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Joe Schmidt Retired Jersey #65

College Football Hall of Fame | Pro Football Hall of Fame
Pro Football Hall of Fame Induction Speech

Few men in the illustrious history of Pitt football have played the game with the fire and intensity that JOE SCHMIDT displayed during his brilliant career in the early 1950s.

Although Pitt's success as a team was handicapped during Schmidt's career by the fact that in his four years he played for four different head coaches, he established himself - both at Pitt and later during a sterling NFL career with the Detroit Lions - as one of the finest linebackers the game has ever known.

At Pitt, Schmidt began as a fullback and guard. As a sophomore, coach Len Casanova switched him to linebacker, where he became an All-American. At Pitt, he displayed the skills of anticipation, split-second defensive instincts and brutal tackling that would make him a 10-time Pro Bowler with the Lions.

Schmidt was destined to be a football player at an early age.

"Joe began playing rough, tough football against full-grown men on the sandlots of Western Pennsylvania when he was only 12," wrote Myron Cope in The Saturday Evening Post. "Joe was a tackle on the St. Clair Veterans, a team that was otherwise made up of men who had served in World War II. He was a big boy then, weighing 175 pounds, but he didn't have a whisker on his chin. When the St. Clair Veterans visited the Western State Penitentiary to play a team of convicts, he had to lie about his age to get inside the prison walls. Probably the convicts would have been insulted if they had known they were playing against a 14-year-old kid."

Joe's older brother John, who had played for a Carnegie Tech team that went to the Sugar Bowl, coached the St. Clair Veterans.

It was watching John play in games against the Panthers that helped persuade Joe to attend Pitt.

His college career was rife with injuries. As a freshman, he broke two ribs. In his sophomore season he broke his wrist in spring practice and separated his shoulder in the fall. As a junior, he badly wrenched his knee in the preseason. As a senior in 1952, he tore knee cartilage in the opening game against Iowa, and then came back two weeks later against Notre Dame, in which he sustained a concussion and hemorrhage that put him in the hospital for 10 days. When he wasn't sidelined with an injury, he was playing hurt.

But when he was on the field, he was a force to behold.

He played the game at the boiling point. Head down, he would charge straight into thundering linemen. They would meet him head on...with a crashing of helmets and a thudding of shoulder pads. Schmidt would split would-be blockers like wooden soldiers and blast a ball carrier into the next zip code.

He personally, sometimes almost single-handedly, led Pitt to some tremendous victories during his career - a 21-7 victory over Miami in 1951, a 13-7 win over Penn State in 1951, a 21-14 win over Ohio State in 1952, and the memorable 1952 victory against Notre Dame, when Schmidt's pregame address to his teammates (along with his 60-yard return of an interception) helped spirit the underdog Panthers to a 22-19 decision against the Fighting Irish in South Bend.

The fiery pregame speech at Notre Dame became the stuff of legend.

Before kickoff, Schmidt asked Coach Red Dawson and his staff to leave the locker room for a few minutes.

According to Jim O'Brien's book Hail to Pitt, "Schmidt then described in graphic terms what he would personally do to each and every one if they dared to let Notre Dame beat them."

"I more or less presented the situation to them," Schmidt recalled. "Notre Dame had guys who were from Western Pennsylvania and hadn't been any better as high school players than our guys. `They think they're so great,' I told them, `because they have the image of Notre Dame going for them.' I talked a little bit more, and I think they realized that I had a good point. They said, `Damn it, let's go out and win the game.' And we did."

Because of his long history of injuries as a collegian, the Detroit Lions didn't select Schmidt until the seventh round of the NFL draft in 1953.

"I didn't think I would make the team," Schmidt said.

But within a short period of time, Schmidt became the heart of the Lions' perennially strong defensive unit.

During his 13-year playing career (1953-65), he was named All-Pro 10 times, played in 10 Pro Bowl games (tied for the most all-time by a Lions player) and was named to the 1950s All-Decade Team. His teammates voted him Detroit's MVP four times (1955, 1957, 1958 and 1961). He served as team captain for nine seasons and totaled 24 career interceptions.

For all of those honors, perhaps the finest accolade an athlete can earn is the universal respect of his opponents and teammates, and Schmidt earned this kind of acclaim in abundance.

"Joe is the best linebacker in the league," said Green Bay Packers' Hall of Fame halfback Paul Hornung.

John Henry Johnson, another Hall of Fame back, said of playing Schmidt, "He's always in the way."

Detroit won two NFL championships during Schmidt's career. He later coached the team for six seasons and led Detroit to its only playoff appearance of the 1970s.

Schmidt became Pitt's first Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, receiving enshrinement in 1973.

He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2000.

"Pitt provided me with the opportunity to do what I've wanted to do, and further myself through my athletic abilities," Schmidt said. "Everything I have stemmed from that opportunity. So I have a soft spot in my heart for the university."

Schmidt's number 65 was retired by the University of Pittsburgh at halftime of the Pitt-Miami game in 1997, 45 years after his final collegiate season.

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