By the Gargantuan standards of the 21st-century National Football League, Gino Marchetti, who died April 29, was undersized at 6-foot-4 and a mere 245 pounds. But he was arguably the greatest pass rusher in pro football history. The official record, 22 and a half quarterback “sacks” over sixteen games, was recorded by Michael Strahan in 2001. But a review of a year’s game film by Baltimore Colts coaches, before the “sack” stat (tackling a quarterback behind the line of scrimmage before he could throw a pass) was officially kept, once disclosed 43 sacks by Gino in a twelve-game season.
Whatever the record books show, however, Gino Marchetti was a big man in several ways.
His parents were impoverished Italian immigrants who set up a bar in Antioch, California. By his own account, Gino, born in 1926, was “a little wild.” And after a “certain difficulty” with a high school teacher, he made the prudential judgment that enlisting in the Army was preferable to what awaited him at home: “I figured I could either face the Germans or I could face my father.” He made it to Europe in time to fight in the endgame of the Battle of the Bulge and stayed with the 69th Infantry Division until V-E Day.
This XL-size vet with the flowing, jet-black hair then hung around Antioch for a while, riding a Harley in a black leather jacket (“seventeen zippers,” he later recalled) and working as a bartender while playing some junior college football. A smart recruiter then asked whether he wanted to play at the University of San Francisco (then both Catholic and Jesuit), and a legend was born.
The 1951 San Francisco Dons were a great team in an era when college football easily bested the NFL in fan interest. Ten of those Dons went on to pro careers and three are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They were unbeaten and untied, but more to the point, they were “uninvited” to a big post-season bowl—not because of a lack of talent but because of an excess of character, much of it embodied by Gino Marchetti.
Three of the big bowls—Orange, Cotton, and Gator—wanted the Dons, but on condition that they leave their two star black players, Ollie Matson and Burt Toler, back in San Francisco. After their last regular-season game, Coach Joe Kuharik told the team, “We can play in a big Southern bowl game or stay home. It’s up to you.” Marchetti, according to legend, said, “[Expletive deleted] the big Southern bowl games.”
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