The lone bright spot of the Cleveland Browns’ abysmal 1-15 season was the emergence of wide receiver Terrelle Pryor. The 1,000-yard passer turned 1,000-yard receiver gave the Dawg Pound at least a couple of reasons to wag their beaten-down tails. Pryor, from Jeannette, is in the conversation for the best all-around athlete to ever come out of Western Pennsylvania, and that’s saying something. It’s a far greater distinction than being the best athlete from eastern North Dakota. And yes, the Browns have a hold of him — you’re welcome, Cleveland. But Pryor is just one of the many contributions that Westmoreland County has made to the rest of the country.
If you’ve ever eaten a banana split or watched Mister Rogers Neighborhood, you can thank our neighbors to the east. A town in Ohio once tried to claim the invention of the famous ice-cream delight, but a panel of dessert historians ruled against them. And while Fred Rogers is often named among the Steel City’s favorite sons, he was born in Latrobe, in Westmoreland County. And speaking of Latrobe, it’s also the very well-known August home of Steelers Nation, and used to be the home of Rolling Rock beer. In 2006, Anheuser-Busch bought the company and moved it to New Jersey, the land of tanning beds and gold-chain-wearing lunkheads.
Other famous people who have called the county home include Shirley Jones, of The Partridge Family, and well-known actress Frances McDormand, who played the pregnant Police Chief Marge Gunderson, who finds Peter Storemare shoving Steve Buscemi into that infamous wood-chipper in Fargo. But you didn’t come here to talk about Coen brothers films. Back to sports.
The county’s sports royalty starts at the top with the legendary Arnold Palmer. His 62 PGA wins rank him fifth all-time in golf history. The late Palmer knocked the stuffiness out of the elitist game and opened it up to the common man. He was the first star of the new era of golf on television, and is still the only golfer to be bestowed with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Former heavyweight boxing champ Michael Moorer, who grew up in Monessen, compiled a 52-4-1 record in the sweet science. Moorer won the heavyweight title three times and is one of four men to ever do so, along with Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield and Muhammad Ali.
Everyone knows that football rules Western Pennsylvania, and Westmoreland County is no exception. Youngwood-born George Blanda is a member of the Hall of Fame and played from 1949-1975 as both a quarterback and a kicker. His 26-year NFL career has never been duplicated. When he finally retired after playing through six presidential administrations, he had accumulated 2,002 points, a record that stood for more than 20 years. Quarterback Willie Thrower, of New Kensington, was known for his cannon-like arm, which could fire the football 70 yards in the air. He won a national championship with Michigan State in 1952, and played QB for the Chicago Bears the following year, making him the first African-American quarterback in the NFL. Valley High School in New Kensington has a statue in his honor.
Former Pitt lineman and pro football Hall of Famer Russ Grimm graduated from Southmoreland High School; he won three Super Bowls as a player under Joe Gibbs in Washington, D.C., and added a fourth ring as a coach for the Steelers in 2005. Local fans also know Dick Hoak, the former Steelers running back who went on to coach for the team for 35 years.
Buddy Jeannette is not from Jeannette, but it’d be a lot cooler if he were. Jeannette, from New Kensington, is easily the county’s best basketball player, competing during the pre-NBA days of the NBL. He later had success as a coach for the Baltimore Bullets and the Pittsburgh Pipers of the ABA and, oh yeah, a stint helming the Georgetown Hoyas.
The county even boasts a hockey player who came along at a time when America simply didn’t make hockey players. Lower Burrell’s Pete Babando helped the Detroit Red Wings raise Lord Stanley in 1950 by scoring the game-winner in double-overtime of Game 7.