Here’s a little-known fact: If you rounded up all the legal citizens of Armstrong County, they would fit into Heinz Field. For a county that still has a drive-in movie theater and a museum dedicated to the ancient radio, every day is Throwback Thursday. There is neither hustle nor bustle in the sleepy towns of Ford City, Kittanning and Apollo. The town of Parker has the odd claim of “smallest city in the U.S.A.” But like its surrounding neighbors, Armstrong County has made some pretty good contributions to the world of sports.
The cousins Frerotte and brothers Christy are two good examples. The late Mitch Frerotte went from Kittanning to Penn State to three Super Bowls with the Buffalo Bills. In 1992, Mitch scored three touchdowns in one season. Maybe that doesn’t sound impressive at first, but it’s considerably more remarkable considering he was an offensive lineman.
His cousin Gus grew up in Ford City and cashed an NFL check every year from 1994-2008. The much-under-appreciated Frerotte played in the Pro Bowl in 1996 and once threw a 99-yard touchdown pass. But he’s probably best known for spraining his neck by ramming his head into a cement wall as a touchdown celebration. In his defense, it was part of an exciting 7-7 tie with the New York Giants. But he was a serviceable backup, and he threw more touchdowns (114) than picks (106) in his professional career. Not even Beaver County native and Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Namath can say that.
Jeff Christy, from Freeport Senior High School, was a fourth-round pick for the Arizona Cardinals after his time at Pitt. Christy went out on top as a Super Bowl champion in 2002 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A respectable career with mostly the Minnesota Vikings was eclipsed only by his high school accomplishments. At Freeport, Christy rushed for almost 3,000 yards, made more than 300 tackles and set nine school records. Good enough to be the first football player from Freeport Senior High to have his jersey retired. His older brother, Greg, blocked for Dan Marino at Pitt, and then played for Buffalo in the NFL. His career was cut short with an injury, but he played on one of the best offensive lines ever assembled with the Panthers.
The tiny hamlet of Yatesboro gave us College Football Hall of Famer Bob Pellegrini, who was a standout center and linebacker for the Maryland Terrapins in the 1950s. He went on to play professionally with Washington and Philadelphia. Plus, former Steeler Eric Ravotti, of Freeport High and Penn State, played three seasons under Bill Cowher from 1994-1996.
Armstrong County’s most famous baseball player is Mickey Morandini. You might remember him from his unassisted triple play at Three Rivers Stadium. Morandini, of the Philadelphia Phillies, snagged a liner of the bat of Jeff King, stepped on second to get Andy Van Slyke, then tagged out regular-sized-head Barry Bonds for the trifecta. Three outs while barely moving. It was the first no-help triple play in the National League since 1928. Morandini was a solid defensive second baseman and even played in the World Series in 1993, losing to Toronto.
Red Mihalik, from Ford City, is a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He played professionally with the Pittsburgh Ironmen and Youngstown Bears in leagues that were forerunners of the NBA. He’s not in the Hall as a player, but as a referee. Mihalik was considered the best by his peers and the media, and that was back before fake news and alternative facts.
You might not think of Armstrong County as a hotbed for NASCAR drivers, because it’s not. But Ryan Hemphill, from Apollo, had his time in the big leagues. Hemphill was dropped from Chip Ganassi’s racing team after a lackluster year, but still had the proverbial “cup of coffee” in the bigs.
The county’s most famous native has no sports connection, but she must be mentioned. National Women’s Hall of Fame inductee Nellie Bly is from Cochran’s Mills. Her investigative reporting in the late 19th century exposed the inhumane treatment of asylum patients, and she even traveled the world in 72 days. Only four journalists in history have a USPS stamp, and Nellie is one of them. The entire population of Armstrong County is less than that of Murfreesboro, Tenn., or Edmond, Okla. But they don’t have a Nellie Bly; they probably don’t have drive-in movie theaters; and, of course, there can only be one Mickey Morandini.