Gino Marchetti was one of the greatest defensive ends in pro football history. Most historians rate him in the top four, along with Reggie White, Deacon Jones, and Bruce Smith. Selected to eleven straight Pro Bowls, Marchetti only missed playing in one Pro Bowl due to injury. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972.
As a high school senior, Marchetti joined the Army. According to Marchetti, “They had a program there that if you joined the service, they would give me my [high school] diploma. One day after school, I drove over to Pittsburgh and I joined. I was only 17 or 18.” Marchetti continued, “I was in the 69th Infantry Division, the 273rd Regiment, 4th Platoon. I was a machine-gunner, and our company was the first company to make contact with Russian soldiers during the end of the war.”
After the war, Marchetti still had the itch to play football. He formed a semi-pro team called the Hornets in his hometown of Antioch, California. He elaborated, “When I got out of the service in 1946, I still had an urge to play football, but I could not go to college to play football. I really was not good enough. Me and my buddies from Antioch High [School] got together and formed a semi-pro team. We started playing local teams around the Bay area and Antioch, just to play. It was a lot of fun and good experience.”
That lasted for about a year, until he had a chance to go to Modesto Junior College. Marchetti said, “This is interesting. We were going to play San Rafael on one Sunday afternoon. I was driving a ’41 Chevy. It only held three passengers. I took my brother with me. At that time, he was a hell of a lot better football player that I was. Also, a receiver by the name of Nick Rodriguez, who was an excellent football player. There were three of us. We were driving out of town and I happened to look up Seventh Street to see my house and saw someone there. We stopped at the house to see who it was. It was a coach from Modesto Junior College named Josh and a line coach named Stan Pafko. They really wanted my brother and Nick to go. That is who they were trying to recruit. We were sitting around and they were talking to them about going to Modesto. They said that they would be interested in going. Everyone started to leave the room and all of a sudden, this guy Stan Pafko comes up to me and says to me in a joking way, ‘You look like you are big enough, why don’t you tag along?’ I said, ‘I just might do that.’ On the way up, I talked about it with my brother and Nick, and I decided to go. When we got there, Nick and my brother made first string after the first week. Then, we had a home game. I hadn’t played a lick. I started to improve. The defensive tackle got hurt. I got in and never went out. I played well enough in the game. The coach called me in and said that I will be starting at left defensive tackle. I stayed there and I finished the season.”
Marchetti’s football luck continued, “I then went home and I was going to stay home. I was working for my brother as a bartender. One afternoon around three o’clock, a guy came in. I served him a beer. He then asked, ‘Do you know a kid by the name of Gino Marchetti?’ I said, ‘Yeah. Why?’ He said, ‘I am interested in giving him a scholarship to the University of San Francisco.’ I will never forget it. I was smoking a cigarette. I threw it on the ground. They didn’t care if you smoked a cigar. I said, ‘That’s me.’ So, we talked and he said, ‘Come up and look around and let me know if you would be interested.’” Marchetti continued, “I drove up to San Francisco, which was about 40 miles from where I lived. I saw Brad Lynn again and he took me in to see Joe Kuharich. So, Brad Lynn told me after his meeting with Kuharich that Kuharich said, ‘Where did you get that hookie? He don’t know nothing about football.’ Brad talked him into bringing me up there. So, I went up there. They put me in at the first scrimmage. I wasn’t dumb. I knew that they would run away from me to see if I was fast enough, or at me to see if I was strong enough. I did that pretty well. He invited me to stay and I stayed for three years. It was the best time of my life.”
It was the 1951 season that would go down in college football history. The team went undefeated with a 9-0-0 record. That put them into a position for an Orange Bowl bid. Marchetti explained, “We were playing our last game against Loyola. We played our next to last game against the College of the Pacific. Eddie LeBaron was their quarterback. He was a good quarterback and played a few years in the NFL. They were undefeated. The rumor was going around that if we went undefeated, we would get a Bowl bid. We beat them 47-14. The following week, we beat Loyola 20-2. That gave us an undefeated season.”
However, attitudes at the time, especially in the South, were still racially divisive. According to Marchetti, “It came back that we would not get invited to a Bowl game unless we left the black players home. We had six or seven on the team, but the two they meant were the best guys you would ever meet. One was Burl Toler and the other was Ollie Matson. I said ‘Hell no!!’ I served in the Army with Burl and he was one of my best friends on the team. So, we voted it out. The thing that I love the most about it, nobody complained about it. I never heard to this day, nobody ever said ‘Hey, do you ever wonder how things would have turned out if we had changed our vote?’ Never thought about it for a minute, because I would never do that. Nobody on that team ever said that they regretted the decision that we had made. It was 100 percent in favor of not playing. So, we didn’t go. I went home and went back to work.”
That team is famous for other reasons, as well. Eight players from that team went on to play pro football. Five of them earned Pro Bowl nominations and three were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Also, athletic news director Pete Rozelle became one of the most influential commissioners in NFL history. Burl Toler became the first African-American referee in the NFL and officiated games for almost 25 years.
Marchetti never really considered playing professional football. “I never had a thought when the 49ers played at Kezar Stadium. I was not that big, really. I was 6’4” or 6’5”, but I only weighed 215 [pounds]. What I had going for me was I had the desire, that’s for damn sure. I was also fast and strong for a guy that weighed 215.”
However, he received a chance when he was drafted by the Dallas Texans in 1952. Some consider the Texans to be an offshoot of the New York Yanks, who folded in 1951. That is an easy assumption to make, since thirteen of the Yanks players made it to the Texans’ roster. However, Yanks owner Ted Collins sold his franchise back to the league for $100,000 after the 1951 season. The league then awarded a franchise to Dallas. Halfway through the 1952 season, the owners gave the franchise back to the NFL. To confuse things even more, When Baltimore was awarded a franchise in 1953, they were awarded a NEW franchise, not the Dallas franchise. However, they were awarded all of the players, even though only twelve of them played for the Colts that inaugural season.
Marchetti discussed his time with the Texans: “I was so excited about going to play professional football. However, I went to the most disorganized camp in the world. The equipment manager burned all of the ankle wraps. He didn’t know what they were. We didn’t practice for six or seven weeks. When [head coach] Jimmy Phelan called practice, we really didn’t practice. We would play volleyball – with a football – over the goal posts. Two-hand touch. We did a lot of running and fooling around, but I never saw a professional film. I am thinking, ‘Is this really professional football?’” Marchetti continued, “I had just gotten married and I was thinking about giving it up, because that is not what I expected. We only had three coaches. The trainer was the line coach. If you got hurt, you went to see the line coach.”
However, not all memories were bad from his days with the Texans: “The first touchdown I ever scored was in the Coliseum. Some of the old guys hid, because they did not want to go in and possibly get hurt. So, Phelan turned around and asked, ‘Who here can play tight end?’ So, I raised my goddamn hand. He said, ‘Come here. Go in for [Stan Williams],’ who had gotten hurt. The quarterback was Hank Lauricella. I went in the huddle and Hank said, ‘What are we going to call?’ I said, ‘Well, we have been practicing that thing where you throw the ball up as high as you can and as far as you can. I’ll chase it. They may not cover me, because I just play defense. We ran the play. The ball bounced around. I caught it and scored a touchdown. I was as happy as can be. The announcer said, ‘Touchdown. Six points by Gino Marchetti.’ I felt pretty good. Then, I heard the announcer say, ‘And now, the score is L.A. 42, Dallas 6.’ We were so bad, but that was one of my good experiences.”
After a miserable 1-11 season with the Texans, Marchetti moved to the Baltimore Colts. Marchetti commented that compared to the Texans, “It was better.” However, head coach Keith Molesworth placed Marchetti at offensive left tackle. He commented, “I started one year in Baltimore under Molesworth. I was the most unhappy guy the whole year, but I played the position. He had planned on me playing it the next year, but he got fired and Weeb [Ewbank] came in. Weeb saw some film and said I was going to be third on the depth chart at defensive end. I felt so good there, I am not sure that if he had asked me to go back there, that I would have. At tackle, I would have been small. At defensive end, I was small, but big guys never scared me. I was quick and agile. Playing tackle helped me become a better defensive player. I would think about all the guys that I blocked against. [Norman] ‘Wildman’ Willey. Goddammit, that guy must have thrown me around like a baseball. I took everything down, including what hurt me the most. I practiced stuff that would help me against guys like that. I had to neutralize his speed. I played against Don Joyce. He was easy. Why was he easy? He just tried to bowl me over. He wouldn’t give me moves. The guys that would give me moves were trouble. When I went back to defensive end, I tried to learn new moves and study the film to see what would help me.”
Marchetti continued his comments on Ewbank: “When it really got good was when Weeb Ewbank came in. He was on the Cleveland Browns’ staff. He was so organized, I couldn’t believe it. Everything, we had to write down. How to tackle. How to block. The right way to position your feet. The position of your hands. We had to keep notebooks. We had to show him that we took all of the notes, then he would let you go to town or do what you wanted to do on your day off. That was a shock. I joked with Fatso (Art Donovan), that if I had done this at USF (University of San Francisco), I would have graduated. Our meetings were an hour-and-a-half in the morning and an hour-and-a-half in the evening. There were two-a-day practices. He worked you.”
Under Ewbank, the Colts continually improved and won championships in 1958 and 1959. The 1958 game has been called “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Marchetti commented, “To be honest, it wasn’t the ‘Greatest Game Ever Played. I think that it was the most important game played in the NFL. People like to say it was the Greatest Game, but it really wasn’t.” There were 17 Hall of Famers in some way associated with that game, from players to coaches to owners.
Unfortunately for Marchetti, he did not see the entire game. He sustained an injury late in the fourth quarter. He commented, “Usually, they leave me alone on sweeps. It was about a minute and 10 seconds left. If they punt it, then we get a chance. If they do not kick it and we stop them, we really had a chance. They decided not to kick it. When they were going around, I happened to be there and made the tackle. Then, ‘Big Daddy’ [Lipscomb] comes across and he didn’t want the guy to go an inch further. He drives him. Today, they call it ‘head spearing.’ He stopped him, but also broke my ankle. It was a guy on my own team that broke my ankle. Then Frank Gifford yelled, ‘Get up Marchetti. God dammit. The play is over. Get up. Get up.’ I said, I can’t get up. I can’t walk.’ I couldn’t. Now every time I see him, he tells me that he made the first down. They proved it. They took us to New York and showed us how he made it. They did a hell of a job. So, every time he says that he made the first down, you know what I tell him? ‘Hey, who got the ring?’ That shuts him up pretty quick.”
When asked about why it was so important to be on the field to see the game, Marchetti joked, “I played on such shitty teams.” He continued, “It was so much fun to be out there. I may never get here again. I wanted to see whether they won or lost. They wouldn’t let me. In sudden death, they put me in a stretcher and walked me around to the other side of the field. I told them to put me down. I saw the kickoff. The next thing I knew, they had about four or five policemen around me. They took me in. I said, ‘Why? I ain’t hurting nobody.’ They said, ‘Just think of it. If the Colts win, we will never get you off the field.’ They were probably right.”
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