Not many collegiate and professional football players have experienced what Joseph Righetti did in a relative short period of time.
At Waynesburg University, Righetti was an All-American defensive lineman and an integral part of an NAIA national champion football team in 1966. He also was a two-time national wrestling placewinner and held Waynesburg’s shot put record.
Righetti was drafted in the sixth round by the Cleveland Browns in the 1969 draft, the 150th pick overall. He played in the last NFL Championship game that year, then in the first Monday Night Football game a year later when the Browns hosted the New York Jets and quarterback Joe Namath.
A Beth-Center graduate, Righetti is one the most accomplished athletes in school history.
He played 23 games for the Browns before injuries shortened his career.
Righetti coached high school football for nine years after his professional career ended and worked as a teacher at Whippany Park High School in New Jersey.
He likes to talk about his teammates, one in particularly at Beth-Center. He and Mickey Davis were line mates for the Bulldogs – Davis was a starting guard and teamed with Righetti, who played tackle.
“We both went on to college and made All-American,” Righetti said. “I like to talk about my teammates, and I really thought what Mickey and I did in college was special.”
Righetti (Waynesburg) and Davis (Findlay College) also were named to their respective college’s athletic Halls of Fame.
Righetti is also a member of the Washington-Greene County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.
Righetti joined Waynesburg teammate, receiver Don Herrmann, in the NFL. Hermann was a 15th round pick in 1969 by the New York Giants. He also played for New Orleans.
Interestingly, the men are brothers-in-law. Righetti married Herrmann’s sister – meeting her at Herrmann’s wedding.
The Bright Lights
Last season, Monday Night Football celebrated its 50th season. It’s a far different production and game compared with Sept. 21, 1970.
ABC Sports hired controversial New York City sportscaster Howard Cosell as a commentator, along with veteran football play-by-play announcer Keith Jackson. ABC’s original choice for the third member of the trio, was Frank Gifford, but he was unavailable since he was under contract to CBS Sports. However, Gifford suggested former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith, a maverick and entertaining soul, who set the stage for years of fireworks between the often-pompous Cosell and the laid-back and free-spirited Meredith.
The first MNF game brought ABC $65,000 per minute for advertisers and the station netted 33 percent of the viewing audience.
The Browns defeated the Jets, 31–21, in a game which featured a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by the Browns’ Homer Jones to open the second half. Billy Andrews picked off former Super Bowl champion quarterback Joe Namath in the fourth quarter and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown to seal the victory for Cleveland.
“We were excited as a team,” Righetti said. “It had never been done before, but it also meant no day off that week, Monday was usually an off day.
“There were no days off the week prior to the game and the last exhibition game was away. We were getting anxious to play the game. The crowd was huge, and when we came out of the (the Cleveland Municipal Stadium) dugout, there was Cosell doing an interview or something.”
The 1970 season was marred by a strike. The two leagues (NFL and AFL) had merged. The schedules were different and the Browns, Steelers and then Baltimore Colts had moved to the AFC.
“We would play many teams that we usually did not,” Righetti said. “I don’t remember doing anything different for the (MNF) game. Guys just did what they always did to prepare for the game. We did watch a great deal of film on them since we never played them before.”
Once it was time to play that milestone game, Righetti was full of anticipation.
“I remember vividly (Browns Coach) Blanton Collier saying to us as we were about to go to start the game,” he said. “We are the only game on in the whole country, and to ‘don’t embarrass yourselves.’ Then we went out. It was the first time I ever played against the Jets. Namath was a huge presence and all of us wanted to sack him.
“Who knew then it would turn out to be the thing to do on Monday night for many years to come?”
Frozen in time
In his rookie season of 1969, Righetti and the Browns were one win away from earning a spot in the Super Bowl but the Minnesota Vikings stood in the way.
Cleveland had to travel to Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota for the last NFL championship game before the merger.
The Vikings dominated in a 27-7 victory. It was the 37th and final championship game prior to the AFL-NFL merger.
Minnesota was making its first championship game appearance while the Browns were in their second straight championship game and fourth of the 1960s. The Vikings had beaten the Browns, 51-3, during the regular season.
The Browns featured quarterback Bill Nelsen and wide receivers Paul Warfield and Gary Collins.
While not as bitter as the fabled ‘Ice Bowl’ of 1967, the temperature was 8 °F (−13 °C), with a sub-zero wind-chill factor. Cleveland linebacker Jim Houston suffered frostbite during the game and was hospitalized.
According to Righetti, he wasn’t the only one who suffered from the cold.
“The NFL championship game followed our win over Dallas the previous week, there were no wild card games then,” Righetti said. “It was brutally cold. They had large flamethrowers trying to thaw the field, but there was no way. It was frozen and you really couldn’t get any traction, but it was the same for both teams, and they beat us badly.
“I broke my hand the first play of the game but because of the cold I thought it was just bruised. After the game, when we started to get warm, my hand ballooned, and the doctor set it and put it in a cast.
“The game was a disappointment because we were so close to going to Super Bowl IV.”
The Waynesburg Experience
Righetti wanted to attend West Virginia University, but the Mountaineers wanted him to attend a junior college, and play there two years before coming to Morgantown, WV.
‘My dad said no,” Righetti said. “Mo Scarry was the head football coach at Waynesburg. There was much more interest in me as a wrestler than a football player.
“If any one man changed my life, other than my dad, it was Mo. Anything I did in football, I owe to him. My main problem as I look back was that I was 17 and really needed to mature. Later in life, my relatives told me I was a real handful for my mother, so she got me in first grade when I was 5-years-old.
The late Michael “Mo” Scarry played at Waynesburg and went on to the Cleveland Rams in the NFL. He stayed in Cleveland to play for the Browns under head coach Paul Brown. Scarry coached many places, including the Washington Redskins (1966-68) and Miami Dolphins (1970-1985).
“Mo was a tough hard-nosed coach,” Righetti said. “His nickname among the players was “Face” because he would get about two inches from your face mask and yell or instruct you on the finer points of being a defensive lineman.
The 1965 season set the stage for the memorable 1966 NAIA championship.
“I had never seen anybody like Joe until I got to college,” Herrmann said. “He came in and Mo saw something in him. He made Joe work. He made Joe put in extra time. One day he told everyone they could get off the field and then he said: ‘Joe Righetti, come on back.’ ”
“Joe started his freshman year at nose guard. He was a tremendous player for us. We had a great defense and the run stoppage was tremendous. Joe was always dominating the person across from him, and it was not just one guy. They would double or triple team him and he would still manage to get in the backfield and disrupt a lot of plays. He made everybody else’s job easier. He always was up to the task no matter who he played against.”
The Jimmy’s and Joe
• About Wrestling: “I really liked wrestling for the fact that it was you against an opponent. No excuses. The wrestling team was small. I know we were nationally ranked for a couple years. I was able to place in the nationals my sophomore and junior years.
• On making 18 tackles in a game against Muskingham: “I remember Mo teaching me ‘how to play the piano’ as he called it. That is to move to both your right and left to make a play. I was over the center and could go in both directions, they kept running the ball between the tackles and I guess I just got to the right place.”
• Learning on the NFL job: “Marvin Upshaw, was a defensive end and the No. 1 draft choice the previous year, he showed me the ropes. Lou Groza was our kicking coach and all rookies had to go out before practice started and shag kicks. I was assigned to him and we talked every day about anything and everything. When everyone was practicing the second week, the coaches wanted us to use the techniques we had learned the previous week. I was playing over future Hall of Fame guard, Gene Hickerson, who I really didn’t know who he was. I gave him probably the best head slap I ever did and got around him to make the play. On my way back he quietly walked up to me and said: ‘If you ever do that again, I’ll break your leg.’ I believed him and never head slapped Gene again.
• “In retrospect, there were many people that helped encourage me. My hometown of Fredericktown was great. People came to games in bus loads and were always a tremendous means of support for me. I could not have had a better place to grow up.”