Senator-elect John Fetterman’s football career at Albright was formative for his political development

John Fetterman paused during a recent conversation to pick up a silver football helmet – his helmet – with red paw prints on the sides. The Albright College Lions only won two games in each of the four years he played offensive tackle there (1987-91), but he has kept his helmet proud.

The helmet appeared in recent campaign ads during the Democrat’s successful run for the Pennsylvania open US Senate seat. And as Fetterman told The Inquirer, the helmet is more than just a memento of clashes on muddy Pennsylvania soccer fields more than 30 years ago.

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Before the hoodie became his staple, there were helmets. At 6ft 8, with a bald head and a goatee, Fetterman, 53, looks very much like an old football player. But he said: “I want to get that straight. I wasn’t special at all.” He had to work for everything he could get in that helmet.

“It’s part of growing up as a normal Pennsylvanian,” Fetterman said of playing football in an interview a month before Election Day. “We all dreamed of playing for Penn State. Many of us have fallen short. I did. I would have loved to play at Beaver Stadium, but I enjoyed playing at Albright. I’ve always believed that anyone who plays in Division III enjoys playing the game. You love the team. You love the relationships.”

Fetterman only began acting as a junior at Central York High School in 1985 after growing six inches in one year. His college coach at Albright, Jeff Sparagana, once playfully teased him about Fetterman being so difficult to cover up.

“He said, ‘Fetterman, you have deceptive speed.’ I was like, ‘Really?'” Fetterman said, smiling. “He said, ‘Yes. You’re slower than you look.” He had these one-liners that reminded you of where you really were.”

Fetterman was what coaches call a project. Sparagana, who is now retired, recently said that Fetterman was still “catching up on his coordination and size” when he enrolled at Albright in 1987.

“But he was a very, very hard worker,” Sparagana said. “In his senior year at Albright, he developed into a starter with the help of coaching. He was a very smart player but with his size he did it when he had to hit someone. He has evolved. He caught up with his physical stature and he developed [the] trust to use it.”

Albright, a Division III school of about 1,750 students in Reading, was hardly a football powerhouse. The Lions lost the last seven games Fetterman played. He said players used to joke that Albright was the perfect homecoming opponent – for the other teams. “We said we were up for birthday parties and all,” Fetterman said.

He continued, “Honestly, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I only play with the boys. The best lesson that came out of this was to just get knocked down and get back up. It’s a great metaphor for life.”

After a pause, he said, “I miss it. I miss being young and being able to meet each other.”

He also said he appreciated what he learned – not just about football or even playing in a team, but about himself. These would be lessons that would help propel him into a political career and through a bloody campaign against the to lead Republican Mehmet Oz. The only difference, he said, is that football is probably a bit cleaner.

“You’re going to hit, you’re going to take hits — sometimes you’re going to punch someone, and sometimes you’re going to get slapped on your butt.”

John Fetterman on the similarities between football and politics

When asked how playing football has helped him in politics, he said: “Pull through, play through the pain, just keep at it. It helps you develop that mental strength and understanding that you’re going to get hit. You will hit, you will take hits – sometimes you will hit someone, and sometimes you will get hit on your butt. Part of politics now is that sometimes it’s gotten so personal, so nasty. Whatever happens between the whistle, in football you do what you have to do. You hit, hit, hit, and then it’s over.”

Fetterman’s Senate quest almost ended prematurely after he suffered a stroke days before winning the May 17 Democratic primary. He did not speak publicly until August 22 and recorded on October 25 using a closed captioning device.

The future senator, who had weighed up to 418 pounds, walked four to five miles every day in the weeks after the stroke, strengthened his body and devised a plan for a different kind of trench warfare. He drew on his sporting and footballing background.

Fetterman grew up in Springettsbury Township, a suburb of York, Pennsylvania. Central York High School then had – and still does – an impressive football program and after his growth spurt he thought he’d like to try football.

When asked why football and not basketball, Fetterman said, “Oh, that’s easy. I had no coordination. The only thing I was meant to be was to be a linesman. I just couldn’t play basketball – I mean, not very well.”

He was a reserve player for the Panthers during his junior year, then he got a cold dose of reality when members of the team attended a summer football camp at Penn State.

“And I was like, ‘Hey, maybe we can show them what we’ve got.’ Of course, it just wasn’t in the cards,” Fetterman said. “I wasn’t good enough to get a scholarship or play at an elite venue.”

But he became a contributor at Central York on offense and defense for a team that finished 1986 6-4-1. He became interested in acting at Albright, where his father, Karl, had graduated. He considered other Pennsylvania Division III schools, but Sparagana was interested in Fetterman. His younger brother Gregg later played there too.

“John was quiet, humble, leading by example,” Sparagana said. “Coming into his senior year he was one of the leaders of the team but in the beginning he let what he did as a player speak for itself. What has always impressed me is that he was always determined to use what the Lord had given him.”

Chris Vaszily, a defenseman who graduated from Albright in 1990, a year before Fetterman, called him a good teammate and presence in the dressing room. He was a lunchbox guy: personable, intelligent, and mostly quiet, but “really, really over the top funny.” The Lions won back-to-back games in 1990, their first win in seven years.

“He wasn’t always the lightest of feet, but he was part of the team and you really felt like we really had a chance if everyone dialed in and played together,” said Vaszily, who is now a sports consultant who lives in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. “He was real. He was humble. He was engaged. He was sincere. He came here to do things he hasn’t done before.”

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As a junior and senior at Albright, Fetterman was the president of his class and had begun thinking about what he would do after his bachelor’s degree in finance. Whatever would happen would not include football.

“I knew I was going to miss it, but it was about time it was over,” Fetterman said. “My knees were really starting to bother me [me]. But I was lucky. I had no serious injuries. It was like, it’s run its course.

“I miss being young – with hair – and being able to bench press 350lbs and stuff like that. I know it’s a different season [in life]. I wouldn’t trade my life for children and a family right now, but football is certainly a part of my life that I look back on with great fondness.”