New Castle High School isn’t exactly “Linebacker U,” but it sure felt that way to Andy Tommelleo.
“I had some pretty big shoes to fill at linebacker with the past linebackers with Bruce Clark, Ricky Razzano and Phil “Pudgy” Tony further back. Being a linebacker at New Castle was like going to Penn State,” Tommelleo said. “That was ‘Linebacker U,’ and I think New Castle had that same reputation. Those were the guys that I idolized and tried to pattern myself after. I wanted to follow in those footsteps of being a great linebacker at New Castle.”
With a career that spanned from 1975 to 1977, Tommelleo did just that. He cemented a legacy of his own as a Red Hurricane, eventually finding a spot on the ’Canes all-time team as a linebacker alongside Clark, Razzano, Tony and other greats. As a middle linebacker and guard, Tommelleo used his instinctive abilities to capture first-team All-MAC honors in 1976 and 1977 and all-state honors in 1977. He also was part of the 1975 WPIAL championship team.
Now, he will find himself with more elite company with his induction into the Lawrence County Historical Society Sports Hall of Fame on April 28 at the New Englander.
“My own personal belief was I had to do whatever it took to be the best,” he said. “I didn’t know who I would be playing against, so in my mind I had to prepare myself above and beyond what my competitor might be doing. That pushed me to run a little bit more, lift a little bit more.
“My brother and I had a weight room in our basement that fortunately our parents, Tom and Rita, supported. It gave me some natural strength that helped me, because I wasn’t big — I was a 180-pound linebacker and probably when I graduated, 190. But I had some good instincts. I think I played instinctively.”
It was those instincts that allowed Tommelleo to shine for New Castle at the middle linebacker position.
“His anticipation and just being able to read the offensive lines, he just had a nose for the ball,” lifelong friend and high school teammate Bob Perrotta said. “He was able to anticipate and make great plays I guess just through vision and anticipation. He worked harder than anyone I knew. I’d be relaxing and he’d be lifting.
“I was the tailback and I gained all my yards because of Andy. He was lineman-wise, as a guard, unbelievable.”
Growing up, Tommelleo looked up to his older brother, Tom, who also played for the ’Canes. Tom would play collegiately for Geneva College and eventually got a training camp invite to play with “Mean” Joe Greene and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite only being three years younger, Andy never got to play with his older brother in high school.
“To this day, I have a tooth missing because of playing sandlot games with him,” Tommelleo said of his older brother. “We tried a few times (to replace it), but it’s part of my character I guess. We were playing in the backyard and I was trying to tackle him and caught an elbow in the jaw.”
Playing sandlot ball became a daily occurrence for Tommelleo at a young age. He used to grab gear and footballs from his uncle Ralph Tommelleo’s porch.
“Because he was a coach, he had a big box on his porch. He had an enclosed porch that had all of the pads, all the equipment and it had footballs in there,” Tommelleo said. “We could walk on his porch at any time and take a football and go play as long as we brought it back. In our neighborhood in Mahoningtown, we all loved playing football.”
Like most players from New Castle at the time, Tommelleo points to training camps held at Camp Rentz as being integral to team development and camaraderie.
“The best moment in high school in New Castle was time spent at Camp Rentz,” he said. “I can go back, my dad was at Camp Rentz, my uncle was at Camp Rentz, my brothers were at Camp Rentz. If you talk to anybody over a collection of 50 years or whatever that span was, we all had similar experiences, and those became my closest friends. We built friendships to this day that continue.
“I think one of the greatest feelings was when you knew it was the last practice, because you weren’t always sure, Lindy could throw an extra practice on. But after that last practice, we had the old wooden banquet chairs and we sat in the rapids of Slippery Rock Creek that was ice cold. It was just sitting back and relaxing and telling the stories — retelling the practice stories and the stories of your neighborhoods. That’s when we bonded. You had the kids from the south side, west side and Mahoningtown. That’s when you learned to experiment with different food. Our mothers would sneak food up or we had a special visitors day. You got to experience the other ethnicities and families of other ballplayers that you wouldn’t get to experience anywhere else. The friendships that came out of there are still strong today.”
Perrotta recalled those early evenings relaxing in the creek. “We practiced for four or five hours, but after got to bask in the Ganges and heal our wounds in the nice Slippery Rock Creek. It was great. You ate, slept and drank football for two weeks. It was a great time, great bonding and great teams.”
Tommelleo went to Virginia Tech as a walk-on in 1978. He earned a scholarship and started all 11 games for the team in 1979. Among the team’s opponents were Alabama, Florida State, Clemson and West Virginia.
“That freshman year, I was scout team, which was the best thing for me. As a scout team player, you’re going against and practicing against the first-team offense every play. I liked that. It gave me an opportunity to sharpen my skills and become a better ballplayer, become more physical. I looked forward to that. I enjoyed and loved the hitting and I loved the opportunity. That was Division I football. When I finally got to step on the field, that was just the greatest opportunity in the world.”
The first of three knee surgeries hindered Tommelleo’s chances at playing time the following season. With that in mind, he transferred to Westminster the next season in hopes of playing every Saturday and eventually transitioned to a defensive tackle position. In 1981, the Titans went undefeated during the regular season and qualified for the NAIA national championship. Tommelleo received all-district in ’81 and ’82 and NAIA Division II Honorable Mention All-American in ’82. He would graduate from Westminster with a degree in business.
At 52, Tommelleo is the director at the Lawrence County Career Technical Center, but also worked as an English teacher, guidance counselor, assistant principal and principal.
His upcoming induction into the hall of fame holds a special meaning to Tommelleo — he will be able to share it with his 28-year-old son, Andy Tommelleo Jr.
“I think one of the reasons why this is so special is because when you grow up, your family gets to see you become who you are, but your children don’t unless you’re a professional football player. So, to have this happen and have my son be a part of this and be able to share in the honor to me is probably the best part about this.”
TOMORROW: Rob Klamut.