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O’Brien: Dick Deitrick Distinguished Himself in So Many Ways

November 19, 2011
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O’Brien: Dick Deitrick Distinguished Himself in So Many Ways: 

          It would be difficult to find a Dick Deitrick in today’s college athletic world.  Deitrick was definitely a throwback to a better era.  He was a true student athlete, a leader on the field and in the classroom, and he was admired by family, friends, former teammates, patients and colleagues in the medical profession.

          There are still some who fit the bill in that regard but they are few and far between.  Andrew Luck, the quarterback atStanfordUniversity, may be cut from the same cloth.  Luck turned down being the first player chosen in the 2011 NFL draft to stay at Stanford for his senior season and to graduate with a degree in architecture.

          Luck, the son of Oliver Luck, the athletic director atWest VirginiaUniversity, felt that the NFL will still be here, but the Stanford experience is to be enjoyed to its natural end.

          In Deitrick’s day, the athletes at theUniversityofPittsburghstayed four years, and the vast majority earned their degrees.

          Few did it with any more distinction than Dick Deitrick, who lettered in football, basketball and baseball from 1950 to 1953, and was the captain of the football and basketball team in 1953.  He had 72 scholarship offers when he came out ofDanvilleHigh Schoolin easternPennsylvania.

          He was on the first Kodak Academic All-America and played in the 1954 College All-Star Game. 

          Deitrick was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, but chose instead to enter theSchoolofMedicineat Pitt.  He became an obstetrician gynecologist.  He served as the head of that department and was on the board of directors atMercyHospital, now UPMC Mercy.

          Dr. Deitrick died after contracting pneumonia at age 79 on Saturday, August 6.  I attended his viewing at the William Slater II Funeral Home in Green Tree last Tuesday and the funeral service the following day across the street at Sts. Simon and Jude Catholic Church. 

          Father Chris Stubna delivered one of the most appropriate and illuminating eulogies I have heard offered by a Catholic priest.  He had done his homework, knew Dr. Deitrick personally, and shared stories of a life well lived.  Anyone present had to be inspired and had to envy Dr. Deitrick for what he did in his 79 years.

          I was in a pew with Bill Priatko and Lou “Bimbo” Cecconi, just ahead of Ray Ferguson.

          Priatko, who grew up in North Braddock and was a teammate of Deitrick on the Pitt football team, and Cecconi, who come out of Donora to play and coach football at Pitt and was later an athletic director and administrator at Steel Valley High School in Munhall, both offered tributes to Deitrick.

         Fergusongrew up inJersey Shore,Pa., not far fromDanville, Deitrick’s hometown.  They played against each other in high school and were roommates in a Pitt dorm and remained friends through the years. Fergusoncame to the funeral from his home inWaco,Tex., and that is a tremendous tribute in itself.

          “He was quite a man,” offeredFerguson.  “I was fortunate to have a roommate who was so dedicated to his studies as well as sports.  I benefited from the association.”

          When Cecconi came out of the church, he turned and said, “Did you hear all the good things the priest pointed out about Dick?  All those good attributes…  He mentioned all the positive things about him.  It was heartening to hear that.”

           Priatko not only played football with Deitrick, but he served with him in later years in an Air Force reserve unit at thePittsburghInternationalAirport.  “We were both captains, but Dick was the commander of the unit,” recalled Priatko, also 79.  “He was a natural leader at Pitt and with the Air Force unit.  He was a great leader.”

          Dr. Deitrick had served as a flight surgeon in the Air Force on active duty for five years prior to his reserve duty.

          Priatko pointed out a play involving Deitrick in his Pitt days that he feels deserves more attention.

          “We were playing atOhioStatein 1952, and there were 80,000 fans in the stands, and we’d never played before that kind of crowd in our lives,” said Priatko.  “We rallied to tieOhioState, 14-14.  Joe Schmidt, our defensive captain and linebacker, had a great game.  Late in the game, Dick Deitrick caught a pass at the Pitt 46-yard line and ran 54 yards for the game-winning touchdown.  He was hit by six differentOhioStateplayers along the way, and he dragged the sixthOhioStateplayer into the end zone with him.  We won that one, 21-14.  Dick was so determined that day.  No one was going to stop him.”

          Deitrick didn’t make it to this year’s annual reunion of the fellows he played football with at Pitt.  They called themselves “The Rocks,” and Priatko pointed out that Deitrick was holding a rock symbolic of that group in his casket.

          I checked in at that golf outing at The Country Club of Shadow Lakes in Aliquippa just last month, and had a chance to say hello to Pitt football players from the ‘40s and ‘50s, such as Nick Bolkovac of Youngstown, Bob Rosborough of Donora, Corky Cost and Dr. Darrell Lewis of Wilkinsburg, Carl DePasqua of Williamsport and Joe Schmidt of Brentwood, Dick Bowen of Duquesne, Bugs Bagamery of Zelionople and Gordon Oliver of Punxsutawney.  Priatko and Cecconi were there as well.

          Like Deitrick, Cost had been a three-sport standout at Pitt.  Frank Gustine, Jr., Paul Martha and Mike Ditka are other three-sport stars who come to mind.  The late Bill Kaliden ofHomesteadwas another.

          There aren’t many three-sport stars in high school these days because selfish coaches and single-minded parents want the kids to concentrate on one sport.  The coaches want that because in too many cases they care only about their team, and the parents want it because everybody thinks their kid is going to be a pro athlete some day.

          I have spoken to Schmidt several times over the telephone since I saw him at the golf outing inAliquippalast month.

          Schmidt says he thinks college sports have become minor leagues for the pros, whereas he felt that he and his teammates were at Pitt principally to get an education, a degree, and few held out hope that they might play in the pros.  He especially hates the one-and-done situation where a player leaves college after his freshman season to turn pro.

          Schmidt was bypassed by the Steelers in the draft because he wasn’t that big (6-feet, 210 pounds) and had been injured several times in his Pitt stay.  He was a seventh round selection by the Detroit Lions.  He lasted 13 seasons as a middle linebacker with the Lions, was on the NFL All-Star Team seven times, played in nine consecutive Pro Bowls and was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year a record three times.  He recovered eight fumbles one season for a Lions’ record.  He later coached the Lions.

          “When I was at Pitt, I lived at Varsity Hall near Pitt Stadium when Deitrick was there,” said Schmidt over the phone from his home in suburbanDetroit.  “I remember one time I went to the bathroom around 3 a.m., as I often did in the middle of the night, and Deitrick was sitting in there studying.  He had the seat down on one of the toilets and was sitting there with a book in his hand.

          “The bathroom was the only room where there was a light on, and he didn’t want to disturb Ray Ferguson, his roommate.  I thought maybe I should do that, too, so I would do better in school.  Dick was a great role model for all of us.

          “He was a big, strong guy at 6-4, 230 and there’s no doubt in my mind that he could have played pro football.  He was such a good athlete.  He was quite the basketball player, too, and he was on the baseball team.  He was good at everything he did.”

          It was a different era.  Deitrick played on a Pitt basketball team that was coached by Dr. Cliff “Red” Carlson.  Doc Carlson didn’t recruit players.  They came to Pitt because that’s where they wanted to go to school.  He did offer a basketball scholarship to a pretty good athlete from Donora named Stan Musial, but Musial signed to play baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals instead.

          So he had to settle for another student from Donora, namely Bimbo Cecconi.

          Of the top seven players on Deitrick’s Pitt basketball team, four of them became physicians.  Three became doctors like Deitrick and one, Don Virostek, one of the nation’s leading rebounders, became a dentist.  That will never happen in college athletics again.

          Dr. Mickey Zernich was a teammate of Deitrick on that Pitt basketball team.  He was one of three brothers who became doctors after lettering in basketball at Pitt.  While atAliquippaHospital, they worked with Dr. Hank Zeller, who had also played basketball for Doc Carlson at Pitt.

          “We would have had a better basketball team if Doc Carlson hadn’t been such an old-school kind of coach,” Dr. Zernich once told me, “but I can’t complain about the academic side of Pitt in those days.  That’s the prime reason we were there.”  

          Dr. Deitrick also distinguished himself as a doctor.  He was a past president of the Allegheny County Medical Society.  There were so many people at his viewing – the line was usually about 60 or 70 strong at all times at the Slater Funeral Home – and many spoke glowingly of his kindness and care as a physician.

          His wife Linda told me,”Dick told me just a few weeks ago that he should call you to help him get his stories about his Pitt experience down on paper.”

          Father Stubna shared a good story involving the late Bishop John B. McDowell.  Dr. Deitrick has started out practicing family medicine, but then switched to ob-gyn, looking after women and maternity needs.  Bishop McDowell stayed with Dr. Deitrick through the transition and often boasted that he was the only Catholic bishop in the country who had an ob-gyn physician as his doctor.

          “Bishop McDowell said he was once in the hospital and the nurses asked him the name of his doctor,” said Father Stubna.  “When he said it was Dr. Deitrick they gave him a shocked look, like how can that be?”

          “Bishop McDowell also said he was a great doctor, and as great a man as you could know.”

          Father Stubna went on to say, “There was no question that Dick Deitrick was a giant of a man, in everything that really counted in life.  He was strong, yet spiritual, and he was loved and respected by everyone who knew him.  The death of a loved one is so painful, but we must embrace the best of memories.”

          This was my fourth funeral in three weeks, and I called the wives of two other men who died that I had known in earlier years during the same span.  There are good funerals and there are bad funerals.  Only the week before, I had attended the funeral at the same site for James Klingensmith, who died at age 100, who was famous for taking the photographs of Bill Mazeroski on his home run trot when the Pirates beat the New York Yankees 10-9 to win the World Series in 1960.  Klingensmith was one of the great guys in the newspaper business.

          I told the greeter at the door of the Slater Funeral home that I had been there too often this past year and she said, “Yes, you have, James.”

          A woman who came to pay her respects came up to me in the lobby and asked me where the viewing room was for Dr. Deitrick, and also where the women’s bathroom was located.  I think she mistook me for a funeral director or a member of the staff.  I was able to direct her to both rooms and that’s when I realized I had definitely been there too often.

          Too often I have been disappointed by the eulogies that were delivered by the priest, minister or rabbi because I had the feeling the words were merely recycled and recanted from the previous week’s funeral.  Father Stubna was properly prepared and I thanked him for his effort as I shook his hand on the way out of the church.

          Dr. Dick Deitrick deserved to have his life celebrated in an all-star manner, and Father Stubna was on the mark for a dear friend and someone who had given his time and talents to his church, to his family, his friends, his patients and his colleagues.

          We should all fare so well.            

            Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien will be signing copies of his Pittsburgh Proud series at Hometowne Sports atStation Squareon Saturday, Aug. 27, from noon till 6 p.m.

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