Explaining why Pennsylvania developed so many of the game's great quarterbacks is like explaining why Hollywood developed beautiful movie stars. They became synonymous with the time and place. For four decades after World War II, Pennsylvania churned out one QB after another like the bottling line at Iron City Beer, the iconic Pittsburgh brand.
Speaking of which, to say "Pennsylvania quarterbacks" in this context is generous to any town east of Johnstown. To find the best quarterbacks from the state, you could draw a line on the map within an hour of Pittsburgh in Western Pee-Ay. The coal mines and steel mills and railroads forged them all, the first- or second-generation sons of immigrants. You can hear Ellis Island in their names: Unitas and Blanda, Namath and Montana, Marino and Kelly.
"Even if the father didn't work in the steel mill, the grandfather did," said Ernie Accorsi, the retired New York Giants general manager who grew up in Hershey on the other side of the state. "They are products of coal and steel, products of their upbringing. It's no accident. There's a toughness to those people."
Forget what kind of arms they had, even if a Joe Namath pass whirred through the air as if it were on a zip line. Forget that Joe Montana could be more accurate while chased than most quarterbacks throwing against air. The reason six quarterbacks from Western Pa. reside in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is their leadership.
"I was never a pampered high school athlete," George Blanda, who died in September 2010, once told a writer. "If you played poorly in those Western Pennsylvania towns, you couldn't run fast enough to get away from the lynch mob."
That writer, Wells Twombly, wrote a book called "Blanda: Alive and Kicking" in 1972, when the 45-year-old quarterback and kicker still played for the Oakland Raiders. This is how Twombly described what drove Blanda:
"No matter where George Blanda goes, no matter what he does, he is not far away, spiritually, from Youngwood. He remains a tough, competitive Slavic boy struggling -- always struggling -- to avoid the choking horror of the mines."
Blanda's family emigrated from Hungary and made a home in Youngwood, a few miles north on U.S. Route 119 from Connellsvile, where John Lujack, the 1947 Heisman Trophy winner, grew up the son of a railroad boilermaker. All those players coming out of the region possessed that drive. Or maybe it possessed them.
There was Johnny Unitas, playing for the Baltimore Colts in that magical 1958 season with three broken ribs, throwing a block for halfback Lenny Moore on a reverse. The '58 season ended in the first "Greatest Game Ever Played," when Unitas led the Colts to an overtime victory over the New York Giants in the NFL Championship Game.
He wore No. 19 and they called him Johnny U. In Beaver Falls, 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, the all-star high school quarterback wore No. 19. They called him Joey U. Namath grew up in the poor part of town and escaped his dad's steel mill to play at Alabama. Coach Bear Bryant called him "Babe," as in Parilli, who like Blanda had played quarterback for Bryant at Kentucky.
"I guess to him," Namath once said of the coach he loved, "all Pennsylvanians look alike."
Parilli, an All-American for Bryant who played pro football for 18 seasons, grew up in Rochester, Pa., just down the river from Beaver Falls. Namath's reputation for brashness, sealed with his successful guarantee that his New York Jets would win Super Bowl III, hid the toughness that drove him onto the field until his surgical knees no longer would take it.
After Namath came Montana, a grandson of Italian and Sicilian immigrants. And then, in that magical 1983 NFL draft, when six quarterbacks went in the first round, two of them, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, came from Western Pa.
The surge of quarterbacks from the region ended with that generation. The surge of players at every position receded. The steel mills shut down. The high schools closed with them. Football in Western Pennsylvania is a shell of what it once was.
If there is any solace in history, it is this: To see Pennsylvania's best quarterbacks, you only have to travel 50 miles west of the state line to Canton, Ohio. Of the 23 modern-era quarterbacks elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, these six -- Blanda, Unitas, Namath, Montana, Kelly and Marino -- came from Western Pee-Ay.