Twenty years after missing WPIAL title game-tying extra point, Penn-Trafford grad Topper uses experience as teaching point
Friday, November 17, 2017 | 4:24 PM
Penn-Trafford is back in the WPIAL football final. That means one name instantly gets resurrected from the Warriors' championship game past.
He remains part of one of the program's, “Where were you when?” moments.
This is the 20th anniversary of Topper's infamous missed extra point.
The big scoreboard at Three Rivers Stadium has long been demolished, any remaining dust particles from it long washed away by weather, street sweepers and tailgaters along the North Shore.
But Topper can still see a score so bright it still makes him squint.
Two decades later, it still hurts.
With a KBL-TV audience looking on and hundreds craning their necks inside the stadium as the ball was snapped, Topper missed the extra point that would have tied the score against Upper St. Clair during the 1997 WPIAL Class AAAA championship.
The Warriors had just scored on a fourth-and-11 play — a long pass from Eric Stewart to Marko Thomas — to get within a point with 18 seconds remaining.
Topper was 49 for 49 on extra points as he lined up for No. 50. But the kick was low and left. No overtime. No championship.
Then-coach Art Tragesser ran out and embraced Topper as his kicker hit rock bottom.
Longtime Warriors athletic trainer Larry Cooper was the first to greet — and console — Topper after the tugged attempt.
“It's not on you,” Cooper said he told Topper. “You're not the only one who made a mistake today. This does not define you.
“He really felt like he was out on an island.”
Cellphones weren't nearly as prominent, but Topper's would have “blown up” if he had one then. Instead, his home phone rang for days as calls from loved ones and famous strangers came in.
Norm Johnson, the Steelers kicker that year, and former Browns and Giants kicker Matt Bahr, called him to ease his pain.
Topper also received a consolation letter from the Buffalo Bills.
Topper turned the miss into a positive. He made his point, after.
Even though some kicked him when he was down, droves of supporters poured in.
Family and friends, former kickers and coaches, and even strangers and non-football fans, reached out with empathy.
“There's no denying missing that kick was horrible,” Topper said. “I let my teammates down, but it molded me into who I am today. I never let it define me, though. I use the lessons I learned from it with my students by teaching them they're not going to be perfect, and that's OK. Sometimes they're going to fail, but that's what molds all of us into who we become.”
Topper is a first-grade teacher at Quaker Valley.
“I look forward to teaching my 8-month-old daughter that it's OK to make mistakes and how to gain confidence despite them,” Topper said.
Ironically, Cooper once worked with Del Norwood, the father of former Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood, whose missed a 47-yard field goal in Super Bowl XXV and magnetized the infamous phrase “Wide Right.”
Buffalo lost to the New York Giants, 20-19, in 1991 at Tampa Stadium, the headshaking outcome secured when Norwood's kick, hardly a chip shot, misfired.
Cooper worked alongside Del Norwood at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va.
Scott Norwood later was quoted as saying, “I certainly don't dwell on it. I've moved on and have it in its proper place and perspective.”
Upper St. Clair coach Jim Render, who coached the Panthers in 1997, said off the cuff recently that the '97 championship was remembered for a missed extra point, but he reminds people that his kicker made four extra points — a reflection of how kickers can be taken for granted at times, until the big miss.
Render was complimentary of Penn-Trafford, which last Friday topped his Panthers, 35-14, in the semifinals to reach this year's Class 5A title game Saturday night at Heinz Field.
For two decades, Topper's folklore has been passed down to every kicker to wear a Warriors' uniform.
“I'm sure there were more plays in the game than that one that could have changed the outcome,” said current Penn-Trafford kicker Nick Tarabrella, who has program records for career extra points and field goals. “But my heart goes out to him, too. As kickers, that's what we sign up for, and if it comes down to it this Saturday I'll be ready.”
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