By George Von Benko, For the Herald-Standard
Joe Hrezo's world tour began in Uniontown
New Salem native Joe Hrezo went off to college on a football scholarship and wound up on a world tour.
Hrezo played football, wrestled and ran track for the Uniontown Red Raiders in the late 1950's and was part of some outstanding teams.
'I lettered in 1956 as a sophomore,' Hrezo recalled. 'I played mostly on the kickoff team, plus some defense. In 1957 I played end, and then my senior season I shifted to a guard spot and also played linebacker. I actually liked playing guard better than playing end because I was pretty quick. I was able to pull and do a lot of blocking, and of course, played linebacker on defense and I liked that.'
In 1956 the Raiders were 8-2 with losses coming at the hands of Mt. Lebanon 28-13 and Monessen 7-0.
The 1957 squad was unbeaten at 8-0, but 16 players were stricken with the flu and two games were cancelled - Redstone and Baldwin. The Redstone game was rescheduled, but Gardner points knocked the Raiders out of a chance to play for the title.
In Hrezo's senior year Uniontown posted a 7-1-1 mark. The loss was an upset by German and the tie came against Mt. Lebanon.
Hrezo was very adept at blocking punts, and in his senior season, he blocked five punts in the final three games.
'That was pretty interesting,' he said. 'I think I got two in the last game, and that helped me make the All-State team. I was pretty quick, and our coaches had a great punt block scheme. We were pretty good at blocking punts.'
Quarterback Sandy Stephens and halfback Bill Munsey spearheaded the Red Raiders of that era. Stephens graduated in 1958 and Munsey in 1959.
'They were both great players,' Hrezo said. 'Munsey was a great guy. I enjoyed blocking for him. He was tough and he could run. They were both good teammates. Stephens just had great ability. He was good, he could tiptoe and he could run hard. He was pretty big and he had a good arm. Munsey was just a tough, tough guy.'
Bill Power was the Uniontown head football coach, and Hrezo has high praise for his old mentor.
'He had good teams and he had good coaches,' Hrezo said. 'His assistants were John Kruper, Al Brodhag, Max Zane and Bill Barren. Coach Power had the knack. We practiced hard and scouted really well. He used film, and we went over the film after every game, where he critiqued us. He was a really good guy.'
Hrezo garnered All-State, All-County and All-Western Conference honors as a senior and was named to the Big 33 squad, where he helped Pennsylvania defeat the U.S. All-Stars 18-0 in Hershey.
'Five of us from the Big 33 team wound up playing at Maryland,' Hrezo said. 'It was a great experience playing in that game, and there was nobody more surprised than me when I saw my name in the newspaper that I made it. That's how I found out - from the newspaper.'
The 1957 season still is a bitter pill for Hrezo to swallow.
'There was a lot of disappointment,' he lamented. 'You go undefeated, and all you get is an 8-0 record and no chance to play for a title.'
Hrezo also ran track for the Red Raiders, and he was on the wrestling squad.
'I ran the sprints and low hurdles,' Hrezo said. 'I tried to throw the javelin, but I would always cross the line. I made the varsity wrestling team my senior year, and I lettered in track all three years. I enjoyed wrestling. We had a real good wrestling coach - Red Campbell. Abe Everhart coached track. He always had a smile on his face. He was a good coach.'
Hrezo also credits his time at Uniontown with helping get through college football.
'Some of the basic fundamentals really helped,' Hrezo said. 'During the summer coach Power would give us a big tire tube folded over in kind of a canvas cover with holders on it. You would get another guy, get in your stance and pop up and hit it with a forearm shiver. It had a big punching area hanging down and you hit that. When I went to college some of the players had never seen that. We had great fundamentals.'
When Hrezo graduated from Uniontown in 1959, he had to sift through some scholarship offers.
'I could have gone to Miami,' he remembered. 'My dad wouldn't let me. He said you're not going to major in underwater basket weaving. I visited Tennessee, Wake Forest, Cincinnati, Penn State and Maryland.'
Maryland recruited Pennsylvania and Fayette County well and Hrezo became a Terrapin.
'There were five of us down there from Fayette County,' Hrezo said. 'Two the year before and three my year. Rich Novak and Tom Sankovich were down there, and they showed me around.'
'I said, 'This is the place for me.' Three of us joined those two - Tom Rae, Murnis Banner and me.'
Hrezo played freshman ball in 1959.
'I played in three games, and then I got a concussion and a lacerated pupil my first year,' he stated. 'I started as a guard my sophomore year and also played both ways as a linebacker. I played the up back on offense as a junior and was strictly a linebacker as a senior.
Hrezo won the Coaches Award as a linebacker in his senior season.
Tom Nugent was the Maryland coach.
'He was a character,' Hrezo said of Nugent. 'He had quite a staff, including Lee Corso, but Nugent was a showman - an I formation guy.'
The Terps posted a 6-4 mark in 1960 and were 7-3 in 1961. In Hrezo's senior season they went 6-4.
'We had great talent. Gary Collins made All-America,' Hrezo said. 'We could have gone to a bowl game my junior season, but we were upset by Virginia. My senior season we almost upset George Mira and Miami. I had an interception in that game.
'Dick Shiner played quarterback at Maryland while I was there, and we had a good tackle in Walter Rock. Collins was terrific.'
Hrezo graduated from Maryland in 1963 and entered the service.
'I could have tried out with the Eagles,' Hrezo said. 'But, I went through ROTC and got commissioned, and two weeks after I graduated I was in the Air Force at Griffith Air Force Base in Rome, N.Y.'
The service set him up for what proved to be his life's work in air transport. He was in the Air Force for four and a half years. Following his stint in the Air Force, he went to work for Air America in Laos and Vietnam.
'I was trying to get into counter insurgency and go to paratrooper school,' Hrezo stated. 'They didn't have any opening for my AFSC (service classification). I was colorblind, so I couldn't go to pilot's school. It was suggested that I go to transportation school. I went there for three months and then went to Korea with the Military Air Transport Command.
'At that time Air America was flying a DC 4s, and they brought the Stars and Stripes newspaper over from Japan every night. I got to know the Air America rep over there. I was extended for six months, and then after that I got a job interview, came back and then went to work for Air America.
'It was an interesting experience. It wasn't as bad as everybody said it was. They were a contractor, and they had some planes from the government. They did some really good things and some weird things.'
Hrezo worked for Air America for two years and then went to work for World Airways in Bangkok and Manila and some other projects.
'Right at the end, when I was working for World Airways, I was on the last flight out of Da Nang in Vietnam that took off with about three hundred people on a 727.'
Hrezo then worked in Saudi Arabia and then moved on to Singapore and then Indonesia. He then returned to the U.S. and did some work with World Airways. He then went to work for Emory World Wide Airlines in Dayton, Ohio. He retired once, but then went back to work. He now works for Astar Air Cargo.
Hrezo, 66, resides in Wilmington, Ohio. He met his wife Carolina when he worked in Indonesia. They have been married 19 years and have no children.
Hrezo still gets back to Uniontown to visit his mother.
'My mother is still alive and will be 92 in November,' he said. 'I go to Uniontown two or three times a year. You can't take Fayette County out of the boy. It was great growing up back there and we had a great bunch of guys.'
George Von Benko's 'Memory Lane' columns appear in the Sunday editions of the Herald-Standard. He also hosts a sports talk show on WMBS-AM radio from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.
Updated 09/15/2008 12:06:07 AM EDT
ŠThe Herald Standard 2008