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New Sculpture Serves As A Tribute To NFL’s First Black QB
Sculptor Stephen Paulovich is a native of football pioneer Willie Thrower’s hometown, New Kensington, Pa., and graduated from the same high school. When he learned the town was planning a concrete or fiberglass sculpture, Paulovich offered to work for free to create a work in bronze. (By Jim Winn, The Courier-Journal)
KENTUCKY—It has taken more than half a century for the Jackie Robinson of football to gain even a fraction of that pioneering black baseball player’s recognition.
When New Kensington, Pa., tavern owner Willie Thrower died at age 71 in 2002, a flurry of local and national articles appeared, expressing chagrin that his role as the first black quarterback in the National Football League had been so overlooked.
Now, thanks in large part to some pro bono work by Louisville sculptor Stephen Paulovich, a life-size bronze memorial for Thrower will be dedicated soon at New Kensington’s Valley High School, where Thrower began his football career in the 1940s.
Paulovich, 45, is a native of New Kensington and continues to follow hometown news. He said he decided to step forward when he heard that the memorial committee was planning with a budget of $10,000 and was thinking of having a concrete or fiberglass sculpture created.
Paulovich, who also graduated from the school, offered to work for free to create a more lasting work in bronze, asking the committee only to raise the money for materials, about $30,000, or less than half of what such a commission would normally be, Paulovich said.
Paulovich, who received a $7,000 check in October 2003, decided to pick up the pace and not wait for all the money to be raised since he was “booked for the next two years.” He is known locally for large-scale ecclesiastical sculpture and for murals, such as one honoring the Louisville police at the Central Park substation and Old Louisville Information Center that is near completion.
Also, he has just accepted a $165,000 commission for a multifigure memorial to coal miners in the Allegheny region of southwestern Pennsylvania proposed by Saltsburg, Pa., native Ed Mancini, who now lives in Port Richmond, Pa., and New York. That commission, like the Thrower work, has an emotional tug, said Paulovich. His grandfather, like Mancini’s grandfather, was a coal miner.
The Thrower bronze — the first bronze public sculpture in New Kensington, noted Paulovich — will be placed on a 4-foot-tall pedestal at the school’s football field.
The work has been modeled in clay at Paulovich’s studio on Goss Avenue. It will be cast in Southern Indiana at the foundry of sculptor David Kocka. When it’s completed and in place, Paulovich said, he expects most visitors to compare their hand size with that of Thrower’s, whose nickname was “Mitts.”
The project, sponsored by the Willie Thrower All-Pro Memorial Committee, includes a Web site, www.williethepro.com, a posthumous effort to give “Mitts” his due. ESPN created an “Outside the Lines” episode in 2004 about Thrower’s career and a tape of the “Thrower Story” has been aired on public radio stations.
Committee member Will Varner told the local Valley News Dispatch last year that “It’s hard to believe that New Kensington produced such an important man. Some residents didn’t even believe it until they saw his story on ESPN.”
Also, the high school now has a Thrower showcase, and two $750 scholarships have been established by the committee for scholar-athletes at the school who are “average Joe students” and might otherwise be overlooked, as Thrower was.
Thrower apparently never tried to dissuade naysayers who thought a tavern owner in a small suburb of Pittsburgh with the last name of Thrower was making up a story. However, he did lead his high school football team to two regional championships, in 1946 and 1947.
He played at Michigan State University, where he was the first African-American quarterback in the Big Ten; then went on to be selected for the pros as a quarterback for the Chicago Bears.
He only came off the bench once, making history and completing three out of seven passes for 27 yards at Soldier Field in 1953 against the San Francisco 49ers.
Thrower was released by the Bears in 1954 and continued to play pro ball in Canada until he was 27 and sidelined by a dislocated shoulder. Then, he went home to New Kensington.