Saturday, August 31, 2019
Ed O’Neill remembers the best
athlete he ever knew in Youngstown
Before Ed O’Neill became a Hollywood star, he was an Ursuline football player during the 1960s, which might be the greatest era in Youngstown high school sports.
So when O’Neill tells you about the best athlete he knew growing up in Youngstown, you listen.
That’s what I did when O’Neill called one day to talk about his late friend — and fellow Ursuline graduate — John Rorick.
The result was an hour of O’Neill spinning tales about Rorick, a former Youngstown State defensive back he believes was a better player than NFL Pro Bowl safeties of his era like Mike Wagner (Pittsburgh Steelers), Charlie Waters (Dallas Cowboys) and Gary Fencik (Chicago Bears).
O’Neill’s passion to get Rorick’s story out and his colorful storytelling about the Youngstown of their youth made for one of the most entertaining interviews of my seven years at The Vindicator, if not my entire career.
“John really was the best athlete I ever knew in Youngstown,” O’Neill said. “There’s no question about that. He had everything — strength and speed and athleticism. He could do it all.
“Even in baseball, he played shortstop and you couldn’t get the ball past him.”
O’Neill said Rorick, who died of cancer in 2016, was an NFL-caliber player who turned to teaching and coaching after injuries took their toll on him in college.
“He was one of the greatest athletes who never left Youngstown,” O’Neill said. “Charlie Waters, Gary Fencik [Mike] Wagner ... John was as good or better than those guys and he hit as hard or harder than those guys. ... If he hit you coming over the middle, you didn’t need to see a number. You knew it was him.
“I think John sustained a couple of serious knee injuries [in college]. I think the Cowboys were interested in John, but the knee held him back.”
But Rorick never really lost the athleticism nor his competitiveness. Rich Coppola and Ralph Roberts grew up here in the 1960s and knew Rorick then. Later, they became teaching and coaching colleagues with him at Austintown Fitch.
Both agree Rorick was as talented an athlete as they knew growing up.
“John was always a great athlete,” Roberts said. “We played golf together for years and he was a great golfer, too. ... We taught together at Fitch and we officiated basketball together. He was also one of the outstanding volleyball officials in the state of Ohio. He did multiple state volleyball tournaments and he coached baseball with Rich Coppola and they won many championships together.
When Coppola retired in the mid-1990s, he said Rorick took the head coaching job with the Falcons for several years.
“John was instrumental in my program,” Coppola said. “He could work with kids at any position and make them better. It didn’t matter what position, he was able to teach and coach them and make them better.”
Coppola said it also didn’t matter what sport it was, it came naturally to Rorick, even as he aged.
“No matter what he tried, he was good at it,” Coppola said. “Better than good. He was above average no matter what it was.”
O’Neill — then a sophomore — recalls watching Rorick as a senior running back at Ursuline.
“I was sitting next to my buddy Jack,” he said. “We were freezing and had a tarp over us watching this team beat the [expletive] out of Ursuline. They just kept giving the ball to John and this SOB just kept going and going. I never saw anything like it. I never forgot it.”
O’Neill admits he came to idolize Rorick for his talent and the confident way he carried himself.
“He was just incredible,” said O’Neill, who recalled a particular drill head coach Dike Beede’s Penguins often engaged in during practice.
“It was a barrel block,” he said. “It was suicide. One guy would stand 20 feet from another guy and one guy would sprint and hit the other guy as hard as he can. You didn’t want to get hit by John Rorick.”
And on at least one play, nobody wanted to get hit by O’Neill, who had transferred back home after 18 month at Ohio University.
“I had a bit of a reputation,” he said. “I was about 235 and in good shape. Strong and fast.”
O’Neill had already had words with Craig Cotton, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound running back/tight end. O’Neill described Cotton as “Dike’s pride and joy.”
“We’d already had words. He cut the line in cafetetria and I was with some freshmen,” O’Neill said. “I said, ‘Where are you going? You’re not getting in here.’ So we were already wary of each other. We didn’t get long.”
One day during practice, they were paired in that drill.
“Craig ran at me from 20 yards and I let him have it,” O’Neill recalled. “I took him out twice and I look over and Rorick had the biggest smile on his face. That made me so happy to do it in front of my idol — to do it front of guy I considered a great hitter.”
The two remained friends even after O’Neill’s career pursuits took him to New York and later Hollywood.
“About a month before he died, we talked on the phone and he said I think you might just be able to kick my ass finally,” O’Neill said. “I said, I think you’re right. I’m going to take a U.S. Air flight into Pittsburgh, rent a car, drive to your house and kick your [expletive] ass. He had a great sense of humor.”
Roberts recalls Rorick as a happy-go-lucky guy.
“He really loved trivia, especially sports trivia, and he really knew his stuff,” Roberts said. “He was just a great guy to be around.”
But O’Neill — who had a reputation as a bit of a fighter well into his mid-20s — said Rorick could have an edge, too.
“John was one of the toughest guys in Youngstown,” he said. “In terms of fighting, you didn’t want to cross him. ... But he was a great guy. He was respected all over Youngstown.”
The John Rorick story almost sounds like the genesis of a great Hollywood “what-if” story, especially when his old friend Ed O’Neill is telling it.
Write former Vindicator Sports Editor Ed Puskas at email@example.com.