Gorman: Johnstown has ‘Right Moves’
For one night, they turned back the clock to relive a time when Hollywood came here and put Western Pennsylvania prep football on the silver screen, if not the map.
Johnstown traded its Columbia blue for the gold jerseys of the Ampipe Bulldogs, while Westmont Hilltop wore the scarlet and gray they shared with the Walnut Heights Knights.
Yes, this old steel town made a ll the right moves in celebrating the 30th anniversary of the movie by the same name.
“It’s a cult classic,” Westmont Hilltop coach Pat Barron said Friday. “The excitement around town has been phenomenal. But as a head coach, it’s been a sideshow. We’re all about football, but we definitely let the kids know who won the game in the movie — what jerseys they were wearing.”
The only thing missing was Tom Cruise, who starred as Stefen Djordjevic, the cocksure cornerback for the Bulldogs. There were rumors all day that he might show up.
Cruise didn’t, but his stunt double did. Harry Gosnell of Pitcairn couldn’t resist the opportunity to see the Bulldogs and Knights play again.
“It was a great experience for an 18-year-old kid,” said Gosnell, a 1983 Windber graduate. “Sometimes you forget about it. Then someone asks and all the stories and memories come flooding back.”
They never stopped for Don Yannessa, the former Aliquippa coach who served as technical director for football scenes and gave the film a WPIAL flavor.
Although the movie was set here, Yannessa said the script was inspired by the real-life rivalry between the steel town of Aliquippa and the South Hills suburb of Mt. Lebanon.
“They hyped that movie so much that, when it came out, it was a big deal,” said Yannessa, who did the coin toss Friday. “That was synonymous with when the steel mills started to die and people were losing their jobs, so a lot of people could relate to it. One thing about that movie is, it’s time saved.”
The throwback game was the brainchild of Johnstown assistant Brian Subich, who called it “one of most unique high school games of the season.” He collaborated with Westmont Hilltop athletic director Tom Callihan, who appeared as an extra in several scenes.
“When we filmed it, I don’t think any of us really realized how big it was,” Callihan said. “Tom Cruise was in our school for two weeks, and nobody even knew who he was. He was young and didn’t have many movie credits.”
Gosnell recalls meeting the 19-year-old Cruise for the first time in the Conemaugh Valley locker room, when the actor asked how to put his leg pads in his pants. Gosnell filled in for Cruise, even wearing a neck roll above his No. 33 jersey.
The love scenes involving Cruise and Lea Thompson were filmed in Gosnell’s bedroom, and he still has trophies with “Stefen Djordjevic” nameplates.
WJAC-TV used Subich’s son, Nick, and Johnstown coach Tony Penna Jr. to re-enact a scene for a promotional video in which Djordjevic tells his coach, “You’re not God, Nickerson. You’re just a typing teacher.”
Nickerson was played by Craig T. Nelson, who followed Yannessa around with a tape recorder to learn coaching mannerisms and jargon.
“Craig T. Nelson didn’t know if a football was stuffed or puffed,” Yannessa said, “and he ends up making millions and millions on ‘Coach.’ ”
Nelson sent a message that was read before the game, Thompson offered well wishes through social media and producer Stephen Deutsch recorded one noting that “people say that was the most realistic football they’ve seen on screen — ever.”
Yannessa believes using high school football players instead of actors for the game added to its authenticity as the Johnstown-area players put punishing hits on Cruise and Chris Penn.
“There were only seven or eight actors,” Yannessa said. “The rest of them just tried to kick the (heck) out of those actors every single day.”
Where the fans were bribed by Coke and hot dogs to sit through filming, they willingly filled the stands Friday night.
Students had fun with it, dressing in an ’80s theme, girls teasing their hair and wearing neon outfits. Fans bought yellow Ampipe and red Walnut Heights T-shirts from FX Screen Printing and Embroidery, which donated proceeds to both schools’ booster clubs for scholarships for seniors. Public address announcer Tom McCreary referred to the teams as Ampipe and Walnut Heights.
The night before the game, the players watched the movie without their coach because of its R rating. Barron heard plenty of cracks about whether Ampipe would run the defense Yannessa used to help Aliquippa beat a Bruce Clark-led New Castle in 1974.
“We hope we see a 62 Stack Monster,” Barron said. “We run an unbalanced single wing, which is pretty unorthodox, so I think we’ll be OK if they do.”
The Johnstown river fire departments used hoses to drench the field for a muddy scene in the movie, but there was a steady rain in the second half. Ampipe quarterback Brody Loboi even fumbled with the lead in the final minutes — just like Salvucci — but this time the Bulldogs recovered.
Which brings up another story from Yannessa, who said the actors showed up at his trailer and tried to convince him that they needed to rewrite the script so their team wouldn’t lose. They finally got their way as Ampipe won, 20-17.
Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it any better.
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7812.