In the early 1960s, Washington High School dominated the local football scene.
So, what was the team of the ’60s in the WPIAL?
You get a strong argument from Uniontown, which won championships during the decade in football and basketball. The Prexies and Red Raiders had quite a rivalry in football.
Norris Vactor was one of the key players for Washington during the early 1960s. Vactor was one of four brothers who played for Wash High. The competition between Norris, Ted, Frank and Pete made them better athletes.
“We had many confrontations competing against each other,” Norris Vactor said. “Our battles were testy. We would play basketball and football in the backyard. Ted and I would get into it. It was fierce. Pete was the oldest. We always looked up to him.”
Pete Vactor played on the Washington Pony League team that won the World Series in 1955. It was the first and only team from Washington to win the world series.
“I recall that the three of us played on the same team (the White Sox) in Little League,” Norris Vactor said. “Pete later coached us. He also coached us in basketball. He was tough on all of us. Most important of all, he taught us to lead.”
Football was the game Norris Vactor liked the most. He was a multi-talented player. He could throw the football with his left or right hand.
“I also could pitch left-handed and right-handed,” he said.
He played wingback, quarterback and kick returner in football and played each position well.
The 1961 Washington High School football team was good with Bobby Riggle, Ted Vactor, Bobby Stock and Jerry Sandusky.
“Oh, they were good, but I was proud of the ’63 team.” Norris Vactor said. “Unlike the ’61 team, we didn’t have a single player make all-state. We went 9-0, and that included a win at Uniontown. We averaged 35 points a game.”
Several colleges came to Vactor’s door after a successful career at Wash High.
“Fairmont State, Waynesburg, Maryland were all interested,” he said. “Parsons College (Iowa), however, offered me a full scholarship that included tuition, room and $30 a month ‘laundry’ money. I got to play my freshman year. I started at cornerback and ran back punts and kickoffs.”
Then, Vactor’s life changed April 22,1965.
“It was during practice. I was showing a guy how to run a play. It was live. A linebacker broke through (and) he speared me. Back then, the coaches taught players to spear. The linebacker hit me in the back of the neck. Oh, I knew I was in trouble, big time.”
Vactor was paralyzed. He suffered a broken neck and spinal injury.
“I had to wait two weeks for surgery,” he recalled. “I’m lucky to be here. But the way things are set up today, I might be walking if I had the same injury. You can compare the injury to one suffered by (actor) Christopher Reeve.”
How did Norris Vactor compare to some of the greats who played on those Wash High teams of 1961 and 1963?
Dave Johnston, the head coach of both, said Ted Vactor was the best overall because he played so many positions.
“But pound for pound, Norris Vactor was the best athlete I ever coached,” he said.
Lack of size might have been the only negative for Norris Vactor.
“I wasn’t very big, maybe 148 pounds in high school and 155 pounds in college. I really didn’t know what my potential was because of my size,” he said.
Norris Vactor also was successful in track.
“In 8th grade, we didn’t have a pole vaulter, so I tried it,” he said. “My senior year, I won at WPIALs.”
The Vactors are well-known and well-respected, even in Uniontown
“I got a story for you,” Norris said. “I was in my wheelchair and it was 2002. I went to Washington Park to see Hopwood play in the Pony League World Series. The guy beside me said he was from Uniontown. We started talking and the subject of football came up and the great battles between Wash High and Uniontown. We started to name names. I knew all the players from Uniontown.
“Then this guy says, ‘Yeah, Wash High, they had about 10 guys named Vactor.’ I looked at the guy and said ‘Guess what? I’m one of the Vactors.’”
Having a disability did not throw a curve in Norris Vactor’s future. He spent 10 years working as a systems analyst for Highmark.
Bill DiFabio writes a bi-weekly Sunday column about local sports history for the Observer-Reporter.