Marchetti, Gino John

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MARCHETTI, Gino John

(b. 2 January 1926 in Smithers, West Virginia), one of the greatest defensive ends in professional football and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Marchetti's parents, Ernest Marchetti and Maria Dalporto, emigrated from Lucca, Italy—the town that was, coincidentally, the birthplace of another Pro Football Hall of Famer, Leo Nomellini—to the United States shortly before he was born. The family then moved from West Virginia across the country to Antioch, California, an industrial town about fifty miles east of San Francisco. Marchetti was not particularly interested in sports as a youngster. He did not play much football until 1943, his senior year at Antioch High School. With World War II raging, Marchetti enlisted in the U.S. Army on his eighteenth birthday, quitting high school to do so. By December of that year he was a member of the much-decorated "Fighting 69th" Infantry Division, taking an active part in the fierce combat in Belgium that would become known as the Battle of the Bulge.

When he returned to Antioch after the war, Marchetti tended bar in his father's tavern for a couple of years, at the same time forming a semiprofessional football team known as the Antioch Hornets. Marchetti's brother Angelo, known as Itzy, was a good enough player to gain the attention of college recruiters. Stan Pavko, an assistant at Modesto (California) Junior College, was reportedly signing Itzy to play for his team when he looked at Gino and said, "Hey, kid, you look big enough to play football. Wanna go along?" Marchetti did, but he left Modesto soon after the season. In 1948 Brad Lynn, the assistant football coach at the University of San Francisco (USF), walked into the family tavern and asked the six-foot, four-inch, 220-pound Marchetti if he wanted to try out for the USF team. When Marchetti showed up at USF, he made a less than favorable impression on the Dons head coach, Joe Kuharich. As Marchetti tells it, "I roared up on a big motorcycle, wearing heavy boots and a black leather jacket with fifteen zippers." But Marchetti stayed and, with the help of eleven teammates who would eventually play in the National Football League (NFL), gave Kuharich an undefeated season in 1951.

Marchetti, who played tackle at USF, was drafted by the New York Yanks, who became the Dallas Texans before the 1952 season began. The Texans folded, but in 1953 Marchetti and a nucleus of Texans emerged as the Baltimore Colts. Their coach Keith Molesworth still played Marchetti at tackle, on offense. Marchetti, by this time a 245-pounder, did not like the position and thought about quitting the NFL for the Canadian Football League (CFL). But Weeb Ewbank took over as coach and said, presciently, "I think your future is as a defensive end." Not only did Marchetti become a defensive end, he became the defensive end. He perfected his craft—rushing the passer and stopping runners in their tracks—so well that he was regarded as more of an artist than artisan. He quickly earned a reputation as "the best at his position in the NFL."

With an influx of new talent—Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Alan Ameche, Jim Parker, and others—the Colts were soon contending for NFL honors. An example of Marchetti's toughness and dedication occurred in a 1955 game in which he suffered a dislocated shoulder in the first half. The battle-hardened combat war veteran simply asked the team physician, "Can you get me ready for the second half, Doc?"

After getting close in 1957, in a watershed game the following year the Colts won it all—the NFL championship. The 1958 Colts–New York Giants sudden-death overtime game has been called the greatest game ever played. It was not, from an artistic standpoint. But what it did—to raise the nation's awareness of professional football through a coast-to-coast telecast—cannot be overestimated. The broadcast game was the first shot in football's war to replace baseball as the national pastime. It was the signal for the professional football explosion that followed and continued into the next century. Marchetti played a key role late in the game—the first his father ever saw him play. The Giants, ahead 17–14, were driving for a clinching touchdown when Marchetti's clutch tackle stopped Frank Gifford a yard shy of a drive-sustaining first down. As the play was ending, 288-pound Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb fell across Marchetti's leg, breaking his ankle. After Marchetti was carried off the field, the Giants punted, and Unitas drove the Colts seventy-nine yards in the waning moments to set up the tying field goal. This sent the game, for the first time in NFL championship play, into sudden-death overtime, meaning the first team to score would be the victor.

In the overtime period the Colts began their historic drive to the championship. Fearing Marchetti would be further injured if the Colts scored and the triumphant Colts fans surged onto the field, he was moved toward the locker room. At a crucial moment in the game Marchetti ordered the stretcher put down while he watched the play. An alert photographer recorded the epic moment: a classic photo of Marchetti, ignoring his pain and intently watching the action, survives today. Marchetti was in the Colts locker room before Ameche's short touchdown run ended the game, but the hoots and hollers of his jubilant teammates told him the Colts were the champions. The team defeated the Giants again in 1959.

It was at this time that Marchetti and teammates Ameche and Joe Campanella opened a few fifteen-cent hamburger restaurants. Ameche already had a restaurant, so the new fast food outlets were named "Gino's." Business took off in those heady days, when McDonald's was still primarily a West Coast operation. Marchetti, dubbed the East Coast Hamburger King, eventually saw his name in neon above more than 500 locations along the eastern seaboard.

Marchetti's on-field performance remained stellar through the early 1960s. His quickness, the best on the team, amazed even his own teammates in film sessions. The linebacker who played behind him, Bill Pellington, said, "Game after game we'd watch film, and game after game Gino would make plays that seemed impossible—he was just unreal!" At age thirty-eight, Marchetti retired after the 1964 season. But when Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom—the man who gave Marchetti and many teammates their start in off-field businesses—asked him to come back in 1966, the ever-loyal, ever-grateful Marchetti suited up for four more games.

Marchetti played in every Pro Bowl from 1955 to 1965, except 1959, which he missed with the aforementioned broken ankle. He was also All-Pro nine consecutive years, from 1956 to 1964. When the NFL picked an All-Time team in 1969, the fiftieth anniversary of the league, Marchetti represented the defensive end position on the eleven-man team. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972. Marchetti and his second wife, the former Joan Placenik, live in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Marchetti still defines the defensive end position in the NFL, as shown by his selection for the league's seventy-fifth anniversary team. His friend and partner Alan Ameche once said, "Marchetti was the best defensive end of his time, and today, and if there's pro football a hundred years from now, he'll still be the best damned defensive end in the world."

No full-length biography of Marchetti has been published, but his life and career are discussed in John F. Steadman, Football's Miracle Men: The Baltimore Colts' Story (1959); Murray Olderman, The Defenders (1973); George Allen and Ben Olan, Pro Football's 100 Greatest Players: Rating the Stars of Past and Present (1982); and Rick Korch, The Truly Great: The 200 Best Football Players of All Time (1993).

Jim Campbell