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Crist was known for his versatility

Two-sport standout died in October

By Terry Nau

For the Mirror

The death of former Penn State basketball captain Chuck Crist on Oct. 28 passed without much notice on the national sports scene.

Crist succumbed to aplastic anemia, a rare disorder in which the bone marrow fails to produce an adequate number of blood cells. He was 69 years old.

Hard-core fans might remember the western New York product as a rare athlete who did not play football in college and then jumped straight to the NFL for seven solid seasons.

The ability to play two sports at an elite level is pretty rare.

Among athletes who have doubled up on the national scene, Wilkinsburg native Dick Groat earned All-America honors in basketball at Duke in the early 1950s before moving on to play shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals.

Groat, however, played baseball in college to keep his skills sharp. He made All-America in that sport, too.

College wrestling fans will remember that Jim Nance (of Indiana, Pa.) and Stephen Neal were former NCAA champions who completed successful careers in the NFL.

Deion Sanders and Brian Jordan were among several NFL-MLB participants over the years.

The combination of basketball and football is highly unusual.

Former big leaguer Dave Winfield played basketball in college at Minnesota in the early 1970s and was drafted in the 17th round by the Minnesota Vikings but never tried out. It takes a certain kind of athlete to master basketball and football.

At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Chuck Crist was that kind of player.

Crist wanted to play quarterback at Penn State and famously said no to Joe Paterno, who decided in the summer of 1968 that the incoming freshman was better suited for defensive back.

Chuck had been offered either a football or basketball scholarship by Penn State and decided to play hoops for four years.

“Chuck could play any sport,” said his former Nittany Lion teammate, Ron Kodish. “We roomed together in college. I remember one time we got some boxing gloves on our dorm floor and people started sparring. When Chuck put the gloves on, he just dazzled everyone with the speed of his hands and his reflexes. If Chuck had wanted to try out for the golf team, I believe he would have made it. He would definitely have been a starter on the varsity baseball team.

“We were both health and physical education majors,” Kodish added. “One time in gymnastics class, I was struggling on the pommel horse. Most of us were. But Chuck got up and started spinning around like he was a member of Gene Wettstone’s varsity team.”

After graduating in 1972, Crist decided to try out with the NFL’s New York Giants. Paterno put in a good word for him, but nobody expected much from an unheralded athlete who hadn’t played football in four years.

Crist made the Giants’ roster right out of summer camp.

“A lot of his old teammates and friends followed Chuck’s career in the NFL,” Kodish said. “In his second season, Spider Lockhart got hurt and all of a sudden Chuck was starting at safety.”

Crist would play seven seasons in the NFL, accumulating 20 interceptions while making contributions on both defense and special teams. He started 65 games as he played three seasons apiece with the Giants and Saints before concluding his career with the 49ers in 1978.

Crist then returned to western N.Y. and embarked on a long career in education, serving as an elementary and high school principal in the Salamanca School District.

To keep his competitive juices flowing, Crist played fast-pitch softball in his 30s and then turned to golf, eventually winning six championships at the Holiday Valley Golf Club.

“I first met Chuck in September of 1968 when I was shooting hoops in the South Gym,” Kodish recalled. “There was hardly anyone in the gym. I looked down at the other basket and saw this one kid playing by himself. He seemed to be just floating through the air. And that was Chuck Crist. We were both in Coach (John) Bach’s first recruiting class. We roomed together in our sophomore year before Chuck married Patti, his high school sweetheart.”

Crist ended up playing small forward on the basketball team, going against taller players and neutralizing them with aggressive defense, strength and athleticism, most notably his ability to get off the floor in dogged pursuit of rebounds.

“Chuck was what we call a quick jumper,” Kodish said. “He would go up, come down and go back up right away. There was no dunking in college basketball when we played but we were allowed to dunk in practice, and Chuck did it with ease. He definitely had the best vertical leap on our team.”

In Chuck’s senior year, the Nittany Lions went 17-8 and were one of the better teams in the East. Crist averaged 10.9 points per game and 5.2 rebounds. He was not the star of the team but he was the glue that held things together.

“We beat Virginia, which had Barry Parkhill and was ranked No. 2 at the time,” Kodish remembered. “But in those days, only 32 teams made the NCAA Tournament.”

Over the years, Kodish saw his old roommate at several Penn State basketball alumni reunions.

“I once went up and visited Chuck and Patti,” Kodish said. “He was really loved in Salamanca, where he taught school and became a high school principal. A few years ago, one of my teammates told me that Chuck was sick. I phoned Chuck. He was optimistic and said he thought he could beat it.”

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