Bill Fralic of Pittsburgh, the 6'5", 285-pound All-Universe offensive left tackle, wandered into Niko's Gyros in the Oakland section of town for lunch the other day. It's a place that gives new meaning to the term greasy spoon. When you slide onto a stool at the counter, you really do. Manager Mike Tsouris tells Fralic of a player who supposedly signed an $18 million deal with a USFL team. Fralic says, "Was it $1 a year for 18 million years?"
Fralic then asks for a spoon. "Don't break it," says Tsouris, who clearly has in mind a long-term life for this flimsy piece of plastic.
"How about a straw?" says Fralic.
"You get a straw at home?" grouses Tsouris. A straw isn't forthcoming.
A visitor asks what the difference is between a Gyro Sandwich for $2.45 and a Gyro Plate for $3. Not adept at suffering fools, Tsouris says, "The difference is 55 cents and you get a plate."
Niko's Gyros is classic Pittsburgh—a rough, tough, no-nonsense establishment where men are men. It's a lineman's kind of place. Namby-pamby running backs don't come here, and for a wide receiver to show up would be ridiculous. Put your elbows on the counter (careful of sliding), roll up your sleeves, eat a gyro and talk sports. Women need not apply.
Seldom have a restaurant, to use the term loosely, and an athlete been so made for each other. Fralic was born—in Verona, Pa. 21 years ago—to hang out at Niko's. Just as he was born to be on the football field. Indeed, when he was 11, his dad, also named Bill, took him to sign up with the seldom defeated Morning-side Bulldogs, a team for 13-to 15-year-olds. The old man—a steelworker, of course, who as a Marine in Korea was in on the Inchon landing and was wounded twice—told coach Joe Natoli that young Bill wanted to play. "We have a rule," said Natoli. "A kid has to be 13."
"Wanna look at him?"
Natoli looked and said, "We just changed the rule."
No wonder a West Virginia University recruiter is still shaking his head over the time he saw Fralic at a practice and was told he couldn't recruit him because at that time Fralic was only in the eighth grade. Pitching in Little League at age 11, Fralic was 23-0, and he averaged 15 strikeouts for the six-inning games. The highlight of his Little League career came late that season. Fralic was on the mound and his team was ahead 25-0 in the fourth inning when the opposing manager took his team off the field. "I liked that," says Fralic.
And when it comes to Fralic's football ability, what's not to like? He's a pro in college clothes. Says Pitt's nonpareil line coach, Joe Moore, "If ever there was a dream football player, it's him. Once a decade you get a guy who sets new standards. He's it for this decade."
Bill Davis, director of personnel for the Cleveland Browns, swears Fralic is the best offensive lineman in history. Gil Brandt of the Dallas Cowboys says everyone agrees Fralic is the best this season and likely the best in many years. Former Pitt teammate Bill Maas, a defensive tackle who was the Kansas City Chiefs' No. 1 pick in this year's draft, says, "When Fralic does something, you know you're seeing it done the best it can be."
Not surprisingly, he proved that once again last Saturday. Although Brigham Young, led by yet another gifted quarterback, junior Robbie Bosco, who completed 25 of 43 passes for 325 yards, upset the Panthers 20-14, Fralic played exceedingly well. He toyed with Jim Herrmann, BYU's talented defensive end. Herrmann, whose nose may grow long for saying, "I felt like I held my own against Fralic," was generously credited with four tackles, none of which were unassisted. Never did he get near Pitt quarterback John Congemi. "Every game, Fralic's man isn't in the picture, and he wasn't today," said Congemi.
It's just as Panther coach Foge Fazio says, "Some teams are righthanded. A few teams are lefthanded. We're Fralic-handed." That, however, can be a mixed blessing. Of the Panthers' 146 rushing yards on Saturday, 101 came behind Fralic. But when they needed them most, coach Foge Fazio looked elsewhere—and regretted it. Twice in the second quarter, once on the BYU two-yard line, Pitt faced fourth-and-two and was stopped. "They were stacked up there [opposite Fralic]," said Fazio. "Everyone in the stadium thought we were going that way, so we went the other way."
In the Panther grading scheme for game performance, 90 is considered superior for an offensive lineman. Fralic averages 96 and has never received anything less than a 92. "You never play as bad as you thought or as good as you thought," says Fralic. "The point is, if you're not getting better, you're getting worse. I'm a lot better now than I was then. All I know is things I do right, I could've done better. And things I do wrong, I shouldn't ever do again. When I get beat, it's not something my opponent did better; it's something I did wrong."
How does he do it? First, he was issued a body designed by God instead of one of God's assistants. "But you see quite a few bodies like that," says Moore, who in his four years as Pitt's line coach has produced more outstanding offensive linemen than any coach in the country (see box, page 38). "The secret is that he has the mentality of a 180-pound guard who's busting his ass all the time just to survive. He has that inner toughness. The great ones, though, have a little meanness about them. They're a little antisocial." A little? A big problem at Pitt is that practicing against Fralic isn't considered one of life's joys. Understand that when he faces someone of smaller size and/or inferior ability, he simply bears down and drills him unmercifully.
Fralic spends a good deal of time in the Panther weight room, below the sign that reads PITT IRON WORKS. Once, on the Fourth of July, he wandered around trying to find someone with a key to the room. As far back as eighth grade, his father had worried that Bill's school didn't have enough weights for him to lift. Fralic downplays his dedication. "It only takes three hours a day to work out, 15 hours a week," he says. "If you can't do that, it doesn't mean anything to you. I know I'm different from other players, but not better. Yet I just don't feel on the same level with them. I'm thinking different."
Andy Urbanic, who coached Fralic at Penn Hills High and is now the running-back coach at Pitt, is clicking game film back and forth and pointing out the wonders of Fralic. "For every lineman aspiring to be a great college player, Billy is his idol," says Urbanic. Click, click. "Look at his leverage, arms out, butt down. His body's under control, and his feet are so quick. He's on the balls of his feet, like a dancer, not back on his heels. He's an offensive lineman with defensive temperament." Click, click. The one-man wrecking crew handles everything—the stunts, the defensive twists, two men on him, no men on him, blocking on a moving linebacker.
Urbanic threads the Pittsburgh highlight film, and here comes running back Joe McCall against Notre Dame, desperately looking for room. He needs a block on the Irish corner-back. Naturally, Fralic arrives in the picture and knocks the defender out of contention. McCall goes 31 yards, down to the Notre Dame one. Fralic is unhappy. "After making that first block," he says, "I should've been able to get down and get the guy who got Joe on the one." That's Fralic. To accomplish the impossible only takes practice.
In 1983, when Pitt needed a touchdown against Maryland to win, the Panthers, starting on their own 37, ran 11 straight times behind Fralic, getting down to the Terp seven before a fumble ended the drive. Maryland won 13-7, but the point is, just like last week, everyone in the stadium knew those 11 plays would be run behind Fralic, and Maryland still couldn't stop them.
Fralic isn't basking in his perfection. "I talked to Coach Moore the other day," he says, "or rather, he talked to me. He told me I just had to become more fanatical, become more confident, get stronger, get faster. I will do all those things." Moore, however, downplays his role, saying, "You can only coach 'em as good as they are. You can't take 'em to a level they can't see." Fralic sees.
Naturally, Fralic's teammates are star-struck. Fullback Marlon McIntyre says, "It's like running behind a mountain. He's never down." Offensive guard Bobby Brown says, "He doesn't just beat people, he beats them up. If you get your guy, you don't have to worry about him getting his." Says left guard Mike Dorundo with a chuckle, "Fralic's big advantage is that he plays next to me."
When asked about all the money Fralic will make next year when he signs a pro contract, his father, who has been laid off by the Edgewater Steel Company for nearly two years, says, "I've survived this long without a millionaire son." Like his son, Mr. Fralic is a down-to-earth kind of guy. "If Bill believed half of what he hears about himself," he says, "you couldn't find a helmet big enough to fit him."
Fazio isn't shy about calling Fralic in and letting him have it, usually over lack of academic effort. "I scream at him that he's a big jerk," says Fazio, "and he just sits there, bows his head, takes it and feels ashamed." School, frankly, isn't a major concern for Fralic. A business major, he has a 2.65 grade-point average. In high school, his average was a pedestrian 2.3, which clearly doesn't reflect his I.Q. of 120. He never failed a class at Penn Hills, but he did pull down a D in cooking and, alas, in physical education. He graduated 609th in a class of 1,030 students in 1981. The school did retire his No. 67 jersey, and Fralic is proof of the words that appear on a plaque in the office of principal Edward C. Hoover: THERE IS NO ONE ROAD TO SUCCESS. THERE ARE AS MANY AS THERE ARE MEN WILLING TO BUILD THEM.
Stretched out on the Pitt locker room floor after another intense workout with the weights, Fralic is reflective. "I realize that football may be silly, but it's what I do," he says. "It's what I was meant to do. If you want to talk silly, how about being a movie star? That's sillier than football. Because no matter what you say about football, it's real. What I love about football is, first, it's a challenge and, second, conquering that challenge. I'm always getting ready for that test of what's inside of me—and what's inside that guy across from me. If I knock him on his butt and he doesn't want to be knocked on his butt, I feel good about myself. There is a sense of power. But football isn't a fun sport. It's just something I feel compelled to do. I get great happiness from it. And great sadness."
He experienced sadness of another sort last Friday, when an interview with him in the student newspaper, The Pitt News, became national news. Among the topics covered was how he likes to spend his time away from football. His answer: "I like to play golf and go —— girls and get drunk. If you can put that in there, I don't care." Typically, Fralic was candid after Saturday's game in talking about the article. "The reporter was so ill at ease doing the interview that I just wanted to make a little joke and make him feel better," he said. "Look, I don't profess to be the cleanest-mouthed guy, but I'm a single male. However, I learned I should be more cautious, and I learned I was naive. But I never professed to be an angel or a genius." Fair enough. He didn't try to lie his way out of a mess; he didn't blame others any more than he blamed himself; and he didn't sulk and hide from the press. In short, his assessment of his remarks was as mature as the remarks were immature.
The point never to be lost is that Fralic is a world-class football player. In 1981, he became the first Panther player to start the first game of his freshman year since Tony Dorsett did so in 1973. When Fralic was forced into the fray that season because of injuries to others, he told an apprehensive Moore, "Coach, I'll do the best I can. And if my guy beats me, remember, he'll have to beat me again on the next play." Fat chance. These days, Fralic can play anywhere on the offensive line. What's his best position? Says Moore, "Anchor. Look, if we didn't have him, we might be on defense the whole time."
Fralic attributes much of his success—as do the other offensive linemen—to Moore, who also has the title of assistant head coach. Every senior who has started for Moore in the four years he has coached the offensive line is now in the NFL. Says Fazio of Moore, "In one sentence, he can challenge his players' manhood, their religion, their neighborhood, their mother—and get away with it. He'll scream at one of them for three days, then on the fourth, not talk to him at all."
Moore's philosophy is to have only 15 offensive linemen on the team at a time—as opposed, say, to Nebraska, which may have 25—because "it's very hard for a young man to handle being way down on a depth chart. The only way he can be fourth team here is if we eliminate the third team." Without apology, Moore stresses his players' pro football futures as being their most important priority—yes, ahead of academics. Though that attitude flies in the face of the usual pious statements emanating from universities, it's brutally honest. "To put football second in their lives now," says Moore, "would be foolish."
And foolish is one thing Moore is not. Brandt says Moore gets results because he "may be the best line coach in college football." Change "may" to "is" and you've got it. A legendary coach at four high schools in New York and Western Pennsylvania over a 17-year span, during which he built a record of 119-32-4, Moore explains his success this way: "I'm a little nuts. It takes that. If you're not psyched, it won't happen." Actually, Moore is a lot nuts and a lot psyched, and those are traits with which offensive linemen can identify.
Says Moore, "Athletic ability isn't the primary thing for offensive linemen. It's the look in their eyes. The good ones look different to me. They have tremendous intensity and take great self-pride in every snap." Moore constantly stresses leverage and repeatedly tells his players, "If your feet stop, you might as well go back to the huddle. If you hit the ground, you might as well go back to the huddle." Additionally, unlike a lot of major schools, Pitt teaches offensive linemen how to pass block—and that makes them prime pro prospects. Says Moore, "We don't prepare them for a practice, a game or a season. We prepare them for their futures."
For all his screaming and abuse, Moore confesses, "I never forget what it's like to be 17, 18, 19. There's a great deal of insecurity. I remember what it's like to fail at that age. They can all take criticism as long as you notice when they do it right. We should never forget that we're dealing with a human being going from Boy to Tarzan, but there's an awful lot of Boy under that helmet."
And in Fralic's case, an awful lot of Tarzan. Whether he has enough Tarzan in him to swing above the throng of backs and over to the Heisman tree remains to be seen. Heisman voters are getting increasingly sensitive about never having selected an interior lineman for the award. "I may play great and not get it," he says, "or not play great and get it. Who knows what sportswriters think." Who knows.
Says his dad of the Heisman talk, "Never rule nothin' out. This is America."
Whatever happens, Fralic knows two things for sure. Eating gyros at Niko's is as close as one can get to heaven before the real event, and "everything always works out for me. Everything."
The Pittsburgh Pipeline