Pollock: Crist earned the nod for Buffalo’s ‘Hall’
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series on a pair area natives being inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. Olean High wrestling standout Jeff Prescott and Salamanca four-sport star Chuck Crist, both alumni of Penn State, will be added at a ceremony this fall in Buffalo. Today, Crist.)
It is beyond argument that Chuck Crist is one of the greatest athletes ever produced by the Big 30 area.
And he made that point in high school by accomplishing a near-impossible quadruple. As a senior at Salamanca he was his team’s MVP in four sports: football (shared Big 30 Player of the Year with Walsh’s Dan Metzler in 1967), basketball (25 points per game, team won Section 6 title), baseball (first-team, all-league) and track (school records in both high and triple jumps, the latter, 45-1, still stands).
Upon graduation, Crist was faced with a rare choice, a scholarship to Penn State for either football or basketball. He chose the latter after disagreement about his position in football. More on that later.
Back then, freshmen weren’t eligible to play varsity, but he was a three-year letterman who earned the Nittany Lions’ MVP as a senior for a team that went 17-8.
Crist didn’t see himself as a pro basketball player, but he hadn’t lost his interest in football. And, in 1972, the Giants signed him as an undrafted free agent.
At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, he played three seasons as a strong safety in New York, three more with the Saints (New Orleans’ defensive MVP in 1977) and ended his NFL career, at age 27, with a final year in San Francisco (team lead in picks and tackles) where he had been traded. In 92 games, he forced 31 takeaways (20 interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries).
Eventually, his sport of choice became golf and he won six club championships in the 1990s at Holiday Valley.
And late last week it was announced that he was part of this year’s class of 13 inductees into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame that includes Olean native and fellow Penn Stater Jeff Prescott, a three-time New York state scholastic wrestling champion and two-time NCAA Division I titleist, plus Buffalo’s Joe Horrigan (executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame), Ed Hughes (former NFL head and assistant coach), Travis Mayer (U.S. Olympic medal-winning skier) and Peter Scamurra (first player from the city to sign an NHL contract).
“I FEEL VERY honored and humbled … it was quite a surprise,” said Crist, now 68, and already a member of the Cattaraugus County and Chautauqua County sports halls of fame. “I know there were friends who went to bat for me (in the GBSHOF selection) including Cheech Letro (Olean native, now a Buffalo attorney).
“It’s an honor for the Southern Tier with Shane Conlan (Frewsburg), Bill Bergey (Pine Valley) and Marv Hubbard (Randolph) already in. But none of this happens without the guys you play with.”
After his football career ended, Crist taught two years at Cattaraugus High School, then was at Alfred University as an adjunct professor while also serving as the Saxons’ defensive coordinator and as an AU assistant basketball coach. Eventually, before retiring, he was first the high school, then the elementary school principal at Salamanca.
OF COURSE, the most compelling aspect of Crist’s career was the bizarre situation with his Penn State recruitment.
“When I was being recruited for football, the only stipulation I had was that I be given a chance to play quarterback and if it didn’t work out, I’d play wherever they wanted,” he recalled.
“On the day they issued equipment, I went in and gave my name and position. There were 16 quarterbacks listed … and I wasn’t one of them. Then the guy turned the page and I was listed No. 2 among the defensive backs. I told him, ‘There must be some mistake.’”
Crist continued, “I went to see Coach (Joe) Paterno and he said, ‘We think you’ll have more success as a defensive back.’ But I told him that wasn’t the deal … that I was supposed to at least get a chance to play quarterback, and if I didn’t, I’d play play basketball.
“He wished me luck.”
After his hoops career and graduation, Crist wanted to give pro football a shot.
“My basketball coach, John Bach, told me he heard I wanted to try out for an NFL team,” he remembered. “I told him, yes, and he called Wellington Mara (Giants co-owner) and I got my tryout. The rest is history.
“A few years later, I ran into Coach Paterno and he said, ‘I told you you’d be better off as a defensive back.’”
However, Crist’s recent years have been difficult.
In 2014, he was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a rare and potentially fatal disease in which the bone marrow fails to produce an adequate number of blood cells. Only about 750 people are diagnosed with the illness in a given year and it tends to target very young people, though among its victims have been Eleanor Roosevelt and Marie Curie.
Crist is being treated through the Cleveland Clinic as he is subjected to frequent blood tests.
“I’ve been told that my treatment is at the best possible place,” he said. “I’m doing really well and feel much better. But I don’t take any of that for granted.”
This year’s Hall of Fame class will be introduced to the public and the media the afternoon of Tuesday, June 4 in the foyer of Buffalo’s KeyBank Center. The induction dinner’s date, set for mid-fall, has yet to be announced.
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald sports columnist, can be reached at email@example.com)