New Kensington native determined to memorialize Willie Thrower
Not a day passes that Larry Rowe doesn’t figuratively kick himself.
For as noted of a track official as the Arnold resident is, for as actively as he pursued running as a teenager, he doesn’t believe he’ll ever outrun what haunts him most — that he, or anyone else, never memorialized Willie Thrower before he died.
Thrower, a former Ken High football standout, became the first black quarterback to play in the NFL when he entered a game on Oct. 18, 1953, for the Chicago Bears. Years earlier, Thrower became the first black quarterback to play in the Big Ten Conference at Michigan State. He died at age 71 in February 2002.
For Rowe, who along with New Kensington resident Will Varner has spearheaded a Willie Thrower movement, it is especially hard. He was Thrower’s brother-in-law.
“He got sick,” Rowe said of Thrower. “He started getting worse. I think just out of nowhere we started thinking, ‘This guy is a great guy. He’s sick. There’s no telling how much longer he’s going to live. We need to do something to show we appreciate his contributions to African American history and athletics.'”
Rowe, 58, figured to be a perfect fit.
Besides the fact he actually was related to Thrower and was a New Kensington native, Rowe taught history in the New Kensington-Arnold School District for 35 years before retiring about two years ago. He coached football, track and basketball in the district and served as athletic director for five years in the early 1980s.
As a track official at Penn State University, Rowe also established solid contacts outside the Alle-Kiski Valley.
But the going has been difficult. The New Kensington-Arnold School District announced it planned to memorialize Thrower by creating a showcase dedicated to his accomplishments that would stand in a hallway near the gymnasium. And the school district said it would create a Willie Thrower Wall of Fame outside the football stadium.
None of it has come to fruition.
The school district now will not front the cost of the $2,000 showcase. It told Varner that it will not help pay for a life-size bronze statue in Thrower’s likeness that the Elks Valley Lodge 294 in New Kensington hopes to erect. And actual construction on the Wall of Fame is at least another year away.
“It’s more difficult than it should be,” Rowe said. “In a community, an area, where football is supreme … you thought it would be easy for the people to come together and get it done. But it hasn’t been.”
So Rowe and company trudge along. A man who loves to travel, to enjoy new experiences, who has traveled to 45 of the 50 states, Rowe was more than content to spend his Friday night at the Highlands/Valley football game, selling Willie Thrower All-Pro Foundation merchandise. The foundation was created by Thrower backers to help fund the statue, which is expected to cost from $17,000 to $27,000.
Any additional money, Varner said, is earmarked for programs that help the children in the community.
The goal, for now, is just reaching the designated amount for the statue. Rowe and Varner have secured a promise from Sen. Sean Logan, D-Monroeville, for a $10,000 donation to the foundation, and sales of merchandise have slowly picked up, but donations from elsewhere are slim.
Not that Rowe is going anywhere, both in terms of lobbying for the Willie Thrower All-Pro Foundation and living in the community.
“My roots are here,” Rowe said. “When I see something that should be done, that needs to be done, I’m going to lend my two cents. Will (Varner) is the same way.
“This is home. My mom’s here; my dad’s here; I have seven brothers and sisters. … The A-K Valley has always been a good place for me. I guess I’m a homeboy.”
About Larry Rowe
Hometown: New Kensington.
Family: Wife, Regina; daughters, twins Tanya and Tatum and Timberlin; and son, James.