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Wilkes-Barre Wonders: The Oral History of Pennsylvania’s Greatest O-Line

Written by: on Wednesday, December 11th, 2019. Follow Don Leypoldt on Twitter.

 

The vein of prep Pennsylvania football talent is as rich as the Commonwealth’s anthracite deposits.  Over 500 Pennsylvania high schools have sent nearly 1,500 players to professional football.

Some schools like Erie Central Tech (Fred Biletnikoff), East Brady (Jim Kelly) and Ringgold (Joe Montana) own bragging rights on producing an NFL legend.  A handful of schools like Aliquippa, Northeast or Wilson West Lawn can claim multiple alumni that distinguished themselves in the NFL.

But in a commonwealth of nearly 13 million people, Wilkes-Barre’s James M. Coughlin High stands alone.  The Crusaders produced both a first-round pick who made a Pro Bowl, and a second alum who started in a Super Bowl.  That exacta is rare enough.

Rarer still, is that not only did Pro Bowler Ron Solt and Super Bowl alumnus Bruce Kozerski play the same position (offensive line), but the two graduated in the same class.  Forty years ago, the Coughlin Crusaders dominated the Wyoming Valley Conference, in part to arguably the best offensive line in Pennsylvania high school history.

This is the story of that Coughlin team, and the wild success that their alumni found after graduation.

The ’77 and ’78 Coughlin Crusaders each only won six games.  At that point, the Coughlin line had a raw 6’4” athlete in Solt, who was still new to football.  They also had a good-sized lineman in Kozerski, who was limited due to a junior year knee injury.

“Ronnie didn’t start playing football until he was a freshman on the junior high team.  He was obviously a big kid, but in his first year didn’t play a lot.  In his junior year, he became the starting guard,” remembers Coughlin running back Dave Shimshock.  “Bruce started as a center in his junior year and injured his knee.  He started getting into the weight room at that point and he was working out a lot to get the knee back in shape.”

“I had a knee operation as a junior.  In my family, academics came first,” Kozerski explained.  “And by the time I started to think I was pretty good, I got hurt and the reality check was ‘I’ll never play in college so the best thing to do was to take care of my academics.’”

Kozerski ultimately earned Academic All-American honors at Holy Cross, but there was a lot more football in his future.  “After my knee injury, my Mom wasn’t going to sign the physical form to let me play,” Kozerski shared.  “I begged my Dad to play and he said, ‘I’ll sign this paperwork but you’re going to need to start working out because if you get hurt again and I get divorced, I’ll never forgive you.’

“That’s when I really took to the weight room,” Kozerski continued. “I went hard on my legs and back.  I was a 500 pound squatter and a 500 pound dead lifter.  I was an average bench presser for a guy my size but my hips, backs and legs were super strong.  That made all of the difference.”

“Brucie had a lot of ability but I think his brain carried him as far as my body carried me.  I used to beat the hell out of myself but Brucie used his head,” Solt recollected.  “He knew how to study and prepare.  It was, ‘We’re gonna play a 4-3 defense this week where the nose tackle does this, this and this.  I’m going to prepare for him.’  Brucie was smart enough to get all of his ducks in a row.

“Brucie was one of the best high school athletes that ever came around,” Solt continued, “but what goes for me and for a lot of other people is that if you don’t put in the hard work when you’re young, it never comes to fruition.  Bruce started when he was about six years old.  I didn’t start until I was a teenager so it was a little different.  But he had some talent.”

“Ronnie, in my opinion, was way more athletic than I was at that point,” Kozerski admitted.  “I was 6’5” 265 pounds and never saw myself as that athletic, but Ronnie was.  He was a 220 pound kid in high school who was 6’4”, ran real well and he was a big strong lifter.”

Kozerski and Solt both stood out in track and field.  Solt, also an excellent wrestler, placed in the top six in the State shot put championship.  Kozerski had similar success in States with the discus.

“I did alright.  It was fun.  Track became a release for a lot of things that were building up in the offseason.  You work out and you train but you also want to compete against another guy that maybe threw the shot put or discuss, so we did that,” Solt remembered.  “I bet if you walked down the street all day long, you couldn’t find a guy who threw the discus better than (Bruce) threw.”

The raw materials were in place to produce a special Coughlin fall in 1979.  “Going into our senior year, we had Ronnie as the right guard and Bruce as the right tackle.  Bruce had really increased his strength and his physicality.  We had a great line,” Shimshock said.  “We had a lot of starters coming back.”

Coughlin traditionally scrimmaged Williamsport.  “In previous years Williamsport had really handed it to us.  And the tide turned during that scrimmage.  That’s when I knew that we had a good team,” Shimshock concluded.

“We were pretty good up front of course with two guys who did make that kind of commitment and who didn’t know you could have that kind of success.  We didn’t know, at the time, that it was an exceptional offensive line,” Kozerski added.  “(Shimshock) ended up with several thousands of yards and a ton of touchdowns.  I think we saw everybody’s best shot.  I don’t think teams took special care to blitz or twist or run different things at us.  Not that I’m aware, of course, I was just a dumb high school kid at that point.”

“Brucie was big and strong but we had a running back on our team that had 2,500 yards,” Solt echoed.  “Dave Shimshock went on to go to college with Bruce at Holy Cross.

“Even though we wanted to think we were balanced, we really weren’t,” Solt admitted.  “We ran the ball 40 or 50 times a game and threw maybe 10 or 15 times a game.  Just something to keep you honest.  But the running game went a long way.  In high school, it becomes a predominant part of the game.  If you don’t have a good running game, high school teams just don’t seem to prosper.  I think you need to use up a certain amount of clock as you’re playing the game.  You can’t leave too much time to opponents.”

“We ran the ball probably 85 to 90 percent of the time.  It was an I-backfield and it was wham, power or sweep most of the time and a lot of it was obviously behind those two,” Shimshock shared.  “The other part was running to the left and for a guy who was 240 pounds, Ronnie was fast.  His leading and pulling on a sweep was to my benefit.  Teams knew what was coming.  But because of the line and those two guys they might stop us every once in a while, but over the course of a game, we would just wear people out.   We had a couple of halves where teams kept us in check but we came out in the second half and wore them down.  There were games I can specifically remember where that was absolutely the case.”

Coughlin went 11-0 and won the Wyoming Valley Conference.  The defense yielded just 17 points all season, with Shimshock and Solt playing two ways.  There was no PIAA championship then so Coughlin advanced as far as it could- to the Eastern Conference finals- only to be upset 19-6 against Scranton Central.

“They were the better team that day for sure.  But it was a great year.  Obviously, it was a lot of fun all year long and the other thing with that team is that we had been friends, for the most part, our whole lives,” Shimshock remembered.

All three had plenty of football left after Coughlin graduation.  Solt was the team’s blue chipper.  “Ronnie was being looked at by everybody,” Shimshock said.  “Maryland had a recruiter named Gibby Romaine.  He had recruited so many players from the area like Charlie Wysocki and Mickey Dudish.  Ronnie ended up going there and obviously had a phenomenal career at Maryland.”

“I had a few offers with wrestling but it was more like ‘If you come here, you can wrestle if you really want to.’  I went to Maryland and I didn’t really have the desire to wrestle.  It was hard enough to prepare in the offseason for the next year, let alone start wrestling,” Solt noted.

Solt, who graduated with a 3.8 GPA, had his heart set on the Fighting Irish.  “I told Notre Dame’s coach I wanted to come to Notre Dame my whole life,” Solt laughed.  “He said, ‘That’s really admirable.  I think you should go to Maryland!’”

Shimshock was talented, but just 5’9” 165 pounds.  “I wanted to go to a D1 school but it needed to be a smaller D1, and this was the year before the FCS came into play,” he said.  “For Bruce, so the story goes and I don’t know how true it is, but Coughlin sent films out to colleges and Holy Cross saw Bruce on my film.  He was definitely under the radar.  I don’t think anybody realized how good he was.  Holy Cross saw him on my films and immediately became interested.”

Neil Wheelwright, Holy Cross’s coach, came to Shimshock’s house to sign the letter of intent.  Shimshock’s Dad escorted Wheelwright to the Kozerskis, where Wheelwright obtained a second Coughlin signatory that night.

“Ronnie would be a four or five star prospect where, coming out of high school today, I think Bruce and I might have been two or three star guys,” Shimshock feels.

“I had opportunities to play at Miami (FL), North Carolina, Army, Boston College and a few other places.  But I took a trip to Holy Cross and really loved it,” Kozerski recalled.  “A huge reason why I chose the college that I did is because they had a program that allowed me to get a mechanical engineering degree and still play Division 1 football.  Most five-year programs are three years at one school and two years at another school in a different town.  This was five years in the same town.  I could play football for Holy Cross and go to Worcester Polytech at the same time.”

All three distinguished themselves in college.  Solt made several All-America teams in his 1983 senior year where, protecting a quarterback named Boomer Esiason, the Terrapins completed their second straight 8-4 campaign.

Shimshock holds the distinction of rushing for 100 yards against Army as an underclassman, and then intercepting four passes in one game as an upperclass safety.

Kozerski was a first team All-American who won Holy Cross football’s first NCAA Post-Graduate scholarship.  He was part of the second class inducted into Holy Cross’ Ring of Honor.

“We turned the program around.  In my freshman year, we were coming off of a very bad season.  In the second year, we were 6-5 and then 8-3.  We lost to Boston College when Doug Flutie was there and we had the lead with five minutes to go,” Kozerski described.  The Crusaders went 9-2-1 and earned an NCAA playoff berth in Kozerski’s senior year.

The Indianapolis Colts selected Solt with the 19th pick of the 1984 Draft.  If Solt had never played a pro down, the pick alone guaranteed him a place in NFL history.

Just weeks before that draft, Solt and the rest of the state of Maryland woke up one morning to discover that the Baltimore Colts had vanished. Owner Bob Irsay notoriously loaded the team into vans in the dark of night and moved to Indianapolis.

The Colts’ first drafted as Indianapolis in 1984.  They took cornerback Leonard Coleman with their first pick.  With an extra first round pick- the Denver Broncos’ selection- the Colts conscripted Solt.

“Irsay had the moving vans come move the whole team out, so I went,” Solt said.

Why did the Colts have that extra pick?  Baltimore had the first selection of the 1983 Draft and chose a Stanford outfielder named John Elway.  The Elway family did not want John to play for Baltimore and Elway had posted impressive enough numbers with the Yankees’ single A affiliate- he slugged .464 and it’s safe to assume he graded out with a plus arm – to make spurning the Colts for baseball a credible threat.  Baltimore dealt Elway to Denver, receiving the pick that they turned into Solt.

The Irsay family’s penny-pinching offers caused Coleman to sign with the USFL and Solt to fight for a better contract.  “Ronnie was holding out after getting drafted.  He called me one day and wanted to work out, so we met at the old high school stadium,” Shimshock remembers.  “We were running 40-yard sprints.  I wasn’t slow.  I was beating him by just one step…and I ran a 4.6.  Ronnie at that time was probably 6’4” 280, and literally just one step behind me running a 40.  That was an evolution for him that he had gotten so much bigger and in such better shape while at Maryland.”

212 picks after Solt, the Bengals selected Kozerski in the ninth round.  There were 336 players selected in the 1984 Draft.  Just 20 played more NFL games than Kozerski.

“Bruce was invited to the combine with another player from Holy Cross and did fairly well.  Bruce obviously made the most of it,” Shimshock relayed.  “I fall back to his intelligence and great technique.  He was big and didn’t make mistakes.  I don’t think any of us were surprised at all that he made the Bengals roster.  Bruce is a very good long snapper so you’ve got a guy who could snap, who could play any position on the offensive line and obviously is a good player.  I think it made the decision for the Bengals really easy.”

Removing the 1987 NFL strike, Solt started 59 of his first possible 60 Colt games.  A terrible Colts team Solt’s rookie year had improved to 9-6, and winners of the AFC East, by 1987.  Solt not only got his first taste of the post-season, he also made a Pro Bowl along with fellow linemen Ray Donaldson, Chris Hinton and Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson.

Dickerson advised Solt that the Pro Bowl game check wasn’t worth it if the player got hurt.  “I said ‘Eric, I can’t do that.  This is my first time.  I’ve gotta play like it means something.’  He said, ‘B.S.  If I get hurt, they don’t pay us enough money.’  I think they were giving us $5,000, which I thought was great at the time,” Solt recalled. “I could bring people from Pennsylvania over to the game!  I never had that concept of how much it would cost and how much we were making.  I just cared about having fun.  If I got hurt?  I’ll be better in a couple of weeks.

“I’ll tell you a funny Eric story,” Solt continued.  “I was coming into mini camp in the offseason and Eric said, ‘Ronnie, don’t stay in a motel room.  Come on over and stay at my house.’  I thought, alright, it was close to the field.  About 4:30 in the morning all of these weird people started coming through the door.  I thought, ‘Maybe I should have stayed in the hotel!’  I said, ‘Eric, as much as I like hanging with you, I have to prepare for practice the next day.  We can’t be having parties at 5:00 in the morning!’”

At the same time, two hours southeast of Indianapolis, Kozerski firmly lodged himself in the Bengals’ starting lineup.  He started 15 games in 1986 and started all but two games from 1988 through 1994.

“I wanted to seize the opportunity and if I got the chance, I was going to do it.  I made it because of an injury,” Kozerski relayed.  “I was a long snapper for the Bengals and in week seven of my rookie year, we had a guard who got hurt.  I started against the New England Patriots, who I followed at Holy Cross, when they had Andre Tippett and Steve Nelson- two Pro Bowl linebackers.

“The very first thing our coach said that week was, ‘Max Montoya, if you block Andre Tippett, we’ll win this game.’  (Max) was the guy who got hurt in practice.  I was snapping for kicker Jim Breech in practice, and (head coach) Sam (Wyche) walked over to me and said ‘Koz, if you block Andre Tippett, we’ll win this game.’  Boomer (Esiason) didn’t sleep.  Sam didn’t sleep.  (Offensive line coach Jim) McNally didn’t sleep all week,” Kozerski admitted.  “But we played and I had a helluva game.  I got one of the best compliments that I ever got in my playing career.  I happened to pass Paul Brown in the hallway the next Monday and he said ‘Koz, our team didn’t miss Max.  You did as good of a job as a Pro Bowl guard.’  I was flabbergasted and from that point on, I guess I was in the picture.”

Kozerski, a three-time Pro Bowl alternate, was on his way.  “I played eight games at center the last half of that season because Dave Rimington got hurt.  And before you know it, I was starting at left guard,” Kozerski stated.  “In the second half of the second season, Rimington got hurt again and I had to go back to center.  The next thing you know, he is holding out so they said ‘Let Koz play center.’  I did and they cut him.  Center is where I spent most of my career.”

Kozerski played next to multiple Pro Bowlers Montoya and Anthony Munoz.  Munoz, who is in the discussion for greatest offensive lineman in NFL history, overlapped Kozerski’s Bengal career for nine seasons.

“People don’t know how much of a student of the game Anthony was.  He would bring a fresh notebook every week,” Kozerski described.  “He’d take notes on his guy every day until that book was filled.  There was nothing that surprised him.  He’d take away the guy’s best move, then he took away the guy’s second best and before you know it, you have a guy trying to get to the quarterback with his third or fourth best move and in that League, you don’t get to the quarterback with your third or fourth best move.

“It was a running joke that McNally would hand out blocking sheets and the guy over Anthony would be erased.  He’d say, ‘We know that guy is gone.’  Anthony was that good.  After playing next to him for so long, you learned how important the details were: the hand placement, the head placement, the feet,” Kozerski continued.  “Not only that, but you won’t find a more genuine, real loving man in this world.  To be that vicious and violent on the field while off the field, he is the nicest man you’ll ever meet in your life.  He is God fearing.  He is just terrific.”

Kozerski and Solt faced off twice.  The Bengals won in Indianapolis 23-21 on 1987’s opening weekend.  Solt, now an Eagle, got the better of Cincinnati in November 1991 when Philly beat Cincinnati 17-10 at the Vet.  Solt, given promises from the Irsay family that he would not be traded, ended a lengthy holdout and reluctantly signed a new contract in September 1988.

The Irsays traded him to Philadelphia a week later.

“’Ron is an All Pro who will come in here, start immediately at right guard for us against the Giants and really help us,’” Eagles Coach Buddy Ryan said at the time. “’He is a young guy who has only been in the league a short while, and I think he’ll come in and really put us over the top.’”

Three years on the Vet’s notorious turf did not help Solt’s knees…or anyone with a feline allergy.  “We’d go out for walk throughs, and there would be all of these wild cats running around,” Solt recalled.  “I bet I could count 20 cats running around the stadium.  Easily!  That’s why you have cats, to get the rats.”

Solt deserves a lot more credit for his Philly years than he gets.  He started 42 of 48 games from 1989 to 1991 when the Eagles went 31-17.  The ’89 offense finished in the top half of the NFL in points and yards while the 1990 offense ranked third in the NFL in both points and yards.  The 1991 offense struggled mightily after Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback Randall Cunningham was lost for the year early in the second quarter of the season opener.

Eagles coach Buddy Ryan famously benched Solt in the 1990 Wild Card game after Cunningham was sacked.  Video shows that Ryan benched the wrong guy and Solt was run into by his own teammate.  “Watch the running back right here.  He knocks the guard (Solt) off of his block and allows that penetration,” is how broadcaster Dick Vermeil broke the play down to the ABC audience.

Solt, who retired in 1992, unfortunately never got a playoff win.  Kozerski won three post-season games, including Cincinnati’s 21-10 defeat of Buffalo in the AFC Championship that punched a ticket to Super Bowl XXIII in Miami.

“Obviously, the Super Bowl was the highlight of my career,” Kozerski said.  “There were so many good games and playing against great people but the Super Bowl was special with my family being there.  When you lose by a touchdown pass with 34 seconds left, you’re doing something right.  Or you were until those 34 seconds.

“My big focus that week- and there were a lot of bells and whistles that went along with that, absolutely- was zeroing in on San Francisco’s Pro Bowl nose tackle Michael Carter.  He was the All-Everything and the argument was if I couldn’t block Michael, we didn’t have a chance,” Kozerski said.  “I want to go back to Merlin Olsen in the third quarter when he said, ‘He has had a fine day on Michael Carter.’  And this is on the national broadcast.  That was about as well as I’ve ever played, and I’ve had good games.  But that was such a demanding game for me that when it was over, win or lose, I was just burnt out.”

Kozerski’s six-month old son Matthew was immortalized in that week’s Sports Illustrated.  Walter Iooss’ photo of a completely gassed Kozerski walking off the field with his infant boy is iconic.

“Koz” retired in 1995.  His 172 games are eighth most in Bengal franchise history.  A Cincinnati.com poll this August ranked Kozerski as one of the top 30 greatest Bengals of all time.

All three stayed involved in football after their playing days.  Shimshock’s son attended Coughlin and played football at Colgate- his Dad’s archrival.

“It’s one of those things we have in common.  It was a lot of fun when he was at Colgate because we hated Colgate at Holy Cross.  And vice versa,” Shimshock shared.

Kozerski has been the head coach at – ironically- Holy Cross High School- in suburban Cincinnati for over 20 years.  He also heads the Math Department and teaches honors Calculus, making him John Urschel before there was John Urschel.  Kozerski still gets back to Wilkes-Barre for family functions.

Solt’s son Ryan was also a standout lineman at Coughlin.  Solt served as an assistant for the Crusaders and helped coach current Colt lineman Mark Glowinski at Lackawanna College.  “I could sit around but what fun is that?” asks Solt, who has had 13 operations.  “Every day, I get myself up, go to the gym and get something done.”

While all three shepherded young football players, it’s unlikely that any of them as coaches will strike the gold mine that Coughlin yielded in 1979.

“I get my chops busted all of the time that I ran behind two pro offensive linemen and anybody can do that.  It’s funny because it’s true,” Shimshock admits.  “You’d watch (Ronnie) play, and it was just cool.  It’s cool to this day that both of those guys were in the NFL.  One of my favorite moments is watching (Bruce) on NFL Films when they did the Super Bowl in 1989 and to see him walking off of the field at the end holding his infant son and pointing into the stands.

“Bruce’s Mom was the school nurse.  We all knew each other and the family for forever,” Shimshock continued.  “They’re still legends in this area for where their careers went.  It’s a source of pride for me and I’m sure for everybody else who played with them on that team.”

“One of my driving forces was that my father was the son of a coal miner.  My Mom was a tough daughter of a coal miner,” Kozerski relayed.  “All my Dad talked about were the guys who hung around the bar saying, ‘Aw, I coulda, woulda, shoulda’ and what they might have been.  Dad told me all of the time, ‘Don’t be one of those guys who shoulda, coulda, woulda.’  That stuck with me forever.”

Footnotes:

Buddy Ryan quote from http://www.upi.com/Archives/1988/10/04/The-Philadelphia-Eagles-Tuesday-acquired-offensive-guard-Ron-Solt/3449591940800/

https://www.cincinnati.com/story/sports/nfl/bengals/2019/08/19/cincinnati-bengals-top-100-players-nfl-franchise-history/2011547001/

 

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