Football and emotion are inextricably linked, especially regarding the loss of fellow citizens and teammates. Sunday night the emotion was through the roof as the Jets, Cowboys, NFL, NBC and the nation commemorated the loss of thousands of lives on the 10th anniversary of September 11th.
This week, the emotion is being felt on a smaller scale but no less painfully by the family and friends of Sam DeLuca, who are mourning his death Tuesday.
“I’m really sad. He was my first roommate with the Jets,” said John Schmitt, teammate till the end of DeLuca, the former Jets guard and radio analyst, 75, who died of pancreatic cancer. “I came in in ’64 and he came in from the San Diego Chargers. He was such a help to me.
“I got there Sunday and we talked for about 15 minutes. I told him I loved him and I thanked him for everything he did for me. We gave each other a big hug and a kiss and we had a couple of laughs.”
DeLuca didn’t make it to the Jets’ storybook 1968 season, breaking his ankle playing basketball in the ’67 offseason. But he took over at left guard, Schmitt was at center and Dave Herman moved in at RG for the 1965 and ’66 seasons — also Joe Namath’s first two pro seasons — to form the interior line foundation from which Schmitt and Herman rose to become world champions on Namath’s Super Bowl III team.
DeLuca was a strong, tough and smart 6’2″, 250-pounder from Brooklyn. He was a technician who used the pick, slip and slide blocks of that day to top effect as a very good run blocker. And he used his strength to carve out a niche as a fine pass blocker and one of the few guards who could go toe to toe with Ernie Ladd, the 6’9″, 290-pound DT who was a four-time AFL All-Star from the Chargers.
“Sam was a weightlifter ahead of his time,” Schmitt recalled. “Coach Ewbank didn’t like his players to lift weights but Sam lifted all the time. He was strong and he could handle Ernie because he knew how to play against him after practicing against him in San Diego. He could play Ernie as good as anyone could play him. For a little guy, he could handle big guys.”
Schmitt also has a number of anecdotes about DeLuca, which caused him to put his heavy heart aside and laugh at some of the memories. One of them involved Sam’s reputation as a health freak.
“He made me a nervous wreck,” Schmitt said. “He was always worried about breaking his neck on the field, so we had a head harness in our room and every night we’d lift weights with our neck.”
DeLuca also had tonsorial concerns.
“Sam was always losing his hair,” Schmitt said. “After one game against Ernie Ladd, he didn’t talk about his bloody nose or anything. He took off his helmet and he said, ‘I lost 23 hairs in this game.’ He actually counted the hairs.”
DeLuca also was smart enough to know he wanted to get into broadcasting, often displaying his “announcer’s voice” to Schmitt on those car rides from Long Island to Shea Stadium. His offseason injury and a broadcasters’ strike gave him a two-week window of opportunity to call Jets games on WABC Radio. He stayed in radio and TV for two decades, working on radio first with Merle Harmon, then with Spencer Ross and finally Charley Steiner.
And from 1973-76, NBC teamed him up with Charlie Jones to work regionally televised games. In the process he went on to call 16 Jets games in those four seasons.
DeLuca also had outstanding business sense, moving after broadcasting into owning several McDonald’s franchises on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx and then on to owning a number of mini-warehouses that he sold for a nice profit. His was a full life and Schmitt was celebrating that life as he was mourning his friend’s death.
The viewing for DeLuca will be tonight and Friday at the McGrath and Son Funeral Home in Bronxville, N.Y., with the Mass and funeral set for Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Pelham Manor on Saturday at 9:45 a.m.
Tags: Ernie Ladd, Joe Namath, John Schmitt, Sam DeLuca, WABC Radio
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