PITTSBURGH – For all its football tradition, for all the Dan Marino memorabilia, golden championship trophies and black-and-white photos of historic teams that festoon its weight-room walls, Pittsburgh Central Catholic doesn’t have a stadium of its own.
The practice field is crammed into a tiny, green canyon beneath towering Carnegie-Mellon University buildings that encroach on this 91-year-old boys school’s Oakland campus. Its weight room is in the basement of an antiquated gymnasium.
Those facilities explain why suburban-bred Stefen Wisniewski didn’t initially enroll at the city school, despite a football program that’s won six state titles and produced Marino, Marc Bulger and numerous other NFL players.
“I took Stef there for a visit in eighth grade,” Leo Wisniewski, the Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman’s father, who played four seasons with the Baltimore Colts in the 1980s, recalled Monday at his Bridgeville home. “He was too young to really see the value. Central shares its practice field with other teams. They don’t have a swimming pool or a lot of other things large high schools have.”
But after an uneventful freshman year at South Fayette High, Wisniewski returned for a second look. Won over, he enrolled at Central and as a sophomore helped the 16-0 Vikings win the 2004 state championship.
“He was more mature when we went back for a second visit,” said his father. “He really got the vision and the tradition.”
Every Super Bowl journey, it seems, must pass through western Pennsylvania. From Joe Namath’s verve to Joe Montana’s nerve to the Steelers’ six rings, sports’ biggest game has been enhanced by its links to this football-fertile area. And though Wisniewski grew up in suburban South Fayette, just a few miles southwest of the Golden Triangle, his road to Sunday’s Super Bowl LII is another story based in Pittsburgh.
A large, tough, and smart player with football throughout his family tree — Uncle Steve was a longtime Oakland Raiders offensive lineman — and a last name as hard as steel, Wisniewski is in many ways the stereotype of a western Pennsylvania-bred lineman. Think Russ Grimm, Bill Fralic, and a player the Eagles will face Sunday, New England’s Rob Gronkowski.
“Stef played against Gronk when he was at Woodland Hills,” said Central Catholic coach Terry Totten, the disappointment still evident. “We lost, but we lost late.”
Wisniewski commuted daily to Central. When he arrived, a growth spurt and a weight-room devotion transformed the 175-pounder into a 225-pound force whom older teammates nicknamed “The Baby Beast.”
“Yeah, he was big, but that wasn’t all,” said Totten, who played with Marino. “Stef checks every box there is. He was very talented, very dedicated, a great teammate. His character was off the charts. He was a tremendous student. He was always willing to spend extra time with smaller guys in the weight room. He’s a coach’s dream.”
Curiously, for all their Pittsburgh aura, the Wisniewskis are transplants. Stef’s grandfather, Jim, was raised in Connecticut, went to college at Michigan Tech, and didn’t move here until the early ’70s when a steel mill hired him as a metallurgical engineer.
“He never played football until he got in the Army,” said Leo, one of his six children. “He thought it was a great sport for young men. So I played it and loved it. Steve, who is four years younger, really embraced it.”
Football so permeated the atmosphere in his new neighborhood, Leo said, that he could sing the “Pittsburgh Steelers Polka” before he could name Pittsburgh’s mayor.
“Everybody was just crazy about football,” he said.
Stefen, who has a younger sister, Sarah, was born here in 1989 (mother Cindy is a native). He played football with neighborhood kids and before long was champing at the bit to join the South Fayette Youth Football Association.
“I wasn’t too crazy about him starting that young,” said Leo. “Youth football ought to be about teaching fundamentals and sometimes it isn’t. But when I found out they had evening practices and I could coach the offensive and defensive lines, I let him do it.”
Like his father and uncle, Wisniewski was born to play in the trenches.
“He had the size and he took to the position,” said Leo. “He was physical and aggressive even at a young age. He grew up watching Uncle Steve play along the o-line, which maybe produced a comfort level. And he always had a good head on his shoulders.”
Wisniewski would become his Central 2007 graduating class’ salutatorian, but even as a newly transferred sophomore, his smarts were evident.
“He was unbelievably intelligent,” said Graham Rihn, a Central teammate who now operates a waste-management company. “There was a bunch of us seniors in the locker room talking about this really tough math problem we had in class and trying to solve it. We were all very competitive and we’re going back and forth about it. Stef, who’s a sophomore and hadn’t even taken that course yet, walks by, takes a quick look, and tells us the answer as he’s walking away. We’re all saying, `Who is this guy?’ ”
As if to illustrate Pittsburgh’s football history, Totten exited the memorabilia-laden weight room and motioned toward some rooftops visible beyond the practice field.
That, he said, was Dan Marino’s neighborhood. Then, turning right, he pointed out Pitt’s nearby Cathedral of Learning, beneath which the collegiate Panthers and NFL Steelers once played in Forbes Field.
Earlier, Leo Wisniewski had recited all the steel towns up and down the Monongahela, noting the football stars who emerged from each.
“The ethos of football has always been aligned with the ethos of Pittsburgh,” said Rihn. “It’s put your head down, grind, work hard. It’s not easy, but if you work together great things can happen. That’s not just Pittsburgh. That’s Stefen, too.”