Monday, July 11, 2011

Pete Duranko Was A Brave Leader And Hero For NFL Players

Pete Duranko (12/15/1943-7/8/2011)

Pete Duranko passed away Friday from Lou Gehrig's Disease at the age of 67. To the casual observer, they will see a fine football player who was a champion on the field. Yet his legacy reached much further.

After having grown up and starred on gridirons and track fields in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which would have him inducted into the Pennsylvania State Hall of Fame, Duranko would decide to attend Notre Dame University.

He found more success in college, as the Fighting Irish would be named National Champions twice. He lined up with Hall of Famer Alan Page for legendary coach Ara Parseghian and played with such noted players like Bob Kuechenberg, Jim Lynch, Rocky Bleier, George Kunz, Jack Snow, and 1964 Heisman winner John Huarte.

He was a fourth round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns in 1966, but he opted to sign with the Denver Broncos of the American Football League. He soon found himself starting at left defensive end on a good Broncos trenches.

Not only did Denver have Pro Bowl defensive tackle Dave Costa, but Duranko was bookending one of the AFL's most fierce pass rushers in Rich "Tombstone" Jackson. The pair proved to be very effective off the edges for the Broncos.

Jackson, who has been called the best pass rush specialist ever by Sports Illustrated's Hall of Fame voter Paul Zimmerman, and Costa earned Pro Bowls while working with the steady Duranko. Jackson and Duranko were so versatile, they switched positions in 1969 and 1970.

Denver drafted Lyle Alzado in 1971, so Duranko helped shore up the defensive line by moving to defensive tackle and replacing the departed Costa in 1972. When Jackson's career ended from knee injuries, he moved back to defensive end in 1973.

He moved back inside the next year because of injuries, but decided to retire at the end of the 1974 season. Though sacks and tackles were not officially recorded in his era, it is obvious by looking at his career on the gridiron that he was versatile and valuable by having started and played full seasons at each position along the defensive line.

I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Duranko about a year ago. I was writing about Kansas City Chiefs legend Jim Tyrer in hope of the nine-time Pro Bowler finally getting inducted into Canton.

Tyrer's exclusion is most likely tied to his tragic death, but he did play in an era where things like concussions and depression caused from them were never even thought of, let alone mentioned.

Not only was he a friend Tyrer, having had dinner with him and their wives, but he faced Tyrer several times on the field.

Here is an excerpt from our interview :

"He was the best offensive tackle ever, and one of the best to ever have played football," Duranko said enthusiastically. "He didn't get his full recognition because he was on those excellent Chiefs teams, but he was load to deal with."

The one factor I have found while interviewing NFL Alumni is something that seems to never get written about nor mentioned, because the NFL seemingly desires to sweep ex--players under the rug and forget about them while spouting words like honor and tradition.

ALS is very prevalent amongst former players, as is depression and the aches and pains that came from a rough game.The league's health care plan for these men is miniscule, as I found one player, a former Pro Bowl player in the 1960's, got a monthly increase of just $80 when he was permanently disabled after having both knees and hips replaced while living in virtual poverty.

Duranko spent his post-football career working with players who suffer from depression and also dealt with his own health issues and depression. He was diagnosed with ALS in 2000, but it did not deter him from trying to support his brethren.

Little did I know of his suffering before we spoke, but he took time to speak with me about Tyrer and football. The effects of the game had him in pain, which propelled him to offer anything he could to those going through anything similar.

"It creeps up on you" he said. "People, especially the voters, do not understand mental illness. Jim Tyrer was a strong man who did his best to hide his disease. He didn't want people to know he was depressed and preferred to try to deal with it himself."

"When we were in the game, if you didn't play, you'd go highway. Meaning you got released. This made you play through all sorts of injuries, especially concussions."

While he agreed Tyrer belonged in Canton, I could not help but be impressed with his own career in football. To play seven years in the trenches is extraordinary if you understand the game, let alone the fact of his playing full seasons at each position and excelling well enough to start.

Norm Bulaich, a Pro Bowl running back who played in the 1970's, once told me most folks do not really seem to understand how hard it is just to make an NFL team, let alone get on the field. I am sure some would not truly fathom the plight of Pete Duranko.

This was an educated man who was an executive for a steel company after he retired and decided to return to his hometown to give back to his community. Many a man would have withered into a fetal position after being diagnosed with ALS, but not Duranko.

He decided to fight, much like he did on the football field. He not only made Johnstown, Pennsylvania a better place, but he found time to dedicate himself by helping others who played football like he did.

In our talk, he did not lament his fate of having a terminal disease at all. Duranko only spoke of offering help to others. He helped me in my quest to get Jim Tyrer respect, an act I am sure he tried to do for others until his final breath.

Rest In Peace Peter Nicholas Duranko. Thank you for giving people like me a reason to have hope for the human race.

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