INDIANA COUNTY HALL OF FAME: Zbur was best of best
• EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh of an eight-part series profiling the individuals who will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame. Tomorrow: Ab Dettorre.
By all rights, Chuck Zbur should’ve grown to detest the taste of ginger ale.
Back when he regularly grabbed headlines as an electrifying big-play threat at halfback for the Indiana High School football team and answered to Charley, a local bottling company, according to a story in the Sept. 17, 1955, Indiana Evening Gazette, promised a complimentary case of the soft drink to any IHS player who scored a touchdown. Given that he finished his career as the school’s all-time leading scorer, Zbur likely had plenty to guzzle. Only he didn’t.
“I never got any ginger ale. Maybe they forgot to give it to me,” Zbur, now retired and living in Jackson Hole, Wyo., said with a laugh. “Maybe they’re gonna give it to me yet.”
Unlikely, but at least Zbur will receive one long-awaited acknowledgement of his athletic achievements on Sunday when he’s inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame.
It’s an honor richly deserved. Zbur earned 14 letters at IHS in football, basketball, baseball and track, and was so accomplished he sometimes excelled in two sports in a single day. Former teammate Bill Wilt recalls a track meet at Elders Ridge High School when Zbur, after finishing a baseball game, pulled up in a car, hopped out and casually won the 100- and 220-yard dashes.
“He could do almost anything he wanted to,” said Indiana attorney Ed Clark, Indiana’s quarterback in Zbur’s senior season of 1956. “Just a great natural athlete. He was probably as good a high school athlete as there was around. No question about it.”
Zbur grew up in Ernest, which was then part of the Indiana school district. A handful of Ernest kids suited up for coach Dick Farabaugh’s team, bringing with them a reputation for hard-nosed play.
They were as likely to back down from a challenge as a pack of snarling Dobermans.
“The Ernest guys were different,” recalled 1955 IHS grad Lou Prato, who later covered sports for the Gazette, has written six books and ranks as the pre-eminent authority on Penn State football. “We knew all the Ernest kids — we played sandlot baseball against them. They were tough kids, damn right. I mean, you’re raised in a coal-mining town like that, yeah, you’re gonna be tough.”
Zbur had size to complement his toughness, weighing 185 pounds in an era when linemen rarely exceeded 200. In fact, the six interior linemen named to the Gazette’s 1956 All-Indiana County first team averaged, by today’s standards, a Lilliputian 186.
“He was a pretty big kid at that time for high school football, especially for a running back,” recalled Frank “Tip” Agnello, the quarterback of Indiana’s 8-0-1 team in 1955, a retired schoolteacher and coach who resides in Olney, Md. “He could take a pounding, and he could give it out, too.”
Zbur invariably punished defenders when they tried to bring him down. That is, if they were able to catch him.
The adjective “speedy” preceded his name in newspaper accounts so often that readers could’ve been excused for believing his parents had actually christened him Speedy Charles Zbur.
Zbur adopted an unorthodox training regimen in order to improve his already outstanding foot speed. Never was the word “training” more apt: He would sprint next to the train tracks that ran through Ernest, keeping a wary eye out for approaching locomotives all the while.
“When I was in ninth grade I started to do a lot of running,” Zbur said. “I ran those railroad tracks every day. I gained a lot of speed by just running beside them. When other guys were screwing around, I was working out.”
Zbur utilized his jaw-dropping speed to post mind-boggling numbers. He averaged 9.4 yards per rush and 28.3 yards per reception during his IHS career. Of his 19 touchdowns, nine came on plays of 38 yards or more. Zbur was a blazing blur, a threat to score from anywhere on the field.
“How fast was he? Oh, he could run, boy, I’ll tell you that,” recalled retired Indiana real estate agent Fred Moreau, a senior center on the undefeated 1955 team. “In the huddle, the first play, Tip would call the longest pass he could throw, and they would argue with each other just for a second about whether or not Tip could get that ball down the field that far. He’d drop back and heave that ball, and Zbur was down there. We would crush the opposition immediately for a touchdown.”
Zbur running free in the open field was a sight to behold, what the old-time writers called poetry in motion.
“Charley seemed to glide. That’s the best way I could put it,” said Wilt, a retired United High School teacher, principal and coach who resides in Indiana. “He’d just take off on those sweeps, and it looked like for every two or three steps backs like me would take, he’d take one. And where I’d gain 10 yards, he’d gain 20.”
Gaining yardage was Zbur’s hallmark at IHS. He put up respectable numbers as a freshman and sophomore before blossoming as a junior in 1955, when the only blemish on the Indians’ record was a scoreless tie with Westmont. Zbur offered a preview of coming attractions, so to speak, in Week 2 at Fifth Street Field when he raced 38 yards for a score, caught a 51-yard touchdown pass from Agnello and carried an interception back 70 yards for a TD in a 27-0 win over Kittanning. Only an offside penalty that wiped out a 27-yard scoring run prevented Zbur from equaling the school record for touchdowns in a game.
“Junior halfback Charley Zbur was perhaps the outstanding player for the Little Indians, if one can be singled out,” sports editor Will Doerge wrote in the Gazette. “Zbur tallied three of Indiana’s four touchdowns — all on spectacular plays.”
Those spectacular plays occurred with even more frequency in 1956. In fact, a highlight film of Zbur’s senior season would run nearly as long as “Gone With the Wind.” Consider: He raced 27 yards for a score and threw a 77-yard touchdown pass to fellow Ernest native Jackie Wilden in an opening 13-6 win over Leechburg; returned a fumble 40 yards for the decisive TD in a 6-0 victory over Northern Cambria; ran for 139 yards and a touchdown on only 10 carries in a 9-0 win over Punxsutawney; gained 159 yards on 10 attempts in a 19-6 victory over Westmont; scored two touchdowns, kicked three extra points and intercepted a pass in a 27-0 rout of Central Cambria; and capped his IHS career with two TDs on a 23-yard run and a 59-yard pass from Clark in a 20-12 win over DuBois that wrapped up an 8-1 season and the Western Conference championship.
Zbur won the Indiana County scoring crown with 78 points and rushed 68 times for a school-record 714 yards — a staggering 10.5 average per carry. Small wonder Farabaugh that fall was moved to call him “the best runner I’ve ever coached.” Zbur was accorded honorable mention on the National High School All-America team, selected by a group called the Wigwam Wisemen of America, for the second time.
He finished his career as the school’s all-time leading scorer (130 points) and rusher (1,241 yards), having obliterated Stan Fyock’s old standard by more than 400 yards. Incredibly, he still ranks eighth and ninth, respectively, in those categories, 57 years after last lugging a football at IHS.
“That’s just unbelievable,” said Agnello. “With all the great athletes they’ve had up there, to still be in the top 10? That’s amazing.”
Zbur graduated from Indiana High in 1957, played a final season of Indiana County League baseball for Ernest — he batted .392 and made the all-star team as a left fielder — and then, after weighing offers from Pitt, Penn State, Michigan State and Duke, among others, enrolled at the University of Miami.
It speaks volumes about Zbur’s skill set that the Hurricanes recruited him.
“He was good enough to get a scholarship to the University of Miami — and Miami was a powerhouse,” Wilt said. “They didn’t give scholarships out to guys unless they had a lot of talent.”
Zbur played on the Hurricanes’ freshman team in the fall of ’57, flashing the speed that had brought him such acclaim back home.
“When I was at Miami we had 102 kids there,” he recalled. “We had a race every day after practice, 50 yards, with pads on. I never lost a race. Never. And when we scrimmaged against the varsity, the varsity players, when I was [split] out as a flanker, those guys begged me to slow down. I would embarrass them.”
Unfortunately, Zbur’s time at Miami was brief. He didn’t get along with coach Andy Gustafson and wound up transferring to Memphis State. After a short stay there, Zbur moved on to Sacramento (Calif.) State, where in 1960 he transformed himself from virtual unknown — at least in the eyes of his teammates — into starting cornerback almost overnight.
“I tried out for the team, and first day in practice they put me on defense,” Zbur recalled. “The first five plays I either tackled someone for a loss or intercepted a pass. They were asking me, ‘Where in the hell did you play ball at before?’ To them it was like I came out of nowhere.”
Zbur played two seasons for the Hornets, returned back East, got married, then moved to Michigan to join wife Marilyn’s two brothers as part owner of a sanitation company in Detroit. He retired in 1988 and bought a horse ranch in Wyoming, situated in the shadows of the majestic Teton Range. On occasion Zbur will recall with a hint of a smile his days at Indiana High, when he left defenders sprawled in his wake and piled up numbers that still rank among the best ever at his alma mater.
“Yeah, I think about ’em once in a while,” Zbur said. “But at my age it’s sometimes hard to remember where I’m at any more.”
Come Sunday, the dazzling all-around athlete who never tasted a drop of that promised ginger ale so many years ago will have no doubt where he is. Chuck Zbur will be standing tall among the greats in the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame.