his legs still worked fine. In practice, he noticed he was outrunning and outperforming everyone else in the offensive backfield. For the benefit of Coach Bruce, on every practice play that he could he ran the ball into the end zone, for ... illustrative purposes. Charlie was a raw ball carrier; he ran with two arms cradling the ball, resembling nothing so much as a speedy fireman rushing a baby out of a burning building.
One bright spot for him was that he was regularly called up to work with the varsity's scout team. His job was to run in a fashion similar to the star running back the varsity would face that week. He was able to spend time emulating Mel Farr of UCLA, Floyd Little of Syracuse, and Clint Jones of Michigan State.
Still, Coach Bruce was unmoved.
"Pittman, your stance is lousy!" he'd bark during freshman practice. It was too much for Charlie to bear.
Excerpted from Playing for Paterno by Charlie Pittman, Tony Pittman, Jae Bryson. Copyright © 2007 Charlie Pittman, Tony Pittman, and Jae Bryson. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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