INDIANA COUNTY SPORTS HALL OF FAME: Berzansky could do it all
• EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last of an eight-part series profiling the individuals who will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame.
It didn’t matter which sport he chose, or if his team placed first or last, Alverda native Mike Berzansky purely yearned to play.
And from early memories of becoming a four-sport standout at Pine Township High School, to latter recollections of gracing the fields of the Canadian Football League, Berzansky shaped his
persona through doing just that — playing.
An undersized but fearless lineman who was blessed with grace and athleticism, Berzansky made the most of his 5-foot-11 frame, first on the gridiron at Kent State University and later at IUP.
The oldest child in a large family, Berzansky also made a name for himself in track and field as a runner and field athlete at Pine Township, winning a handful of events and placing in several others at the Indiana County Meet.
Berzansky, along with seven other individuals, will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame at its annual banquet and induction ceremony Sunday at the Rustic Lodge.
“I just loved to play, and back then in Alverda, that’s all we did was play sports,” Berzansky said. “My father always encouraged us kids to get involved in any sport we could, and I’m glad he did, without a doubt. That involvement was quite instrumental in introducing me to possibilities and opportunities to grow and experience both success and failure. I think it had a lot to do with my success in life.”
Berzansky enjoyed growing up in Alverda, a tiny coal-mining town nestled between Clymer and Northern Cambria. He appreciated the rural nature of his hometown, particularly the fact that his neighborhood friends found an outlet for fun early through athletic competition.
There, on makeshift baseball diamonds, basketball courts and gridirons in Alverda, Berzansky formed a courageous mentality that would stick and carry him through his storied career.
“At a very young age we played tackle football without equipment in the field,” Berzansky said. “I think it made me fearless playing in junior high in sixth or seventh grade with guys on the high school team. We played a lot of rough-and-tumble games, and you’d get beat up pretty often. You had to put up and grow up real fast out there.”
Berzansky discovered through years of competing against friends and family in friendly footraces that he moved faster than most of his counterparts.
In high school, Berzansky continued to test his speed, and later jumping and throwing abilities, ultimately becoming one of Pine Township’s most well-rounded track and field competitors in the late 1950s.
Berzansky placed second in the 440-yard dash and second in the shot put at the Indiana County Meet during his junior year in 1954. A year later, Berzansky returned to the Indiana County Meet and not only won gold medals in the broad jump and the 440-yard dash, he also ran a leg on Pine Township’s winning mile relay team.
But while he excelled in track and field, baseball and basketball, becoming one of the few Pine Township athletes in his era to earn four letters in each sport, Berzansky produced his most memorable thrills on the football field.
“If I could have picked one sport it would have been football because that was what I had the most fun doing,” he said.
Pine Township lost to Barnesboro, 54-0, in Berzansky’s first career varsity game during his freshman year in 1952. After that, as Berzansky put it, “Every year was the same, at least as far as wins went in high school.”
Still, an ever-optimistic Berzansky didn’t allow playing on teams with four straight losing records in high school to affect his future in the sport. Truth be told, the losing seasons at Pine Township only turned Berzansky into a hungrier young man.
In 1955, after graduating high school, Berzansky seized an opportunity to try out for the Toronto Argonauts, a then-semipro team that had just joined the Canadian Football League. Berzansky impressed the Argonauts’ brass enough at the tryout to make the team, which began playing its games in the famed Canadian National Exhibition Stadium in 1955.
For the next four seasons, Berzansky played guard, and in some short-yardage instances, fullback for the Argonauts, a team that won just four games in each season of his tenure.
In 1957, the Argonauts scored more points than the first-place Hamilton Tiger-Cats, but still lost 10 games and finished in last place. The Argonauts finished last in each of Berzansky’s last three seasons.
“I was very competitive and always wanted to win, but I still had fun during those years,” Berzansky said. “Not to mention, I got my scholarship to Kent State University while I was playing in Toronto, and that was very important.”
Berzansky cherished his short time at Kent State, where he played guard during his freshman season under head coach Trevor Rees. A year after arriving in Kent, Berzansky got life-changing news that would greatly alter his athletic trajectory.
Berzansky’s father had suffered a heart attack, and with his family in need of a hand at home, the eldest of five children returned to Alverda and transferred to Indiana State College (which later became IUP).
Berzansky joined the football team under head coach Sam Smith in 1960. Following back-to-back two-win seasons under Smith, Berzansky finally experienced a winning season on a football team in 1962. That IUP team finished 5-2-1 and in second place in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference under head coach Chuck Mills.
Berzansky served as a guard and a kicker during his three years at IUP.
Despite being 14 years younger than Mike, his brother, Frank, said some of the most vivid memories of his childhood came from watching his brother play for IUP.
“I remember going to the IUP games when I was very young with my mom and dad and watching him play,” said Frank, a Blairsville resident who played football at Edinboro in the early 1970s. “They weren’t very competitive the first two years, but they started turning the corner the year he graduated. I just remember thinking he seemed so big, even though today he’d be considered a small lineman. To me he was definitely big, and there’s no doubt those guys were my heroes. I just wanted to put on that uniform like my big brother.”
Dennis Berzansky, another one of Mike’s brothers, offered similar sentiments regarding the nostalgia he feels from reminiscing about Mike’s IUP games. Dennis said he specifically remembers Mike’s toughness and the respect he demanded.
“He was big and fast, and what I remember most was he was a tough football player. He was really someone that people had a lot of respect for because he was just that tough,” said Dennis, a Greensburg native who’s 14 years younger than Mike. “He was 5-foot-11 but he was really difficult to handle. He held his own against people much, much bigger than him. You couldn’t really run over Mike. He was always one of the toughest guys on the field, and it was quite an experience going to watch him play.”
Berzansky assumed the role of head football coach at Toms River High School in New Jersey for two years in the 1970s before deciding to move on to other endeavors.
He became engrossed in his career and found his niche as a teacher, ultimately being voted New Jersey Teacher of the Year in 1965.
Along with his career in high school education, Berzansky also worked as a police officer, a college professor, a director of human resources and a labor arbitrator, among other occupations.
Following a life highlighted with academic, athletic and professional achievement, Berzansky credited his good fortune to his decision to become an accomplished athlete while growing up in Alverda.
“I did it because I loved it, but in the end, my athletic life really helped me get where I wanted to go professionally,” Berzansky said. “I learned that it wasn’t all about wins and losses, and that it was more about playing the game and experiencing everything that came along with it. If I had to do it all over again, I’d do the same things. I don’t think I’d change anything.”
MIKE BERZANSKY, at a glance...
Family: Wife, Joan; daughter, Ann Margaret Kochel
Residence: Ocean, N.J.
Education: Indiana High School (1973) and IUP (1977)
Occupation: Retired teacher and labor arbitrator
Career highlights: Earned letters four times in track and field, baseball, football and basketball at Pine Township High School from 1952 to 1955. Won three track and field events at the Indiana County Meet in 1955 and placed second in two events in 1954. Played in the Canadian Football League for the Toronto Argonauts for four seasons before receiving a scholarship to play football at Kent State University. Also played football for three years at IUP.