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Obituary: Fran Rogel / Running back for Penn State, Steelers

Wednesday, June 05, 2002

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Football fans in the 1950s never knew when they chanted "Hey diddle diddle, Rogel up the middle" they were describing more than a favorite play in the Steelers' arsenal.

It could have been the title of a biography of Fran Rogel, a man who went from local high school legend to Penn State and Steelers star, a football player who dived into the middle of life and NFL defensive lines with every ounce of fervor in his compact, muscular body.

Mr. Rogel, 74, the Steelers' leading career rusher when retired after the 1957 season, died Monday. He suffered from Parkinson's disease and had recently moved from his farm near Bakerstown to St. Barnabas Nursing Home in Richland.

Bill Priatko, who was Mr. Rogel's Steelers teammate in 1957 and his lifelong friend, thinks the illness may have been a result of Mr. Rogel's battering-ram running style.

"He took so many hits," Priatko said. "The saying at Penn State was that he never heard the whistle, never believed he was down. He's one of the toughest guys, mentally, I've ever been around in my life. He didn't know when to quit. He had so much heart and desire."

Mr. Rogel, a North Braddock native, led Penn State in rushing in 1947, 1948 and 1949 and helped take the Nittany Lions to the Cotton Bowl in 1948. An eighth-round draft pick, he rushed for 3,271 yards from 1950 through 1957, making the Pro Bowl in his final season.

He bought a farm in Butler County during his playing days and continued to work it after his retirement from professional football.

Mr. Rogel coached football at North Braddock Scott High School from 1963 through 1970, compiling a record of 36-25-4 that included an undefeated season in 1965. He became head coach at Highlands High School in 1971 and had a 41-30-8 record in eight seasons there, including the school's first undefeated season in 1976.

Highlands Athletic Director Bill Heasley was an assistant coach under Mr. Rogel in the 1970s.

"We'd scout two games on Saturdays," Heasley said. "We'd scout one, then go back to Fran's farm and get something to eat while he baled hay. Then we'd go scout another game Saturday night."

Said Rudy Celigoi, who also coached with Mr. Rogel: "He'd take kids from the team up to the farm to work in the summer. They got in better shape working on the farm than they would lifting weights.

"You never were in any doubt about what Fran was thinking or how he felt about things. His team loved him. He coached like he played -- he was honest, tough and worked hard."

Quarterback Bobby Layne came to the Steelers from Detroit in 1958, after Mr. Rogel's retirement. But Layne volunteered to his new teammates that Mr. Rogel, a 5-foot-11, 203-pound fullback, was the toughest player he ever saw in the NFL.

The Steelers' late owner, Art Rooney Sr., so admired Mr. Rogel's play that he named one of his thoroughbred race horses Our Man Rogel. Rooney once sent the player a picture of the gray stallion in the winner's circle with a note that read, "I hope Our Man Rogel has a heart as big as our man, Fran Rogel."

Nevertheless, Rooney became increasingly frustrated that his coach, Walt Kiesling, would open every game with the same running play -- the one that prompted fans to chant, "Hey diddle diddle, Rogel up the middle."

Pittsburgh Press sports writer Bob Drum needled Rooney about the predictability of Kiesling's game-opening play selection enough that the owner strongly suggested to his coach that he open a 1956 game at Forbes Field with a pass instead.

Indeed, quarterback Jack Scarbath threw a touchdown pass to Goose McClairen on the first play. But an offsides penalty against the Steelers brought it back. Drum, sitting next to Rooney, said jokingly, "You know, Kies had that guy jump offsides on purpose. He showed you."

After the penalty, Mr. Rogel ran up the middle on the next play, and Rooney said he'd never call a play again.

Defenses might anticipate the Steelers' bread-and-butter play, but that did not mean they could stop it. Mr. Rogel would "run into a brick wall if you told him to," said Jim Boston, the team's equipment manager in the 1950s and later a front-office executive. "He was as tough as they came for his size.

"He didn't have the natural ability [some] athletes have. It was all from his heart ... He was a smart player, knew the game. He gave you 100 percent at all times. He played hurt."

That style of running was good enough to lead the Steelers in rushing six of seven times between 1951 and 1957.

"He was strictly a team player," said Pat Livingston, who covered the Steelers for The Pittsburgh Press. "He didn't care about gaining yards, just putting points on the board -- and didn't care how they got there."

Mr. Rogel, the Steelers' ninth-leading rusher of all-time, suffered countless concussions during his career, but he never missed a game. He played in 96 straight.

Mr. Rogel was a legend while at Scott High School, and Leon Hart was a legend at Turtle Creek, just down the road. But Scott beat Turtle Creek in Mr. Rogel's junior and senior years. He scored the game's only touchdown in one of those games and all three Scott touchdowns in the other. Hart went on to win the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame and played eight years for the Detroit Lions.

Mr. Rogel became a star running back at Penn State during a time in which the Lions were making a transition from the small time to the big.

In October 1998, with Mr. Rogel's health failing, Priatko and Celigoi conducted a benefit for him at Churchill Valley Country Club. They dedicated a plaque to him that night and later installed it at the North Braddock Borough Building. A replica hangs in the Grandview Golf Course restaurant, the site of a former sandlot field on which Mr. Rogel played football and baseball.

"He was very much loved in Pittsburgh," Art Rooney Jr. said. "He was a blue-collar guy among blue-collar people."

Ronald V. Lucas Funeral Home of North Braddock is handling arrangements.

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