Pine-Richland’s Spencer wins 1st Willie Thrower Memorial Award

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Saturday, April 10, 2021 | 6:50 PM


Chuck Curtis played football for the New York Giants in 1957 before beginning a football coaching career that lasted for 30 years.

He coached as an assistant at Southern Methodist University in the mid-1960s and helped play a part in giving more black student-athletes the chance to get recruited to play in college.

Curtis is known for recruiting Jerry LeVias, the first black scholarship athlete player in the former Southwest Conference.

On Saturday, Curtis’ grandson, Pine-Richland senior Cole Spencer, was presented an award named in honor and in memory of a local product who blazed his own trail as a black quarterback at the high school, college and professional levels from the 1940s into the 1950s.

Spencer was named the inaugural recipient of the Willie Thrower Memorial Award as the top quarterback in Southwestern Pennsylvania for the 2020 season as voted on by a panel of high school football coaches, sports broadcasters and sports writers.

Spencer and four other finalists — Central Valley senior Ameer Dudley, Thomas Jefferson senior Jake Pugh, Upper St. Clair senior Ethan Dahlem and Jeannette freshman Brad Birch — were celebrated at a luncheon ceremony presented by the Willie Thrower Memorial Foundation at the Northern Westmoreland Career & Technology Center, just a stone’s throw away from Valley High School Memorial Stadium where a statue of Thrower has stood since 2006.

Thrower made a name for himself at New Kensington High School, where he led the school to WPIAL titles in 1946 and ’47.

“It was really cool to hear that (Willie Thrower) interview (played at the ceremony) because my parents were telling me what my grandfather did,” said Spencer, who was named the Trib HSSN Player of the Year after leading the WPIAL in passing in 2020 with 2,626 yards and 33 touchdowns. Pine-Richland went 11-0 and won the Class 5A state title.

“For (Willie) to mention that in the interview, it was pretty cool to see. I was happy to let the Thrower family know I was connected to that.”

Spencer, a University of Pennsylvania wrestling commit, said he was grateful to also be connected to the four other finalists.

“I played against Ethan Dahlem. I didn’t play against any of the other guys, but I would see them all over Twitter,” Spencer said. “One of the coaches mentioned watching all of the (WPXI) Skylights (highlights shows) and seeing them all turn it up on the field. All four of them are great competitors.

“For me specifically, not playing football in college but going on to wrestle, this might be my last-ever football award. To end it honoring such a great man, this is an awesome award.”

Spencer was on the move after Saturday’s ceremony as the two-time PIAA wrestling place-winner competed at an all-star event in State College later in the day.

Each finalist had his athletic and academic bio read by foundation board member and master of ceremonies Jonathan Whaley before those in attendance viewed the five highlight videos.

In speeches, they thanked the many people supporting them who made all of their accomplishments possible.

Dudley will be the first from Western Pennsylvania to play quarterback at Harvard. Dahlem will play at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, and Pugh has received academic scholarship opportunities at Ohio Wesleyan, John Carroll and Washington & Jefferson.

Birch has received a Division I offer from Oregon while also gaining interest from Pitt and Penn State.

The Thrower family, including Willie’s wife, Mary, and their three sons, Willie Jr., Jason and Melvin, were on hand to congratulate the finalists and honor their late loved one.

Willie Thrower died Feb. 20, 2002, one month shy of his 72nd birthday.

“It is important to keep his name going and to help these young football players know what he went through,” Willie Thrower Jr. said.

“He went through some bad times (with racial discrimination). But he kept moving forward, and it is great to still be able to honor his name.”

A member of the Westmoreland County Sports Hall of Fame, the Alle-Kiski Valley Sports Hall of Fame and the WPIAL Hall of Fame, Thrower was the first black quarterback in the history of the Big Ten at Michigan State.

Nicknamed “Mitts” because of his large hands and arm strength while standing just 5-foot-11, Thrower was a part of the Spartans’ 1952 national championship team.

He joined the Chicago Bears in 1953 and made history in October of that year as he broke the color barrier for quarterbacks against the San Francisco 49ers in front of 36,909 fans at Wrigley Field.

The 1953 season was Thrower’s only one in the NFL.

Major Harris, a former standout quarterback at Brashear High School and West Virginia in the mid to late 1980s, spoke of the legacy of quarterbacks in southwestern Pennsylvania and how they made their mark from Willie Thrower’s time right up to today with Spencer, the other award finalists and many others.

“It is full circle for me,” Harris said.

“Growing up here, we always produced great quarterbacks. I grew up not knowing too much about Mr. Thrower, but as years went on, being a black quarterback myself, I started to hear more and more things about what he went through and what he accomplished. To have an award named after him and getting the chance to honor all of these great quarterbacks of today in his name, it is so special and just icing on the cake.”

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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