During the late 1950s the University of Maryland had a pipeline for talent out of Fayette County. Five former football players from county schools were all at Maryland during the same period.
The five players were German Township’s Murnis Banner, North Union’s Tom Sankovich, South Union’s Tom Rae and Rich Novak and Uniontown’s Joe Hrezo.
Sadly, with the passing of Joe Hrezo on Aug. 2 at the age of 77, only two of the Fayette County five are still living, Sankovich and Novak.
“I was talking with Rich Novak recently,” Sankovich said. “I said we are the only two left out of five, the two oldest ones. Rich chuckled and said I’ll take care of the backfield and you take care of the line, but life goes on.”
Hrezo, who was profiled in a Memory Lane column in 2008, led an interesting life on the football field and off. Here are some excerpts from that Memory Lane column.
Hrezo played football, wrestled, and ran track for the Uniontown Red Raiders in the late 1950s and was part of some outstanding Red Raider teams.
“I lettered in 1956 as a sophomore,” Hrezo recalled. “I played mostly on the kickoff team and some defense. In 1957, I played end and then my senior season I shifted to a guard spot and also played linebacker. I actually liked playing guard better than playing end because I was pretty quick, and I was able to pull and do a lot of blocking and of course, played linebacker on defense and I liked that.”
In 1956, the Raiders were 8-2 with losses coming at the hands of Mt. Lebanon, 28-13, and Monessen, 7-0. The 1957 squad was unbeaten at 8-0, but 16 players were stricken with the flu and two games were canceled against Redstone and Baldwin. The Redstone game was rescheduled but Gardner points knocked the Raiders out of a chance to play for the title. In Hrezo’s senior year, Uniontown posted a 7-1-1 mark. The loss was an upset by German and a tie with Mt. Lebanon.
Hrezo was very adept at blocking punts and in his senior season he blocked five in the final three games.
“That was pretty interesting,” he laughed. “I think I got two in the last game and that helped me make the All-State team. I was pretty quick and our coaches had a great punt block scheme. We were pretty good at blocking punts.”
Bill Power was the Uniontown head football coach and Hrezo has high praise for his old mentor.
“He had good teams and he had good coaches,” Hrezo said. “His assistants were John Kruper, Al Brodhag, Max Zane and Bill Barren. Coach Power had the knack — we practiced hard and scouted really well and he used film, and we went over the film after every game he critiqued us. He was a really good guy.”
Hrezo garnered All-State, All-County and All Western conference honors as a senior and was named to the Big 33 squad and helped Pennsylvania defeat the U.S. All Stars 18-0 in Hershey.
“Five of us from the Big 33 team wound up playing at Maryland,” Hrezo said. “It was a great experience playing in that game, and there was nobody more surprised than me when I saw my name in the newspaper that I made it. That’s how I found out, from the newspaper.”
Hrezo also ran track for the Raiders and he was on the wrestling squad.
“I ran the sprints and low hurdles,” Hrezo said. “I tried to throw the javelin and would always cross the line. I made the varsity wrestling team my senior year, and I lettered in track all three years. I enjoyed wrestling and we had a real good wrestling coach — Red Campbell. Abe Everhart coached track and he always had a smile on his face and he was a good coach.”
When Hrezo graduated from Uniontown in 1959 he had to sift through some scholarship offers.
“I could have gone to Miami,” he remembered. “My dad wouldn’t let me — he said you’re not going to major in underwater basket weaving. I visited Tennessee, Wake Forest, Cincinnati, Penn State and Maryland.”
Maryland recruited Pennsylvania and Fayette County well and Hrezo became a Terrapin.
“There were five of us down there from Fayette County,” Hrezo said. “Two the year before and three my year — Rich Novak and Tom Sankovich were down there and they showed me around and I said this is the place for me. Three of us joined those two — Tom Rae, Murnis Banner and me.”
Hrezo played freshman ball in 1959.
“I played in three games and then I got a concussion and a lacerated pupil my first year,” he said. “I started as a guard my sophomore year and also played both ways as a linebacker and I played the up back on offense as a junior and then strictly linebacker as a senior.”
Hrezo won the Coaches Award as a linebacker in his senior season.
The Terps posted a 6-4 mark in 1960 and were 7-3 in 1961. In Hrezo’s senior season they went 6-4.
Hrezo graduated from Maryland in 1963 and entered the service.
The service set him up for what proved to be his life’s work in air transport. He was in the Air Force for four and a half years and ascended to the rank of Captain. Following his stint in the Air Force he went to work for Air America in Laos and Vietnam.
“I was trying to get into counter insurgency and go to paratrooper school,” Hrezo said. “They didn’t have any opening for my AFSC — my service classification. I was color blind so I couldn’t go to pilot’s school. It was suggested that I go to transportation school, and I went there for three months and then went to Korea with the Military Air Transport Command. At that time Air America was flying a DC 4 and they brought the Stars and Stripes newspaper over from Japan every night. I got to know the Air America rep over there. I was extended for six months and then after that I got a job interview and I came back and then went to work for Air America.
“It was an interesting experience — it wasn’t as bad as everybody said it was. They were a contractor and they had some planes from the government and they did some really good things and some weird things.”
Hrezo worked for Air America for two years and then went to work for World Airways in Bangkok and Manila and some other projects.
While working with World Airways, he participated in “Operation Babylift,” a humanitarian effort that transported over 3,300 infants and children out of South Vietnam. In 1975, he was instrumental in coordinating and executing the last flight out of Da Nang, Vietnam. Parts of Joe’s involvement were included in the books, “Tears Before the Rain” by Larry Engelmann and “The War Cradle” by Shirley Peck-Barnes.
Hrezo then worked in Saudi Arabia and then in Singapore and then Indonesia and returned to the US and did some work with World Airways. He then went to work for Emory World Wide Airlines in Dayton, Ohio. He retired once, but then went back to work. He worked for Astar Air Cargo. Herzo retired in 2012.
The two remaining Maryland teammates remember Hrezo fondly.
“Going into the Fayette County Sports Hall of Fame was big for Joe,” Novak said. “It was the culmination of a lifetime of athletics and achievement. He wasn’t very big, if he didn’t play first team he was always the first guy up. He played both ways on offense and defense. He was just a wiry tough player. He went about his business. He was soft spoken and a great teammate.”
“Joe was a great ballplayer,” Sankovich recalled. “He moved around to different positions, but he was an outstanding football player.”
Hrezo was inducted into the Fayette County Sports Hall of Fame in 2018 and was enshrined in the Uniontown Area High School Academics, Arts and Athletics Hall of Fame in 2017.
George Von Benko’s “Memory Lane” column appears in the Monday editions of the Herald-Standard. He also hosts a sports talk show on WMBS-AM radio from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.