TribLive HSSN ranks the top 7 tight ends in WPIAL history — No. 1
By: HSSN Staff
Friday, October 5, 2018 | 4:18 PM
Did you ever wonder how you would rank the top high school football players in WPIAL history?
So did the staff at the TribLive High School Sports Network.
Trib HSSN will rank the top 7 high school football players in WPIAL history by position based on their performance during their scholastic careers.
We will announce the players in reverse order each day, starting Saturday. The top player will be released each Friday morning.
We encourage you to tell us through social media if you agree, or if we have missed the mark with our rankings.
There are no perfect rankings, but it’s something to discuss and debate each week.
Have fun with them and hopefully your — or your father’s — favorite player made the lists.
Here’s a look at the Trib 7 all-time great tight ends:
No. 1 — Mike Ditka, Aliquippa
“Iron Mike” was born in 1939 as Michael Keller Dyczko Jr. before the family Anglicized the surname.
But whatever he was called, Ditka excelled as a three-sport athlete at Aliquippa in the mid-1950s.
He was a two-way end on the Quips’ 1955 WPIAL title team. Aliquippa erased a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter and defeated Mt. Lebanon, 14-13, at Pitt Stadium.
Ditka then enrolled at Pitt upon the advice of his high school coach, Carl Aschman. He sat out the 1957 season as freshmen were ineligible at the time. He played for the Panthers from 1958-60 as his legendary toughness came to prominence.
Ditka played three sports at Pitt as a baseball outfielder and basketball forward. He was also an intramural wrestling champion at Pitt.
In the 1961 NFL draft, the Bears chose Ditka in the first round, and he continued to define the tight end position with his combination of devastating blocking and pass-catching ability.
He played on the Bears’ 1963 NFL title team and for the Cowboys, scoring a touchdown in Super Bowl VI.
In 12 NFL seasons that included a two-year stint with the Eagles, Ditka caught 427 passes for 5,812 yards and 43 touchdowns.
After the last of 153 NFL games with the Cowboys in 1972, coach Tom Landry hired him as an assistant, where he stayed for nine years.
The five-time pro bowler then took over as Chicago’s head coach and led the Bears to a Super Bowl XX victory.
Including his final three years at New Orleans, his 14-year coaching record is 121-95.
Ditka was named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1986, and in 1988, he was the first tight end to be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.
“Iron Mike” will turn 79 next Thursday.
No. 2 — Ted Kwalick, Montour
Kwalick started out at Montour with no intention of playing football. It was strictly basketball and track until Spartans coach Bob Phillips saw him and asked if he wanted to try out for football.
Phillips started the future hall of famer as a two-way end and switched him to tight end the following year. The move paid off as Montour won the 1963 WPIAL Class AA title against Freeport, 29-12. The Spartans followed that with a 19-7 win over Arnold the following season, just as the WPIAL scholastic power was moving from the riverfront industrial towns to the suburbs.
Kwalick was part of a Montour program that went 55-4-2 from 1962-68.
By the time Kwalick had wrapped up his Spartans career, he had made the United Press International’s first-team all-state in 1964 and played in the 1965 Big 33 Classic against Texas.
Kwalick was recruited to Penn State by coach Rip Engle. Freshmen weren’t eligible then. But Joe Paterno took over in 1966 and Kwalick became the first Nittany Lions All-American under Paterno in 1967 and ’68.
He was fourth in the 1968 Heisman Trophy voting behind O.J. Simpson, Leroy Keyes of Purdue and Notre Dame’s Terry Hanratty from Butler.
Kwalick caught 86 passes in three years with Penn State for 1,343 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The 49ers chose Kwalick in the first round of the 1969 NFL draft.
In 1971, Kwalick played six seasons with San Francisco before moving across the bay and playing with Oakland for his final three seasons. He was part of the Raiders’ Super Bowl XI winners.
Kwalick played in 106 NFL games and caught 168 passes for 2,570 yards and 23 touchdowns.
He was inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1998 and the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.
No. 3 — John Frank, Mt. Lebanon
A key member of Mt. Lebanon’s 1979 team, Frank helped lead the Blue Devils (11-1) to the semifinals that season.
Mt. Lebanon compiled a 10-0 mark during the regular season, the sixth undefeated regular season in school history. The Blue Devils defeated Thomas Jefferson before being eliminated by Gateway.
Frank was named first-team all-state by the Associated Press. Recruited by a number a major colleges, Frank set his sights on Ohio State, which offered an otorhinolaryngology (ear, nose and throat) pre-med program.
He became a starter with the Buckeyes in 1981. Frank caught 121 passes for 1,481 yards and nine touchdowns during his collegiate career.
In 1983, he was the Buckeyes team MVP and was a two-time Academic All-American.
During the 1984 NFL draft, Frank was chosen by the 49ers in the second round and was part of San Francisco’s 18-1 team that defeated the Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX.
Frank was injured and did not play in that Super Bowl, but he became a starter in his fourth and fifth NFL seasons, including a victory over Cincinnati in Super Bowl XXIII.
He caught a key pass from Joe Montana in the historic drive that resulted in a 49ers touchdown catch by John Taylor.
After the game, Frank announced his retirement and entered Ohio State’s medical program, becoming a doctor four years later.
Frank was inducted into the Ohio State Athletic Hall of Fame in 1998 and into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.
No. 4 — Benjy Pryor, Valley
Pryor was better known as a bruising center on some great Valley High School basketball teams, including WPIAL finalists in 1975 and ’76.
But football was where he excelled most in the eyes of college recruiters. The Vikings finished 19-7-1 in Pryor’s three seasons as a starter. Valley never made the WPIAL playoffs during Pryor’s time there, basically because only the conference champions qualified for the playoffs.
In 1976, Pryor was first-team all-state for both the Associated Press and United Press International. He was named a Parade All-American in 1976 and played in the 1977 Big 33 Classic for the PA West team.
Pryor signed with then-national champion Pitt and played four seasons with the Panthers. Pitt went to four consecutive bowl games in that era and went 11-1 in each of Pryor’s final two seasons there.
In 1979, he caught 45 passes for 588 yards, 10th best in the nation. In ’80, he caught 47 balls for 574 yards for the No. 2-ranked Panthers.
Pryor was drafted in the fifth round of the 1981 NFL draft by the Bengals, but was cut.
He was inducted into the Alle-Kiski Valley Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.
Pryor is now assistant principal at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Md.
No. 5 — Jonathan Hayes, South Fayette
Growing up in the Sturgeon section of South Fayette Township, Hayes helped lead his hometown high school to the WPIAL playoffs in 1980 where the Lions lost a quarterfinal game to eventual WPIAL Class A champion Laurel.
South Fayette finished at 8-2-1.
After the season, Hayes was named third-team all-state by the Associated Press.
It was on to Iowa for the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Hayes.
For the first two seasons at Iowa under coach Hayden Fry, Hayes was a linebacker. He was switched to tight end for his final two seasons and flourished.
The Hawkeyes went to four bowl games in the four years Hayes was at Iowa City.
In his final college game, the 1984 Freedom Bowl, Hayes caught three passes for 70 yards and two touchdowns as Iowa blasted Texas, 55-17, behind quarterback Chuck Long’s 469 passing yards.
Hayes was picked in the second round of the 1985 NFL draft by Kansas City. He played nine seasons with the Chiefs before coming to the Steelers for his final three seasons in 1994-96.
Hayes played in Super Bowl XXX with the Steelers against Dallas. He coached tight ends at Oklahoma in 2000 when the Sooners were national champions.
Hayes is in his 16th season as the Bengals tight ends coach.
No. 6 — Tom Tumulty, Penn Hills
Tumulty played tight end and linebacker for the Indians and was named second-team all-state in 1989 and first team in 1990 by the Associated Press.
Penn Hills made the WPIAL Class 4A playoffs his junior and senior seasons, falling in the first round to North Allegheny in 1989 and Connellsville in ’90.
Tumulty was a Parade All-American in 1990 and played in the 1991 Big 33 Classic against Maryland.
A fiery competitor, he was considered the top Western Pennsylvania recruit in 1990 and signed with Pitt.
Tumulty started as a freshman with the Panthers, only the sixth player to do so at the time. By the time his days at Pitt were over, he was the program’s No. 3 all-time tackler with 404.
Tumulty was chosen by the Bengals in the sixth round of the 1996 NFL draft.
A series of knee injuries cut his pro career short after playing in 31 games over three seasons with Cincinnati.
No. 7 — Jesse James, South Allegheny
James began his rise at South Allegheny where he was named second-team all-state during his junior and senior seasons.
He was first-team All-Century Conference as a tight end his final two seasons when he caught 71 passes for 1,030 yards and 10 touchdowns.
James also played in the first Semper-Fidelis All-American game in 2012 and was rated the nation’s No.3 tight end by MaxPreps.
He also was second-team all-state in basketball his junior and senior seasons before heading to Penn State.
James played three years for the Nittany Lions, accumulating 78 catches for 1,005 yards and 11 touchdowns.
He declared for the 2015 NFL draft and was selected by the Steelers in the fifth round.
On Dec. 17, 2017, he caught an apparent go-ahead touchdown pass against the Patriots, a 10-yarder from Ben Roethlisberger. But the catch was disallowed because replays showed he didn’t control the ball as it hit the ground.
A clarification of the catch rule during the offseason has been dubbed by some “The Jesse James Rule.”
James caught his 100th pass as a Steeler on Sept. 30 against the Ravens.
George Guido is a freelance writer.