Best ever? Worrell to enter state hall of fame

July 15, 2017
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Robert Taylor “Red” Worrell was a four-sport standout at the former Centerville High School during the mid-1950s.
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Carol McConnell, who was married to Robert Worrell at the time of his death, holds several of his jerseys.

Were he alive today, Robert Taylor “Red” Worrell would be 79 years old, most likely surrounded by his family and friends and quietly accepting congratulations on being elected to the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.

The Red Worrell file

Some of Robert “Red” Worrell’s athletic accomplishments at Centerville High School and Penn State University:

• Was the only player from Pennsylvania to be named first team on the 1956 Wigwam Wisemen National High School All-America football team.

• One of eight fullbacks named to the Scholastic Magazine All-America team in 1956.

• Named the outstanding football player in the WPIAL (all classifications) for the second consecutive year in 1956. Was the first player to win the award twice.

• One of five WPIAL players selected to the first Pennsylvania Big 33 all-star team.

• Scored 125 points as a senior on 18 touchdowns and 17 extra points to finish second in the WPIAL to Maurice Mathieu of Monessen, who had 132. Mathieu played in 10 games and Worrell scored in seven but did not run the ball against West Bethlehem in the final game of the season.

• Scored 376 points for Centerville.

• Named to the All-WPIAL Class B football team four times. First player to be selected four times.

• Set the shot put record at the 1956 PIAA Track & Field Championships with a put of 55-5½ to win the state title for the second consecutive year. Also won the discus title as a sophomore and finished second in 1956. In the WPIAL Class B Championships at Connellsville in 1956, was the individual champion with 14 points, setting meet records in the shot put (53-6) and discuss (145-3) and finishing second in the javelin.

• Lettered four years in basketball and baseball at Centerville.

• Recruited by 135 colleges. Initially chose North Carolina and was working in Chapel Hill, N.C., in the summer of 1957 before changing his mind because he was homesick. He returned to Pennsylvania and transferred to Penn State.

• Broke Penn State’s freshman rushing records (freshmen were not eligible to play varsity at the time) and helped the Nittany Lion Cubs to a 6-0-0 record in 1957. Rushed for 236 yards against Navy.

• Penn State gives the Red Worrell Memorial Award to an offensive player for “exemplary conduct, loyalty, interest, attitude and improvement” during spring football practice.

• Inducted into the Washington-Greene Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1998, the Mid Mon Valley All Sports Hall of Fame in 2008 and the WPIAL Hall of Fame in 2012.

“Oh, I’m sure he would be pleased with the honor but he also would be very humbled by it,” said Carol McConnell of Fredericktown, who was Worrell’s wife at the time of his death nearly 60 years ago. “He was never one to seek the limelight nor bask in it. He truly believed in sharing any accolades that came his way with his teammates and coaches. He always said you can’t succeed in sports without the help of others.”

That is only part of the legacy of Worrell, a four-sport standout at the former Centerville High School (now part of the Beth-Center School District), who will be inducted posthumously into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame Oct. 28 at the Genetti Hotel and Conference Center in Williamsport.

Worrell’s athletic career – high school and college – spanned only five years. He never received the opportunity to pursue his passion for sports, particularly football, and he didn’t even enjoy the festivities of a 20th birthday.

A 1957 Centerville graduate and possibly the best football player in Western Pennsylvania in the 1950s, Worrell died Dec. 22, 1957 at the home of his parents, Thomas Eli “Woody” and Helen Bilpuch Worrell, in Denbo.

He was only 19.

“I can’t believe it was almost 60 years ago,” McConnell said. “It seems like it was just yesterday. You never forget something like that. It was the most traumatic day of my life.”

Worrell, who was born March 8, 1938, was killed while helping his father put up a television antenna. His death stunned people throughout the area and State College, where he had just completed an outstanding freshman football season at Penn State University.

“They were in the alley behind the house, not on the roof as most people think,” McConnell said. “Bob was holding a metal pipe attached to the antenna when it came into contact with a high tension wire. He collapsed and was caught by his father, who also was burned by the high voltage. Bob sat up and said, ‘Dad, I’m OK,’ and then he fell back on the blacktop. His dad was never the same (emotionally) after that.”

Brownsville firemen were called and administered CPR in an attempt to save Bob’s life. He was taken to Brownsville General Hospital and was pronounced dead shortly after 4 p.m., less than an hour after the accident. The news of Worrell’s death spread fast.

“We were home for the holiday break,” McConnell recalled. “Bob was visiting at his parents’ home and I was with my mom and dad getting ready for Christmas. I can still see and hear my mother-in-law running toward the front door and screaming, ‘Kimmie doesn’t have a father anymore. Kimmie doesn’t have a father anymore.’ We didn’t understand what she meant, but when she explained ... bam! It was as if someone had stuck a knife in my heart. We were devastated. It was the first time I ever saw my father cry.”

Carol and Bob were longtime sweethearts who married during the summer after their junior year at Centerville High and became the parents of a daughter, Kimberly Jeannette, two months before graduation. She was only eight months old when her father died.

Worrell’s funeral was unlike anything Centerville had ever seen.

“It was pretty much a blur for the family, so much going on,” McConnell said. “There were hundreds of people who came to pay their respects. The Penn State football team traveled here by bus and players and coaches from other schools also came. Support from the community, of course, was tremendous, and to this day we remain deeply grateful to everyone.”

Public visitation took place at the Kisinger Funeral Home in Brownsville and St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Denbo. The Rev. D.M. Candrol was in charge of services at the church and burial was at Lafayette Memorial Park near Brownsville.

“The (funeral) procession was about two miles long,” McConnell recalled.

Worrell, a bruising 6-0, 200-plus-pound fullback and linebacker, graduated from Centerville in 1957 after a celebrated four-year athletic career as a starter in football, basketball, baseball and track. He was a high school All-America football player courted by nearly 140 colleges, was named the top player in the WPIAL as a junior and senior and set WPIAL and PIAA records in track and field.

“My father often said Red was the best (back) he ever coached,” said former state Rep. Peter J. Daley of California, whose late father, Pete Daley Sr., was Centerville’s head football coach during Worrell’s tenure with the Wildcats.

“He was built like a bull, a combination of Jim Thorpe and Jim Brown in one body. He was so strong and every opponent he faced had a hard time stopping him.”

Because of Worrell’s presence, and reputation, Centerville, a Class B school, often had difficulty scheduling opponents. A case in point was the 1954 season (Worrell’s sophomore year) opener against Mt. Lebanon, a perennial Class AA (the WPIAL’s highest classification at the time) title contender..

“Fans were taunting our kids, calling them ‘country boys’ and saying, ‘Welcome to the big time,’” John “Shag” Wolosky, an assistant coach at Centerville, said years ago. “That didn’t last long. Red reeled off a long run the first time he handled the ball and we gave Mt. Lebanon all they could handle. The final score was 7-6, but Mt. Lebanon scored its touchdown on a blocked punt and then blocked our extra-point kick to hold on for the win. Red proved he could play in any classification and Centerville established itself as a good team at any level.”

In Worrell’s final season, 1956, Centerville posted a 7-1 record and was selected as the top Class B team in the WPIAL. The Wildcats, however, did not have enough Gardner Points to make the playoffs.

Clarence Hess of Beallsville, recognized as one of the most loyal fans in the history of Centerville and Beth-Center high schools, saw Worrell play as a freshman.

“He had a outstanding season with the junior high team as an eighth grader,” the 76-year-old Hess said. “There was a lot of talk and excitement about him as his freshman year approached. I figured I’d go see what he was all about and he didn’t disappoint anyone. Centerville won their opener and Red had a big game, the first, as it turned out, of many.”

Centerville shut out Elizabeth 33-0 in that 1953 opener and finished the season with a 7-1-1 record, scoring 222 points while allowing only 46. The only blemishes on the record were a 7-0 loss to Jefferson and a 12-12 tie with East Bethlehem. By the time Worrell’s varsity career ended in 1956, Centerville had posted a 24-3-5 record, scored 834 points and gave up 224. Worrell accounted for 376 of those points.

Though his point production was acknowledged in newspaper accounts of the Wildcats’ games, no one is certain about how many yards Worrell accumulated in those four years. It has been estimated that Worrell rushed for between 2,000 and 3,000 career yards. The total might have been more had Worrell’s playing time not been limited in many games.

“Bob wasn’t interested in personal records,” McConnell said. “There were times when the coaches took him out of the game because the score was so lopsided. And there were other times when he took himself out of a game for the same reason.”

Humble is an adjective used by many to describe Worrell.

“The thing that impressed so many people was how very humble (Worrell) was,” Daley said. “He never talked about himself and preferred to give credit to his teammates and coaches in any sport. He truly believed in the team concept.”

Frank Korbini, a native of Vestaburg, was a year ahead of Worrell at Centerville and Penn State. And it was significant that he was the second recipient of the Red Worrell Memorial Trophy that goes annually to the Nittany Lions player who shows the most improvement during spring football practice.

In addition to Korbini and Ted Zets, who later starred at West Virginia University, Worrell’s other teammates at Centerville included Frank Kovach, Paul Sharkady, Bob Ganoe, Paul Safin, Mike Stefan, Alan Hegedus, Tom Halligan, Richard Gregory, Bill Jeney, Fred Laughner, Bob Clish, John Bozick, Kerrie Gill, Bill Kopf, Gary Davis, Ed Rafferty, John Marino, Ed Baumgardner, Bill Ford, Wally Detrick, Ron Balla, Ed Korbini, Tom Gaydos, Roger Malinzak, Robert Theakston, Franklin Gaster, Ed Bogus, Ted Lazosky, Jerry Meneskie, Gene Gregory, Paul Pitek, Leon Pagac, Eddie Pagac, Bill Stutko, Joel Lucia, Bob George, Richard Matyi, Dave Bowen, Allan Kinder and Franklin Andolsek.

Coaches at Centerville junior and senior high school during those years included Daley, Wolosky, James J. Harris, Joe Bellisario, Tom Edwards, John Danna and Cyril Coatsworth.

At the time of Worrell’s selection to the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, Bellisario, who also is a former head coach at Beth-Center, called Worrell, “The greatest high school player I ever saw and coached.”

“He loved (his teammates) like brothers,” McConnell said. “Bob never said much about his talents or achievements. He took everything in stride. I’m sure he was aware of how good he was and what the future might have held, but he was a very quiet and humble man.”

“I heard my family talk about my father when I was very young but I really didn’t understand who he was,” said Kim McConnell, who is a registered dietitian in Maryland. ”Oh, there were times when his friends and others would gush over me and say, ‘So, you’re Red’s daughter?’ But even then I didn’t completely understand the significance. My mother showed me the scrapbooks and there are tons of pictures of us as a family. But somehow it doesn’t seem real because I never got to know him.”

Kim McConnell is a 1974 graduate of Beth-Center High School who earned a Bachelor of Science degree in food and nutrition from Penn State in 1979. She has lived in Maryland since 1985.

Her mother also graduated from Penn State, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in home economics in 1961. Contrary to longtime rumors, she did not receive her husband’s scholarship from the university.

“They didn’t give football scholarships to women,” she said laughingly. “The school was very good to me, but I went there on my own. After Bob died, his parents wanted me to go to work at the Five and Dime store in Brownsville. But I was determined to get my education, so I enrolled at Penn State. The cost was $150 for tuition and $450 for room and board, but I was fortunate to obtain several academic scholarships which helped with the expenses. Kim stayed with my parents and I tried to get home every weekend to see her. It was a tough grind but it was well worth it.”

On the day of graduation at Penn State, Carol received a telephone call from Ben Parker, superintendent at Jefferson High School, offering her a job. She accepted and went to work the next day. She taught at Jefferson for one year then moved to Beth Center, where she worked until retiring in 1994.

In 1963, she married Richard McConnell, who had been a classmate at Centerville High School.

“Bob, Dick and I were good friends in high school,” she said. “Dick and Bob often went hunting and fishing together.”

Carol McConnell pointed out that Worrell faced “a lot of pressure” at Penn State, mixing his studies and football with part time jobs in construction and as a caretaker at their apartment building “to make ends meet.”

“He was committed to making things as comfortable as possible for Kim and me,” she said. “He was such a loving husband and father. At the same time, he was determined to do well in the classroom. He was great at managing his time.”

In his weekly Mon Valley Memories, Paglia, a longtime Mon Valley newspaperman, goes into newspaper archives to reflect on the events and people who shaped the river communities and made them what they are today. Watch for Paglia’s feature tomorrow and appearing every Thursday in the Observer-Reporter.

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