Football was a different game when Ernie Bonelli played.
In the 1930s and 40s, players wore leather helmets with no face masks, and they played the entire game — offense and defense for 60 minutes.
“I could go the whole 60 minutes,” Bonelli said. “I didn’t mind it a bit.”
Bonelli was an outstanding fullback and defensive halfback for Aspinwall High School and later at Pitt and in the pros.
He also played baseball at Pitt and was an honorable mention all-American while playing for the Third Air Force Gremlins while serving during World War II.
For his accomplishments in sports, Bonelli will be inducted into the Fox Chapel Area Sports Hall of Fame in June. He is this year’s pre-merger inductee.
Other 2004 inductees are Buffy Biernesser, Dave Damico, Jerry Ferrone, J.R. Miller, Paul Rowe and Tim Short. They will be honored at a banquet June 13.
Growing up in Blawnox, Bonelli caught the street car each day to transport him to school in Aspinwall. He ran track and played football there.
An all-WPIAL selection, he helped Aspinwall go unscored upon during the 1935 season.
After graduating in 1937, he went on to play football and baseball at Pitt. His first football coach at Pitt was the legendary Jock Sutherland, who won five national championships with the Panthers.
When he graduated from Pitt in 1941, Bonelli had a chance to play pro baseball with either Philadelphia or Detroit, but he was drafted into the service.
He was part of the initial landing in Casablanca, French Morocco on Christmas eve in 1942 and received seven battle ribbons while serving overseas during World War II.
After he was discharged, Bonelli played two years of professional football — for the Chicago Cardinals in 1945 and the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1946.
“We didn’t make the money they do today,” he said. “We got $400 a game, which was good money in the 1940s.”
He later coached youth baseball in Mt. Lebanon, where he lived.
These days, Bonelli, 85, splits the year between his residences in Pittsburgh and Sarasota, Fla. A season ticket holder for both Pitt football and the Steelers, he makes sure he’s in town each fall for football season.
Bonelli stays active by playing golf three days a week.
“I still walk,” he says. “My game isn’t what it used to be, but I still like it.”
He’s looking forward to the upcoming hall of fame banquet.
“I hope to see some old friends there,” he said.
For tickets: To order tickets for the June 13 Hall of Fame banquet, contact Charlie Mesiano at 724-274-5079. There also will be a Hall of Fame golf outing June 12 at Bird’s Foot Golf Club in Freeport. For details, contact Harry Jenkins at 412-967-2400, ext. 1894.
Who: Ernie Bonelli.
What: 2004 Fox Chapel Area Schools Sports Hall of Fame inductee.
Career highlights: A 1937 graduate of Aspinwall High School … Ran track and played football at Aspinwall, where 1935 team was unscored upon … All-WPIAL in football … Played both football and baseball at Pitt … Played football for Panthers under legendary coach Jock Sutherland, who won five national championships at Pitt … Honorable mention all-American in football while playing for the Third Air Force Gremlins during World War II … Played in Chicago and Blue-Gray all-star games … Played pro football for the Chicago Cardinals in 1945 and the Steelers in 1946 … A member of the Aspinwall and Italian-American halls of fame and the Western Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.
Personal: Lives half the year in Mt. Lebanon, half in Sarasota, Fla. … He and his wife, Ruth, had five children — Nancy, Frank, Mary, Jean and Richard … Spent 35 years as a salesman for Sherwood Medical and Surgical Supply Co.
This is the third in a series on this year’s inductees to the Fox Chapel Area Schools Sports Hall of Fame.