John Bristor

John Bristor made the San Francisco 49ers’ opening game roster in 1979.

John Bristor was a full-speed ahead football player and athlete at West Greene High School and Waynesburg College.

That style served him well and allowed him to reach the NFL, if only for one game, in 1979 for the San Francisco 49ers.

Bristor was a standout athlete at West Greene – football, wrestling and track and field with a little basketball thrown in for good measure.

His college football career started at California University, playing for one season under coach Elmo Natali. After his freshman season, Bristor transferred to Waynesburg.

It was with the Yellow Jackets that he forged his reputation as a player capable of competing at the highest level.

“I was a late bloomer,” Bristor said. “I only weighed about 145, 150 pounds and I didn’t have the statistics. I was fortunate to have had really good coaches at West Greene. Larry Piper was like a father to me.

“I didn’t come out of West Greene with any big awards or accolades. But I knew I wasn’t done.”

Bristor was a three-year letterman in football at West Greene. He wrestled for two years, moved to basketball and was the team’s starting point guard for a year before John “Buzz” Walters convinced him to return to wrestling as a senior. Bristor also was an integral part of the Pioneers’ track team.

In addition to his high school coaches, he gives credit to his parents for their undying support and guidance.

“Luckily, I had great parents,” Bristor said. “They supported me.”

Bristor was a quarterback and defensive back at West Greene.

He enjoyed the mental aspect of the game and he, by all accounts, was a ferocious hitter.

“I felt, as far as being a quarterback, I was a student of the game,” Bristor explained. “We had a lot of intelligent players. I was surrounded by smart teammates. These are guys who not only understood the game, they are also guys who went on to do well in their lives.”

Bristor frowns upon his senior football season. Piper did not return as coach in 1972. Bristor said the winless season was a difficult time at best and miserable at worst.

Not having Piper around, certainly negatively impacted his senior football season.

“The worst we should have been my senior year was 8-2,” Bristor said. “That’s the worst. It was an ugly season, very tough to deal with.”

After returning to wrestling, Bristor did not run track his senior season.

He went looking for a college and a spot on a football roster.

After making a trip to Slippery Rock with friend and mentor Bill Tornabene and a visit to California with Piper, Bristor said he seemed to fit with the Vulcans. He was drawn to Natali and had great admiration for the Cal legend.

“Coach Natali just loved me and I loved him,” Bristor said. “I was drawn to him. He gave me an opportunity and I was always thankful for that.”

Bristor ended up starting the last five games of his freshman season. He played safety.

It was all good.

Bristor, however, decided to transfer to Waynesburg and start a new chapter.

“It was good at Cal,” he said. “Maybe I should have stayed.”

A new start

Bristor had high hopes when he joined the Yellow Jackets’ roster. Head coach Hayden Buckley brought him to Waynesburg as a safety. Tornabene, who was an assistant under Buckley, left to take on the head coaching position at Peters Township, Bristor said.

It didn’t take long before Bristor suffered a big disappointment.

“I was brought there to play safety because they said they needed a safety,” Bristor said. “I was moved to right corner. You’re isolated at that position. I liked to be able to run all over the field. It was upsetting.

“I talked to my mom about it. I was ticked and she knew it. I ended up staying. I didn’t get to play the position I went there to play. I thought I was wasted playing there. I was better suited for safety.”

That didn’t stop Bristor from enjoying success at Waynesburg as he helped the Yellow Jackets’ defense come together and forge a reputation as a powerful and rugged unit.

“Our defensive players were all fast,” Bristor said. “Our secondary was a big college secondary. We were all big. We were all linebacker-sized back there. We had a lot of hitters on that team.”

Bristor benefitted from battling against quality receivers every day in practice. Two in particular, Dennis Garrett – who came to Waynesburg from Jefferson-Morgan, and Morgan “Bunny” Denson – a Wash High graduate – posted daily challenges.

“John was physical and fast,” said Garrett, one of Jefferson-Morgan’s greatest athletes and a top receiver at Waynesburg. “He liked to hit. I played against him in high school. Playing against him every day, very much helped me. He was a really good all-around player and athlete.

“It was just his mentality. He was a student of the game. He played to the whistle, to the end.”

“He was our cornerback and he was a great one,” Denson said.

Bristor was named to the NAIA District 18 second team defensive unit in 1976 and that same season set a Waynesburg record for longest interception return for a touchdown with an 86-yard return against Geneva.

Bristor, Garrett and Denson were part of a track team that Buckley formed during Bristor’s senior year. He had played baseball for Waynesburg the previous two springs but returned to his track and field roots for one last time.

“We had a lot of fun with that,” Bristor said. “We won the 880 relay at the Mountaineer Relays, included on that team was Jon Culp, Garrett, Wayne Cauthorne and myself.

“I still think we hold the (Waynesburg) school record 4-by-100,” Garrett said. “We won the whole meet, all the jumps and all the sprints, with nine guys.”

Going camping

After graduating in 1977, Bristor thought he would be drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles. It didn’t happen.

“I ended up going to work,” Bristor said. “But I had to find out (if I could play) in the NFL.

“I got an invitation to Miami Dolphins camp in 1978. I had a helluva camp. I hit everything that moved. We were to play Minnesota on a Monday night and I got released, the next-to-last cut, right before that game.”

Some of Bristor’s competition with the Dolphins were familiar NFL names in the 1970s such as Rick Volk, Mike Baab, Tim Foley and Curtis Johnson.

Bristor returned home and joined the coaching staff at West Liberty State College under John Westenhaver for the balance of the 1978 season.

He signed with the 49ers for the 1979 season and made the team out of camp and played in the first game of the regular season before being released.

Bristor was joined on San Francisco’s opening day roster by future Hall of famers and distinguished NFL players. The group includes Joe Montana, Steve DeBerg, Tony Dungy, O.J. Simpson, Randy Cross, Dwaine Board and future NFL head coaches Dennis Green and Sam Wyche.

Bristor said he knew the 49ers would be a great team in a relatively short time because of newly-hired coach Bill Walsh.

“You just knew,” Bristor said. “The guy was amazing. He brought it all together in San Francisco.”

Bristor’s final NFL chance came in 1980 when he signed with the Green Bay Packers. Again, he enjoyed a fine camp but just missed making the roster. He was battling Mark Murphy, who he coached at West Liberty, for one of the roster sports. Murphy ended up with a long career in Green Bay.

While he felt playing football was no longer in the cards, Bristor did sign to play in the CFL with the Ottawa Rough Riders.

“Sometime between Miami and San Francisco, I lost my killer instinct,” Bristor said. “I made the team in San Francisco but was let go after the one game. There are some things you can’t control and it never came back to me.

“I had a helluva camp there. But it (killer instinct) never came back to me. It’s one part of the game that just left me. With Green Bay, I never got to play one down at free safety.

“By the time I got to Ottawa, the game had passed me by. I still had all the speed and all the physical tools. But I lost my desire to hit people. I did not have the desire to blast people anymore.”

John Sacco writes a bi-weekly column about local sports history.

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