John Fetterman paused during a recent conversation to pick up a silver football helmet — his helmet — with red paw-print decals on the sides. The Albright College Lions won only two games in each of the four years (1987-91) he played Offensive tackle there, but he has proudly held onto that helmet.
The helmet appeared in recent campaign advertisements during the Democrat’s successful run for Pennsylvania’s open US Senate seat. And as Fetterman told The Inquirer, the helmet is more than just a souvenir from clashes on muddy Pennsylvania football fields more than 30 years ago.
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Before the Hoodie became his wardrobe staple, there were helmets. At 6-foot-8, with a bald head and goatee, the 53-year-old Fetterman looks very much like an old football player. But he said, “I want to be clear. I wasn’t anything special at all.” They had to work for everything they got in that helmet.
“It’s part of being a regular Pennsylvanian growing up,” Fetterman said of playing football in an interview a month before Election Day. “We all dreamed of playing for Penn State. A lot of us fell short. I did. I would have loved to have played at Beaver Stadium, but I enjoyed playing at Albright. I always believed that anyone playing at Division III enjoyed playing the game. You love the team. You love the relationships.”
Fetterman only started playing as a junior at Central York High School in 1985 after growing six inches in one year. His college coach at Albright, Jeff Sparagana, once playfully ribbed him because Fetterman was hardly a blur.
“He was like, ‘Fetterman, you have deceptive speed.’ I was like, `Really?’” Fetterman said, smiling. “He was like: ‘Yeah. You’re slower than you look.’ They had those one-liners that just reminded you where you really were.”
Fetterman was what coaches call a project. Sparagana, who is now retired, said recently that Fetterman was still “catching up with his coordination and size” when he enrolled at Albright in 1987.
“But he was a very, very hard worker,” Sparagana said. “He developed himself with the help of coaching into a starter his senior year at Albright. He was a very smart player, but with his size, if he needed to hammer someone, he did it. They evolved. They caught up to his physical stature, and he developed [the] confidence to use it.”
Albright, a Division III school of about 1,750 students in Reading, was hardly a football powerhouse. The Lions lost the last seven games Fetterman played. They said players used to joke that Albright was the perfect Homecoming opponent — for the other teams. “We said we were up for birthday parties and everything,” Fetterman said.
He continued: “I wouldn’t have traded it for anything, truthfully. Just playing with the guys. The best lesson that came out of it was just to get knocked down and get up. It’s a great metaphor for life.”
After a pause, he said, “I miss it. I miss being young, being able to hit up.”
He also said he appreciated what he learned — not just about football, or even playing on a team, but about himself. These would be lessons that would help carry him into a political career and through a bruising campaign against Republican Mehmet Oz. The only difference, he said, is that football is probably a little bit cleaner.
“You’re going to give hits, you’re going to take hits — sometimes, you’re going to knock someone down, and sometimes, you’re going to get knocked on your rear end.”
When asked how playing football had benefited him in politics, he said, “Pushing through, playing through the pain, just sticking with it. It does help you develop that mental toughness and understanding that you’re going to get hit. You’re going to give hits, you’re going to take hits — sometimes, you’re going to knock someone down, and sometimes, you’re going to get knocked on your rear end. Part of politics now is that it’s become so personal sometimes, so nasty. In football, whatever happens between the whistles, you do what you need to do. You hit, hit, hit, and then it’s over.”
Fetterman’s quest for the Senate nearly ended prematurely after he suffered a stroke days before winning the Democratic primary on May 17. He did not speak in public until Aug. 22, and he participated in an Oct. 25 debate against Oz with the help of a closed captioning device.
The soon-to-be senator, who had weighed as much as 418 pounds, walked four to five miles a day in the weeks after the stroke, strengthening his physique and forming a plan for a different kind of trench fight. He leaned on his athletic and football background.
Fetterman grew up in Springettsbury Township, a suburb of York, Pa. Central York High School had a formidable football program then — and still does — and after his growth spurt, he thought he might like to try football.
Asked why football and not basketball, Fetterman said, “Oh, that’s easy. I had no coordination. The only thing I was set up to do was to be a lineman. I just couldn’t play basketball — I mean, not very well.”
He was a reserve in his junior year for the Panthers, then received a cold dose of reality when members of the team attended a summer football camp at Penn State.
“And I was like, ‘Hey, maybe we can show them what we got.’ Of course, it just wasn’t in the cards,” Fetterman said. “I wasn’t good enough to get a Scholarship or play at an elite kind of place.”
But he became a contributor at Central York on the Offensive and defensive lines for a team that finished 6-4-1 in 1986. He was interested in playing at Albright, where his father, Karl, had graduated from. They considered other Pennsylvania Division III schools, but Sparagana was interested in Fetterman. His younger brother, Gregg, also later played there.
“John was quiet, unassuming, led by example,” Sparagana said. “By the time he got to his senior year, he was one of the team’s leaders, but in the beginning, he let what he was doing as a player speak for itself. The thing that always impressed me was that he was always determined to use what the Lord had given him.”
Chris Vaszily, a defensive back who graduated from Albright in 1990, a year before Fetterman, called him a good teammate and locker-room presence. He was a lunch-pail guy: likable, intelligent, and mostly quiet, but “really, really over the top funny.” The Lions did win two games in a row in 1990, the first time they’d done that in seven years.
“He wasn’t always going to be the most Fleet of foot, but he was a part of the team, and you really felt like when everybody was Dialed in and playing together, we really had a chance,” said Vaszily, who is now a sports Consultant who lives in Steamboat Springs, Colo. “He was genuine. He was humble. He was dedicated. He was sincere. He’s come there to do things he hadn’t done before.”
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As a junior and senior at Albright, Fetterman was the president of his class and had begun thinking about what he’d do after he earned a bachelor’s degree in finance. Whatever would happen would not include football.
“I knew I’d miss it, but it was time for it to be over,” Fetterman said. “My knees were starting to really bother [me]. But I was lucky. I didn’t have any serious injuries. It was like, it’s run its course.
“I miss being young — with hair — and being able to bench-press 350 pounds and stuff like that. I certainly know it’s a different season [in life]. I wouldn’t trade my life now, in terms of having kids and a family, but football is certainly a part of my life I look very fondly back on.”