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Big night for all: Roethlisberger helps welcome Blair County Sports Hall of Fame class

April 29, 2012
By Philip Cmor, , The Altoona Mirror

Partway into a speech that often had the crowd in stitches, Don Appleman went off on one of his several tangents that had time-conscious hall president Dave Andrews sweating a bit.

Appleman, the former Williamsburg sports star and longtime coach, asked veteran area official Eugene Parker, out of the blue, to stand up. Then he explained that he'd run into Parker earlier in the week, when Parker told him he was getting a new suit to attend the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony with his grandson.

"That's what this is all about,'' Appleman said, reaching his point. "Grandparents and grandsons getting all dressed up and going out together.''

Article Photos

Mirror photos by?Gary M. Baranec
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his wife, Ashley, share a laugh during Saturday night’s banquet.

Appleman, who said he was the link between past and present in Williamsburg's proud athletic tradition, might very well have linked the Blair Hall's entire 15th induction ceremony together with that one offbeat story. Family was a running theme on Saturday night at the Blair County Convention Center, as were community and, appropriately, history as the body celebrated the 25th anniversary of its first banquet before a record crowd of 1,100.

"When Neil [Rudel] and I had lunch 25 years ago and discussed this, we never could have predicted we'd be here 25 years later,'' Andrews said. "This dinner has been the sports night in Blair County.''

In addition to Appleman, hailing from one of the first families of sports in Williamsburg, Altoona's Todd Benson joined two of his brothers in the hall. Former WNBA player Candace Futrell, also from a well-known family of Altoona athletes, was inducted, along with Hollidaysburg basketball great Allen Griffith, Altoona baseball legend Harold "Bucky'' Bush and the 1999 PIAA Class AA champion Tyrone Area High School football team.

Stan Savran served once again as master of ceremonies, as he has at each induction dinner.

Even featured speaker Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers was on topic, talking about his father's influence on his athletic career, the tragic loss of his mother in a car accident when he was 8 and the impact his marriage to former St. Francis University softball player Ashley Harlan - who sat with him at the head table - has had on his life; the Pro Bowl quarterback said how his most important ring wasn't those from his two Super Bowls, it was the one from his wedding.

"I was blessed with talent but more so with family and friends,'' said Futrell, the second-leading scorer all-time at Duquesne, on her induction. "They were there when I was up and, more importantly, when I was down.''

Futrell then singled out her mother, father and step-father in saying, "Thanks for giving me the courage to dream.''

Appleman continued that thought later by saying his being placed in the Blair Hall was the fulfillment of a dream. Appleman was the all-time boys basketball scoring leader in Blair County for 30 years, then went on to become a successful coach at his alma mater - he and his brother, Jeff, have 961 career coaching wins.

"Williamsburg has a phenomenal basketball tradition,'' Appleman said. "I'm the link from the past to the present in that tradition.''

Appleman's son, Christian, carried on that tradition before going to Penn State as an athlete and becoming a coach himself. While Christian Appleman couldn't be there, his wife was with their two children. Don Appleman's wife, Debbie, is the current athletic director at Williamsburg - "She's my best friend,'' Appleman said.

Appleman has played or coached with or against most of the county's sports stars from the last half-century. He recognized the 1973 Central boys basketball team, and, in one of the more touching moments in the evening, asked for a moment of silence to honor Bishop Guilfoyle girls basketball assistant coach Bill Adams - who was recently hospitalized - even though the rivalry between Williamsburg and Guilfoyle has been somewhat heated through the years.

Benson, who played college football at Maryland and briefly in the USFL was introduced by his brother, Brad, a 1990 enshrinee who kidded his younger sibling about his recent marriage at the age of 49 coming before he started collecting Social Security.

The latest Benson to enter the Blair Hall - former NFL linebacker Troy went in in 1992 - recounted how his father and mother helped influence his athletic success along with his three brothers' constant pushing.

"I always wanted to be in the hall because of my brothers. This is certainly a great night, not just for me, but for my family,'' Benson said, also recounting a story about his grandfather once striking out Babe Ruth to exhibit just how deeply sports ran in his blood.

Bush didn't play against Ruth, but the former St. Louis Cardinals farmhand was considered Ruth's equivalent in the Altoona City League following World War II, with stories about his home runs across the creek at Juniata Field part of area baseball lore. Bush, now 97, didn't speak, instead sitting in the audience with his niece, but his induction was notable to his figurative brothers from Altoona's baseball heyday.

"To have one of their own inducted speaks volumes of the level of baseball that was played back then,'' said former Altoona Mirror sports editor Jim Lane, who introduced Bush.

Griffith, who overcame average stature to have a great basketball career at Villanova in the 1950s, chose not to focus on himself when he reached the podium but to talk about the fans that followed his Hollidaysburg High School basketball team as it pursued an undefeated season in 1952-53.

"They started to come to practice. I can't remember all the names and faces, but they kept coming. When we had away games, the town shut down,'' Griffith said. "Hollidaysburg is a fabulous, fabulous community. I'm happy to have been raised there.''

Community also played heavily in John Franco's address to accept the induction of the Tyrone Golden Eagle football team he coached to the only PIAA football title won by a team from Blair County or all of District 6.

"The Tyrone community had such a big role in our championship,'' Franco said, remarking how the Eagles' state final appearances in 1996 and 1999 produced two of the biggest attendance totals in state finals history. "It's an intangible you have to be part of to understand.

"We're not as big a school as some of the others, but the size of our hearts will match anyone,'' Franco added when saying how the induction was final validation of the team's greatness. "There will be others, but you will always be the first.''

Ken Koronowski was the recipient of the hall's Community Service Award. A self-proclaimed "control freak,'' Koronowski was instrumental in organizing the local youth ice hockey program that has won 18 league championships, nine state titles and a national crown in its first dozen years of existence.

"It's a reward every day to watch this live and breath and take on its own life,'' Koronowski said.

Altoona volleyball player Adena Delozier and Central multi-sport athlete Matt Ritchey were the hall's scholarship recipients. Each received a check in the amount of $2,000 - since its inception, the hall has given out more than $80,000 in scholarship money.

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