As he starts his 40th season in charge of The Football Letter, we look back at the time John Black starred on the field in Penn State’s biggest rivalry.
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It was a legendary performance made all the more impressive given the injury that almost kept him out of action.
According to the pregame write-up in the Nov. 25, 1958 issue of The Daily Collegian, quarterback “Joltin’ Johnny” Black suffered—and we warn you, this is difficult reading—an “acute hangnail on the third finger of his throwing hand.”
“It is not expected to mar his effectiveness on the playing field,” the story continued, “but it may render him incapable of typing any more of these pre-game stories. (Did I hear a cheer?)”
The writer of that tongue-in-cheek preview was none other than the man himself: John Black ’62, then a Collegian sports writer and, with the Nittany Lions’ kickoff against Temple this Saturday, now officially in his 40th season as editor of The Football Letter. Generations of Alumni Association members know John for his insightful reports after every Penn State football game, but might not know that he took snaps on his high school and Marine Corps teams before coming to Penn State. Once in Happy Valley, where the Nittany Lions were stacked at QB in the late ’50, he realized there might be a brighter future in writing about the game than playing it.
But as some outmatched lads from Pitt found out on Thanksgiving morning, 1958, John could still play the game.
Lou Prato ’59, longtime Penn State football historian and Black’s former Collegian colleague, tipped us off a few years ago to the story of “The Blood Bowl.” On the last Thursday of November—a few hours before the Nittany Lions rallied for a come-from-behind, 25-21 win at Pitt Stadium—staffers from the Collegian and Pitt News met for a 6-on-6 game to settle in-state student-media gridiron supremacy. As John wrote in his preview, he and his teammates—aka The Daily Collegian Pros—decided to refer to their opponents as “the Pitt News Kittens,” which seemed only fair after a Pittsburgh radio station dubbed them the “Collegian Cowards.”
Among the other highlights from John’s preview: a reference to Pitt coach Beano Cook—yes, the very same Beano Cook who was later a fixture on ESPN’s college football coverage; a scouting report on Pitt’s unbalanced line that revealed “their left end weighs 382 pounds and their right end, 123”; and a note that “local bookies rated the Collegians 6-point underdogs.”
The bookies didn’t have a clue, and the “news kittens” never had a prayer.
The game story was published the following Tuesday, and the Collegian headline said it all:
According to the game story written by “Jarrin’ George” French ’60, Black scored on an 18-yard run, an 80-yard interception return, and a pair of touchdown passes from “Dandy Dick” Drayne ’60. He also added an extra point on a conversion. Afterward, Black praised the “stalwart” play of his front line, including Prato, aka “Lou ‘The Barber,'” before reportedly (ahem) admitting that “the real reason for his daring play was because he heard the high scorer gets a date with The Trophy.
As French clarified in his game story, “The Trophy told The Daily Collegian that there was absolutely no truth to the ridiculous rumor.”
Sadly, there’s no surviving video from John’s legendary performance in that lopsided Lion win. But it’s no small consolation to know that, for a 40th season, we’ve got a living legend in the press box, training his expert eye on the game he knows so well.
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