I am, admittedly, not a football fan. In truth, I have a hard time even pretending to like football. However, the majority of (both sides of) my Mom’s family in Pennsylvania nurses a huge crush on those black & gold Pirates so I have always grown up with an extremely halfhearted, but dormant loyalty to the team. I remember seeing the “Stillers” placemats in the guest room of my grandfather Tony’s house when I would visit. Occasionally, games would be on during family reunions, and a few relatives would cluster in the cool darkness of my grandfather’s basement to watch, cheer, and sip their beers. Today, my Facebook feed is flooded with photos of family members wearing Steelers garb and enthusiastic posts of encouragement and hope whenever a game is on.
So, it was with some shock, when I discovered through a newspaper that the husband of one of my mom’s 1st cousins on her mom’s side was a former Steelers player!
Perhaps this was a situation of something not being spoken of because it was assumed to be common knowledge, but I had never heard anything of this from my mom (also not a football fan, which could explain the lack of bragging) or any of her family before.
Albert J. Merkovsky, known as Elmer, was born on 4/13/1917 in North Braddock, Pennsylvania to Czechoslovakian parents Joseph Merkovsky and Susanna Zamborszky. He most likely met my mom’s cousin, Mildred Stojakovich, at Scott High school where they both attended and they married not long after.
His football career began there at Scott where he played as a guard. He continued his football career into college, attending Pitt and playing for coach John Bain “Jock” Sutherland. Beginning as a substitute left tackle, he impressed Sutherland and was promoted to a regular tackle for the Pitt Panthers. In 1937, he played in the Rose Bowl, a source of pride for years after. The biggest disappointment in his football career was Pitt’s loss to Duke in 1938, his feeling was that Pitt outplayed Duke, but lost anyway. In 1939, he played in 3 college All-Star games.
Upon his graduation from Pitt, Mildred, his wife (and my 1st cousin once removed) urged him to stop playing football and work. He agreed, but couldn’t keep football out of his life. He coached a local kid’s team and played a little bit on the side. When Mildred found this out she relented, realizing that this was something her husband truly enjoyed, and supported his desire to play professionally.
In 1944 he began his professional football career for the NFL, playing one season for Card-Pitt (a mashup of Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Cardinals players since many of each team’s athletes were unavailable, serving in WW2). By 1945, the Steelers were the Steelers once more and Merkovsky played with them for two seasons between 1945-1946. Merkovsky was not afraid to play. It was said that he broke his nose 6 times while playing tackle for the Steelers. He was proud of his career and attended many of the Steeler alumni functions.
At 6 feet and 1 or 2 inches and between 235-245 ibs for the majority of his football career, Merkovsky was frequently described as a big, solid guy. Despite his size, he was also incredibly fast. He was a huge proponent of sports as a means to improve yourself. He argued that it taught folks to obey rules, learn respect, responsibility, and consequences for your actions. Between his graduation from Pitt and the start of his career with the Steelers, he became the father to three children: Elmer Jr., William “Bill”, and Geraldine “Dena.” While with the Steelers, he would become the father of a 4th child, John. Mildred and Elmer would have two more boys, Joseph and Robert, a bit later in their lives. Proud papa Elmer was eager to introduce his boys to football. Happily, Elmer Jr. would follow in his footsteps, echoing his career as a tackle for Pitt.
After his football career ended, Merkovsky became Pittsburgh’s local Deputy Sheriff. Because of his large, imposing build, he was usually assigned to escort prisoners to jail. Throughout his career, Merkovsky would accompany prisoners varying from bigamists to murderers. He was of the impression that, had these men participated in sports during their youth, they would have been better supervised and more disciplined, possibly a deterrent from a life of crime.
In October of 1980, Elmer was inducted to the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. At that point he was living in California with his family and had to take a plane trip to the ceremony. While on the plane, one of his legs began hurting him, becoming so painful that he had to attend the ceremony in a wheelchair. A day later, he was admitted to a hospital in Pennsylvania. The pain in his leg was attributed to blood clots, the condition being so serious that his leg had gangrened and there was no hope in saving it. The leg was amputated. After he recovered from that, his other leg was amputated. The man who was considered so solid and tough was now a double amputee with additional health problems including stomach and liver issues. However, he kept his positive outlook on life and was admirably optimistic and grounded throughout his ordeal. He learned how to walk on artificial limbs and considered himself lucky to be alive. Unfortunately, two years later, on June 28, 1982, he passed away from bone cancer in Long Beach, California.
I really do respect Elmer’s positive attitude in the face of hardship, as well as his dedication to the sport he so enjoyed and excelled in. The next time the Steelers come on TV, I plan to tell the story, to whoever’s wearing black and gold, about my connection to their favorite team.
**Update: I also just realized that I inadvertently wrote this post during “Week 42: Sports” of Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge so I will add in the tag below. 😉
Photo above on left: “Pitt Heavy Favorite to Top Tech Again.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 5, November 1938. p. 14.
Photo above on right: “Bigamist in Trouble Again.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 28 May 1947, p. 17.