(This is the sixth in a series of feature stories on the 2012 inductees into the Lawrence County Historical Society Sports Hall of Fame).
Mike Latsko sat in Penn State’s locker room, surrounded by some of the best high school football players in America.
He just graduated from New Castle High and was at Penn State University with some of the Nittany Lions’ other recruits. The group of players started off talking about how amazing it was going to be to walk out of the tunnel at Beaver Stadium in front of the droves of fans for the first time. Not long after, the conversation turned to high school.
“We all started talking about Penn State fans, and then we were talking about our high school days, and some of the other guys were telling me about how cool it was when they came to New Castle — the crowd, the fireworks and the atmosphere of the game,” said Latsko, a 1983 graduate. “It was something.”
No one knows that better than Latsko, whose entire family came through the Red Hurricane football program. His dad, Ray, and brothers, Jimmy and Mark, were all part of historic eras at New Castle. Mike made sure he was part of one, too.
In his eyes, there wasn’t any other option.
“I remember when I was in elementary school, making my dad go to the game two hours early just so I could go out and watch the teams warm up and see all those fans there,” Mike said. “At that time, they had both sets of stands up and they were filled. I remember watching them warm up and thinking how I wanted to be a part of this. When you’re finally there, it’s such an honor, and you think about how you contributed to such a great program.”
Mike’s contributions were evident from the beginning. He started at safety for the ’Canes as a sophomore, and it was unheard of for any underclassmen to see the field during a time when New Castle was one of the premier schools in the state. But an injury forced Latsko into action, and he didn’t disappoint. He made seven interceptions that year and began to impose fear into opposing teams with his smash-mouth, hard-hitting style of play. He finished his career as New Castle’s all-time leader in interceptions (15) and also starred at quarterback. He threw for 1,154 yards — still ranking fourth all time — and six touchdowns during his senior year of 1982. He led the ’Canes to the WPIAL championship game in ’82, dropping a 6-3 decision to Ringgold. His résumé includes a spot on the Pittsburgh Post Gazette Fabulous 22 team as well as the being part of the Pittsburgh Press Finest 44. He went on to play at Penn State and was part of the 1987 National Championship team, defeating the Miami Hurricanes in the Fiesta Bowl. He was eventually named to the all-time team at New Castle.
He’ll join anther elite group of people on April 29 when he’s inducted into the Lawrence County Historical Society Sports Hall of Fame at the New Englander. It’s an honor that resonates with a person who cherishes the great history of Lawrence County.
“It’s a great honor,” he said. “All the great players that have gone through Lawrence County — I grew up watching sports and going to all the games and everything. And of course I get to join my wife (in the hall of fame). She’s probably more competitive than I am.”
His wife is Donna Kolodziej Latsko, a Shenango High graduate enshrined in 2010. The two met at a high school football game, which isn’t too surprising considering the field is where Latsko spent most of his time during those days.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Latsko said he grew up enjoying basketball and baseball more than football (he didn’t start playing on the gridiron until he was in eighth grade). His love of basketball was mainly because he was 6 feet tall by seventh grade, much bigger than nearly all his friends. He also was a standout pitcher in baseball, but an arm injury during his junior season cut his career short. It was football that eventually became his passion though, partly because he never grew any taller than 6 feet.
His enthusiasm for the sport grew stronger as he began to learn the history of New Castle football. It was easy to pick up for Latsko considering his family roots ran so deep in the program. But it was never just about him or his family. His fondness for football stemmed from the players who came before him — who endured the same infamous Camp Rentz ran by his coach, Lindy Lauro, who played in the same Taggart Stadium he couldn’t take his eyes off as a child and who he and his teammates were constantly compared and measured up to.
“It helped to make us all better because you always felt like you had something to live up to,” he said. “You had all these teams before you that did such great things. When you look at the guys that I played with, we all had older brothers or our father or uncle that played before us, and we had to uphold that tradition. You knew you had to go out there and produce because you were always going to be compared against other teams.
“For me in the early 80s, we were compared to my brother’s teams in the mid 70s and they were compared to the teams in early 70s, and you look all the way back to the early 40s and 50s, and you look at the tradition that was built up there.”
Mike certainly lived up to expectations. Former New Castle assistant coach Ron Plano, who mentored Mike on both sides of the ball as quarterbacks and secondary coach, said while Latsko was known mainly for his defense, he also possessed a strong and accurate arm. Plano said if not for the powerful ground game, the ’Canes could have engineered an even more impressive passing attack than what it did.
Playing quarterback also aided Latsko on defense, where he was a menace because he was always in the right place at the right time, Plano said.
“His greatest strength was probably his recognition of the offense, calling coverages correctly and he had great instincts to the ball,” he said. “He was a very good pass defender. I think maybe playing quarterback helped him become a really good defensive back.
“Mike was a very intelligent player. He listened, paid attention, he looked you in the eye when you talked to him and he never questioned anything you told him.”
Nowadays, Latsko, 47, is trying to get others to listen to him, mainly his three kids: Taryn, 15, Karina, 12 and Devin, 7. He and Donna live in nearby Cranberry Township, where Mike works as vice president of strategy at Westinghouse Electric. He said he still keeps an eye on the ’Canes, and how couldn’t he? It’s in his blood.
He admits that while he relishes his time at Penn State, it’s the memories at Taggart Stadium, Camp Rentz and everywhere else New Castle invaded that linger in his mind.
“Playing at the college level was different, it was so much more work,” he said. “You had to be there at a certain time for meetings and go here and there. High school was a much more fun experience. That’s where the fun was. And it meant a lot.”