Conrad remembered for his toughness
Ralph Conrad, who was inducted into the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame in 2006, was a standout football player at Altoona Area High School and the University of Pittsburgh who was a football teammate of the legendary Mike Ditka during their days with the Panthers in the early 1960s.
Conrad was also a decent wrestler, having competed in the sport on the varsity level at Altoona, and gave Ditka his biggest wrestling challenge in the inter-fraternity wrestling competition at Pitt.
Ditka pinned his way to the competition’s championship round, but had his hands full with Conrad in the title match, surviving by 5-2 decision.
Conrad, who passed away Nov. 1 at the age of 79 in San Antonio, Tex., where he had been living for the past 10 years, was remembered by Ditka for his physical toughness.
“He was a good man,” Ditka said of Conrad in an interview for the Mirror prior to Conrad’s 2006 Blair Hall induction. “He was like the rest of us — he played the game hard.”
Ditka drew up in Aliquippa, and learned the same hard-nosed work ethic from his father that Conrad learned from his father during his upbringing in Altoona.
“We grew up with the same background,” said Ditka, who went on to become an iconic player and coach in the National Football League. “Just like my dad taught me, he was taught the same things — to have a strong work ethic and give your all on every play. It was a pleasure playing with him.”
Conrad’s Pitt and Altoona teammates remembered him for his intelligence as well as his work ethic.
Robert “Geech” Gutshall was an all-state and Big 33 All-Star Game selection at running back for Altoona, where Conrad received similar honors as a two-way lineman.
Gutshall, who now lives part of the year in Hollidaysburg and part of the year in Florida, graduated in 1960 from Altoona, while Conrad graduated in 1959. In the fall of 1960, Gutshall played on the freshman football team at Pitt, while Conrad was breaking in as a two-way, three-year starter on the Panthers’ primary roster at offensive guard and nose guard.
Gutshall, who transferred to Lock Haven State College after his freshman year at Pitt, said that Conrad was highly-respected among his classmates and teammates, both in high school and college.
“Ralph wasn’t a loud person, but he always did his job, and he did it very well,” Gutshall said. “If he said something, people listened. He was very well-respected.
“He was definitely a physical player, but it wasn’t just about brawn for him,” Gutshall added. “He really understood the game, and he used his mind out on the field.”
Gutshall also pointed out that playing high school football under coach Earl Strohm — a Blair County Sports Hall of Fame inductee in the Hall’s 1987 inaugural class — helped both Gutshall and Conrad to become sticklers for details.
“Ralph was a good guy who was never, ever late for a practice,” Gutshall said. “He kept his priorities straight. We played for Earl Strohm in high school, and Earl was a great coach who taught fundamentals all the time. Ralph became a master at fundamentals.”
The late Foge Fazio — who served as Pitt’s head football coach from 1982 to 1985 and later became an assistant coach with five National Football League teams — was a close friend of Conrad’s when the two were teammates on the Pitt football team in 1960.
Fazio, who played center and linebacker for Pitt, was a senior that year, while Conrad was a sophomore. Fazio served as Conrad’s presenter at the 2006 Blair Hall of Fame induction dinner.
“Back then, players played on both sides of the line of scrimmage in college, and Ralph was a rough, tough, no-nonsense type of player,” Fazio said of Conrad during the presentation speech.
Conrad, who embarked on a 25-year career with the Scott Paper company in St. Louis after his college days, is survived by his wife of 56 years, Nancy (Rothert), their three sons, and several grandchildren.
The Blair Hall of Fame induction honor was special for Conrad, as it has been for so many others enshrined.
“I was stunned to be selected,” Conrad said during his induction speech. “It’s truly a great honor. I want to thank Altoona and Blair County from the bottom of my heart. They are the best city and county in all of the United States.”