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Jim O'Brien's Golden Arms

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Jim O'Brien has been a sports writer in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Miami and New York over his career, and has written 23 books, mostly based upon Pittsburgh and the city’s rich sports history.

He spoke to PSR Editor Tony DeFazio about his most recent venture, "Golden Arms," about the six Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterbacks who call western Pennsylvania home.

Tony: You've written over 20 books about Pittsburgh sports. What was special for you about this one?
Jim: One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was, thanks to the Neighborhood Legal Services Association providing me with the opportunity, I was able to talk to the four living quarterbacks. I also talked to Johnny Unitas Jr. and Betty Blanda, the widow of George Blanda. She turned out to be wonderful and was an easier interview than George ever was.

I was able to go to East Brady and Monongahela and Mt. Washington and Brookline, Oakland, Beaver Falls, Youngwood. I talked to people who grew up with them and played ball with them and they had some great stories about the shenanigans that they got into as teenagers. They were funny and insightful and really show you what these kids were about.

Tony: Any shenanigans you can share with our readers?
Jim: Sure. Rich Niedbala, who was a very successful football coach at Western Beaver, was the quarterback at Beaver Falls for the first three years that Namath was there. A few years later Niedbala is at the Unversity of Miami and they are recruiting Joe Namath. They set him up for a recruiting visit. Andy Gustafson was the coach at Miami. Gustafson asked Niedbala to the guy to host Namath during his visit and take him around the campus. Niedbala gets nervous about this, because he knows Joe and doesn't know what Joe might do during his visit. He pleads with Namath, "Joe, please don't get me into any trouble down here because I've got to live with this guy. Promise me you'll be OK." So Joe says, "I've got it covered."

Namath is at a hotel in Miami and Niedbala goes to pick him up and here Joe has a goatee. He's a high school senior at Beaver Falls and he's got a goatee. Niedbala says to him, "This isn't going to go well. Gustafson won't let anybody on the team have facial hair. He's not going to be happy about this." Joe just says, "Don't worry, I've got it covered."

So they go to see Gustafson and he brings Namath into his office and keeps Niedbala outside waiting for him. So when they're done talking Gustafson goes outside and calles Niedbala into his office by hiimself.

Gustafson says, "This Namath is something, isn't he?" Niedbala says, "Oh yeah he sure is coach." Gustafson asks him, "What do you think of him?"

He says, "He's a good quarterback, he can really help us."

Gustafson waits a second, and says, "You know you've got to give that kid credit. With all he's doing at Beaver Falls, playing basketball, baseball, football, yet he still finds time to play the role of Joseph in the Christmas play."

When Namath said he had it covered, that's what he meant.

Tony: You covered a lot of these guys, and you were intimately familiar with their careers. How differently do you know these guys now after writing this book?
Jim: I understand them better. I like them better. People know they were outstanding quarterbacks. What I tell you is who these people really are. I’ve always tried in my books to make you feel like you were there with me.

Tony: The dinner this summer was really a one of a kind event, wasn't it?
Jim: One of a kind. I've been to a lot of these types of dinners and this was the best I've been to, in New York or Miami or Pittsburgh or wherever I've worked. I've never been to a better dinner.

One of the things I really liked at the dinner was that they weren't Steelers. But the room was completely full, and after every highlight Jim O'Brien Golden Armsthey showed on each guy, the entire audience stood up and a roar went out over the floor. Which I felt was an expression of local pride in what those guys had accomplished.

Of the 23 "modern era" quarterbacks honored in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, six of them hail from western Pennsylvania, within a 60-mile radius of Pittsburgh. How did that happen? Who are the six and what are they all about? The six are Johnny Unitas, George Blanda, Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Danny Marino and Jim Kelly. Friends and former classmates and teammates offer stories about the Super Bowl Six. That's how you really get to know the real story of these talented QBs. They have not forgotten where they came from. These are personal stories that provide real insights into these success-driven individuals. It's 640 pages with nearly 400 photographs, including 32 pages of color photos.

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