Justice Rawlins stood outside Monessen’s football locker room Nov. 1 as the Greyhounds prepared to play West Shamokin in the first round of the WPIAL Class A playoffs.
In full pads and uniform, Rawlins spent time staring at a sign hanging on a wall of former Monessen athletes who played in the professional ranks.
The 6-1 senior linebacker said a prayer and held his hand on one name in particular: Joseph “Jo Jo” Heath – Rawlins’ stepfather.
Rawlins remembers being five years old when he heard the news of Heath’s death. The former Monessen and Pitt standout was found murdered Dec. 30, 2002. While he was never able to see Justice play, Heath’s work ethic and guidance had a lasting impression.
Rawlins, who is finishing his senior year as a three-sport athlete at Monessen, officially committed Tuesday to California University, where he will play football and baseball. After a promising high school career that included a spot on MaxPreps’ Freshman All-American team in 2010 and a devastating knee injury as a sophomore that threatened to end it all, Rawlins joins his brother, Chavas, in following Heath’s footsteps to athletic success. Chavas Rawlins is a wide receiver at Duquesne University.
“It’s such a relief to finally have the decision made,” Rawlins said. “It’s right up the road, so my family can always come see me play. Playing two sports was huge for me. That’s what solidified my decision. I couldn’t be happier.”
As he prepares for the next step, Rawlins has never forgotten the father he has always admired.
Heath, a 1976 Monessen graduate, was a three-year starter in football and basketball in high school. A highly recruited defensive back, Heath attended Pitt (1976-79), where he played on the Panthers’ national championship team and served as a captain of the 1979 team, which went 11-1 and finished ranked sixth in the nation.
After his college career, Heath was drafted in the sixth round by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1980 and played one season before stops in the Canadian Football League, where he received the Grey Cup’s Rothman’s Trophy as the championship game’s defensive most valuable player, as well as stints in the United States Football League and Arena Football League.
After his professional career ended, Heath returned to Monessen where his four children resided. Heath was active in his children’s lives and Rawlins often remembers the time they spent together.
Tragedy struck Dec. 30, 2001, when Heath was murdered – a victim of a brutal stabbing – in Fayette City. Only five years old, Rawlins did not know how to respond to the news.
“It was really tough at the start,” Rawlins said. “I never knew how to process the whole thing. It was harder for me to let go than most of the other people in my family. All he does is inspire me to do what he did as an athlete.”
After Heath’s death, the former NFL defensive back’s oldest son and Justice’s half-brother, Joseph Heath III, assumed the job as a role model for Justice and Chavas. Joseph, who was only 13 years old at the time, had lived with his father since birth and was a perfect vessel to pass on Jo Jo’s words of wisdom.
The desire for greatness and an appetite for hard work laid the groundwork for two future college football players. Rawlins is relieved to have overcome the knee injury that resulted in several Division I scholarship offers being pulled.
“The whole thing is a redo of his brother,” Monessen head football coach Andy Pacak said. “Like his brother, Chavas, any team Justice is going to be on in any sport is going to be better because he’s there. I don’t care what position he’s playing. I don’t care if it’s a Parcheesi team. It’s going to better with him on it because he’s that bright of a light.”
Rawlins made the decision to attend Cal for football a few weeks ago, but the topper came last week when Vulcans baseball coach Mike Conte contacted Monessen coach Bill Matush about a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher he was hearing so much about. Conte was relieved to hear Rawlins already planned to play football at Cal and a spot on the baseball team followed.
While Rawlins will not declare his senior year a success until the Greyhounds win a WPIAL Class A baseball playoff game, sweeping rival Clairton in every sport, including a perfect game he threw Monday in a 12-0 win over the Bears, will make him smile for years to come.
They would have made Jo Jo Heath do the same.
“He set the standard for me, and I want to live up to dreams he would want me to have,” Rawlins said.