Pete Cordelli and the ’60s
Coach Cordelli. Two words which, when considered individually, consist of a noun meaning, among other things, “an instructor of athletic teams” while the other is a proud Italian surname. Put together, though, they are much, much more as they become two words that couldn’t tell more of a story. Actually, two words that couldn’t mean more to ten years of Neshaminy Redskin football players who played for Coach Cordelli and, in fact, anyone who has known the man and enjoyed the opportunity of having him in their life. And although volumes could be written, the short composition that follows will strive to highlight the essence of the man they call Coach Cordelli.
Born in the upstate Pennsylvania town of Eynon and growing up in Peckville (both part of the coal region of Pennsylvania), Peter Cordelli was one of a tight knit family whose patriarch was a coalminer. And with that environment as the backdrop, Cordelli’s father was unwavering in conveying to his children, each and every one, that education was all important – that its pursuit was not only a noble and important undertaking but would serve as a means to an end. The caveat was that the end was not just the improvement of one’s lot in life in the material sense but also the installation in the individual of an intrinsic satisfaction and confidence that was far more important. For as has been said: Art for art’s sake. And Peter Cordelli would take to heart.
A gifted athlete, Cordelli sensed that sports could help pave the way to the accomplishment of the educational goals set by his father and adopted as his own. And fortunately, he was a student in the Blakely School District which had a high school football and baseball head coach (Cordelli’s sports) by the name of John Henzes. Fortunate in that Henzes’ goals for his student-athletes were exactly in line with those of Cordelli. Thus, the stage was set and from midget-ball right on through to high school and beyond, education and sports were to form two of the core elements of Cordelli’s life.
As stated above, Cordelli played and excelled in both football and baseball. A “starter” during his sophomore year, he made the varsity gridiron squad as a 145 pound blocking back in the “old” single-wing style offense. His junior year saw him moved to wingback. And just prior to what promised to be a stellar senior year as a Blakely Bear, Cordelli was honored by his team mates who selected him as team captain; however, Uncle Sam intervened with a different game plan. For as was the case with so many young men of his age during that early 1940s time period, Cordelli was drafted by the Navy and in 1944 he left Peckville for Camp Perry and military duty. Spending two years in the service (including a stint in Guam) he was honorably discharged in 1946. Coming back home, he finished his senior year at Blakely High and with his athletic skills undiminished, Cordelli then headed off to Washington, D.C. and George Washington University (on a full scholarship) where he would pursue his university studies while playing both football and baseball.
And those athletic gifts as evidenced in high school shown even more brightly in college as he made the varsity football team as a sophomore (as a blocking back) while also playing linebacker and fullback before finishing his gridiron playing days as a defensive back his senior year. Additionally, as life often provides its participants unknowing glimpses into the future, it is worth noting that one of the games Cordelli played in was against the University of Maryland Terrapins in the first ever football game at their new Bird Stadium. A Maryland player in that game, Tom McHugh, would also go on to pursue a high school coaching career with his path crossing Cordelli’s in a way not imagined during their meeting on the field.
Not just content at “starring” in football, Cordelli made the varsity baseball team as a freshman and opened that season on the mound against Michigan. A strong hitter as well he also played outfield. No slouch on the diamond, he attracted strong interest by some big league baseball clubs. But on graduation in 1951 his heart called him home to Blakely High where he would begin his professional life as a teacher.
Upon his return to Peckville and his old high school, he was assigned to teach health and PE. Equally as important, that was also the year he began his coaching career as an assistant football coach under the man who had shaped so much of his life − Coach Henzes. And most importantly, the newly minted and titled “Coach Cordelli” also met his wife (the former Helen Popovich) that same year with their marriage taking place on December 29 (to this day, Coach Cordelli will tell you 1951 was the best year of his life – period).
The Road To Neshaminy
In the meantime, though, in 1951 the Blakely High Bears also headed the list that vied for Coach Cordelli’s focus and attention and he was to spend seven years as an assistant coach at his alma mater. A member of the Eastern Conference Football League of Northeastern Pennsylvania, one of the schools in that conference (Old Forge) had a young assistant coach on its staff by the name of John Petercuskie. Over the ensuing years Cordelli and Petercuskie would get to know each other as opponents on the field and friends off.
As it was to pass, in the mid-1950s Petercuskie was destined to head down to Southeastern Pennsylvania to a growing Philadelphia suburban school district by the name of Neshaminy (and where Petercuskie would serve as an assistant coach to the head football coach, a man named Harry Franks). The Redskins of Neshaminy featured the single-wing offense and Petercuskie was well aware that Blakely High did as well. Thus, before leaving for his new assignment in Lower Bucks County, Petercuskie called Coach Cordelli and requested a tutoring session on the “ins and outs” of the single-wing offensive scheme. Cordelli obliged and it was a favor that Petercuskie would not forget.
As it turned out, Neshaminy High School was in the midst of establishing itself as a Pennsylvania state grid powerhouse with Petercuskie eventually becoming the head coach in 1960. Along the way (in August of 1958) Petercuskie had occasion to call Coach Cordelli again but this time it was to tell him of a position that was becoming available in the Neshaminy program. Strongly interested in hearing more, Coach Cordelli was quickly on the way to Langhorne for a meeting with Franks, Petercuskie and the school’s then principal, Dr. John Stoops. A deal was reached in short order and Coach Cordelli and his family soon found themselves moving to Langhorne just in time for the 1958 season. Coach Cordelli initially began as an assistant line coach to Petercuskie before later taking charge of defensive ends and defensive backs when Petercuskie became the head coach in 1960 (Coach Cordelli had also worked with the junior varsity team during the 1958 and 1959 seasons before assuming varsity only duties in 1960).
During then the next six years (1960 through 1965) Coach Cordelli was to serve as an integral part of the “Golden Age” of Neshaminy football as the teams he helped coach achieved local, state and national recognition. Fearsome on the field, Neshaminy carved out an unbelievable 59-1-5 record during that stretch. And beside the team’s record on the field, what a Golden Age it truly was! A period of time when the players of Neshaminy were, according to those involved with them, “committed, unselfish and focused” support from the school administration, faculty, student body and parents was also unsurpassed. It was also a time that saw the formation of the N Club as a top flight booster organization still providing service to this day. Without hesitation, Coach Cordelli will tell you that both he and his wife − and their family − have never felt even a moment of regret at making the move to Neshaminy and their consequential involvement with that period of the school’s wonderful football history as well as becoming part of the community that was the high school and Langhorne at that time.
In addition, and from a strictly football perspective, no matter what team crossed its path, Neshaminy was a juggernaut that was disciplined, prepared and ready to put it all on the field. And many schools did come-a-calling as squads from Altoona, Bethlehem, Allentown, Easton, Johnston City, New York, Chester, Central Dauphin, New Jersey, Delaware and, of course, Pennsbury – and many more – all tried as they might to upset the ‘Skins. But it was to no avail as it was a time when Neshaminy ruled the gridiron. In fact, their reputation was such that an oft related tale involves the time a high school administration conference was held in San Francisco, California. Visiting members of school districts from other states around the country pulled aside the Neshaminy administrators not for the purpose of discussing the seminar’s subject but to acknowledge the ‘Skins national reputation as a legendary football powerhouse.
And if pressed for names of the “great ones”, Coach Cordelli hesitates to single out any one player (claiming a weakness for specific names), and yet he can easily recall the fact that the teams consisted of a multitude of talented and hard working players − while he had the pleasure of coaching each and every one of them. Yes, what Coach Cordelli will tell you is that the story of Neshaminy is not of any one single player but, instead, the clubs that were produced by the work of the many players that came together to form those teams.
While helping to produce those Redskin teams of yesteryear which were almost impervious to defeat, some recent words of Coach Cordelli describe a part of the formula for their success:
As coaches, we set the bar high, while attempting to be fair and insure that each athlete was committed to work hard to achieve and push towards the accomplishments that are remembered to this day. We challenged each player to be the very best he could be as an athlete and a person and to become a valuable member of a team noted for its efforts. We instilled the theory that all parts create the whole − that was the essence of Neshaminy. We also strove to create a work ethic of values that would carry on and out into the future lives of all the young men that crossed our paths….Coach Cordelli
True to those words, Coach Cordelli served Neshaminy teams from 1958 to 1966 as an assistant coach before taking over the reigns as the head man in 1967. Importantly for Neshaminy, Cordelli’s strong hand was available that year to help reestablish an even keel during a turn-around year that followed a season that was not up to the usual Neshaminy standards (1966 saw Coach Cordelli’s old friend from the University of Maryland, Tom McHugh, take over as head coach of the ‘Skins for just one campaign after Petercuskie’s retirement from high school coaching). And while 1967 may not register as one of the Neshaminy’s best from a strictly “wins and losses” analysis, it was in many ways, much more than could be measured by its final record. For as Coach Cordelli stated during his induction into the Neshaminy’s Football Hall of Fame, that year of 1967 was a “building year, when a courageous group of young Redskins vowed that the glory days of past years would not be forgotten and would soon be revisited.”
How right those young men of 1967 were proven to be as the foundation they put in place that season allowed the “glory” days to live on again as brightly as their dreams just four short years later. For although Coach Cordelli retired from coaching after that year, Neshaminy had been set back on course. Following their path, the 1968, 1969 and 1970 teams laid brick upon brick as they structured a climb back to the top that culminated with the 1971 Neshaminy club. That was the year that a Redskin team took the field and brought home a perfect record to the Langhorne faithful as the “Golden Age” of Neshaminy football was, indeed, revisited. And in large part, it was the belief and the effort of those Cordelli coached Redskins of 1967 that had started the process back to the top. A process still in place today that relies upon a fundamental precept that the Neshaminy Redskins, although perhaps knocked down from time to time, will not ever be counted out.
That is the legacy of Coach Cordelli.
Editor’s Note: It’s the summer of 2006 and Coach Cordelli and Mrs. Cordelli are enjoying a very active retirement back “home” in Peckville. And that activity includes keeping an eye on the ‘Skins in addition to pursuing their favorite pastime − following the lives of their four children and six grandchildren.
Oldest son Pete, Jr. graduated from Neshaminy in 1972 and was an All-State quarterback on the 1971 team. He played freshmen football at Cornell before transferring to N.C. State. He played for one more year before an injury cut short his career. But head coach Lou Holtz recognized other qualities and asked him to become a graduate assistant with a 14 year relationship then following. Pete went on to enjoy coaching at Arkansas, Minnesota, Notre Dame, TCU, Memphis State, Kent State and Western Michigan (and he also found time to scout for the Dallas Cowboys). Now an on-air personality providing color commentary for Ole Miss football and basketball, Pete and his wife, Lorri, live in Memphis. They have two daughters with eldest Katie a senior at Notre Dame. Youngest Kelly is a sophomore at Ole Miss.
Daughter Lisa graduated from Neshaminy in 1975 and was active in tennis. She graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1980 with dual majors. Although initially working in Water Quality Control in Harrisburg, she later studied nursing in Ireland. She is currently married to Dr. Patrick Reilly who serves as Chief of Pulmonology at Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh. They have a daughter, Michelle, who is 17 and a son, Sean, who is 14. They call Oakmont, PA home.
Son Bruce graduated from Neshaminy in 1979 and played quarterback for the ‘Skins. He received an appointment to West Point and after graduating as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1983, he has since served at artillery posts stateside and abroad. In 2003 he commanded a battalion of 400 soldiers in Iraq, with not one man left behind. Now a Colonel working in Process and Procedures in Suffolk, VA, he makes recommendations to upper-echelon staff regarding training improvement. Bruce and his wife, Debbie, make their home in Williamsburg, VA along with son Bruce, Jr., 14, and daughter Cassie who is 12.
Son Mark graduated from Neshaminy in 1982 (he played guard and linebacker and also kicked). He “walked-on” at Arkansas where he made the football club and played in both the Liberty and Orange Bowls. He has a Masters in Recreational Therapy and Physical Education and served as a graduate assistant at Arkansas and later as a recruiter at Rice University. Returning to Northeastern, PA in 1992 he has taught at various area high schools as well as coaching at Dunmore High. He has also coached football at Lackawanna College in Scranton and has served as the Athletic Director there since 2004. He lives with his wife, Teresa, in Peckville where she operates the Children’s Garden PreSchool.
And as a closing note, all three Cordelli boys have been inducted into the Neshaminy Football Hall of Fame along with their Dad, Coach Cordelli.
Pete Cordelli Sr. and Pete Cordelli Jr. made a visit to witness Quarterback Mason Jones break Pete Jr.’s 1971 record of 23 TD passes in a single season.
Posted Jan 3, 2019 at 12:01 AM
Peter P. Cordelli Sr. of Peckville, Pa. died peacefully on Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018, at Elmcroft Senior Living Center. Born March 28, 1926 in Eynon, Pa., he was the son of Settimo and Leticia Cordelli. He was preceded in death by his brother, Raymond, and his wife of 62 years, Helen Popovich Cordelli.
After his junior year of high school, Pete proudly served in the U.S. Navy in World War II and returned to complete his senior year at Blakely High School. He played football for Coach John “Papa Bear” Henzes and earned a scholarship to George Washington University. He was a two-sport star (baseball and football) at George Washington University. He came back to Blakely High School in Peckville, where he taught and coached football under his mentor “Papa Bear” Henzes. Pete then was persuaded to teach and coach at Neshaminy High School in Langhorne, Pa. by his friend and colleague, John Petercuskie. He impacted many as he lived a teaching and coaching life with passion and devotion for 35 years. He earned many awards to include induction into the NEPA Sports Hall of Fame.
He was an avid golfer and singer of Italian songs, and was a member of the Peckville VFW. He retired to Peckville with his wife, Helen, and began his second career as beloved Grampy and Biz – Nono. His proud family includes: Peter Jr. and wife, Lorri (Gillock), of Memphis, Tenn. and daughters, Katie and husband, Dan Myers, and sons, Sam and Luke; Kelly and husband, Bert Hoover, and children, Ephraim and Eleanor; Lisa and husband, Patrick G. Reilly, M.D., of Oakmont, Pa. and children, Sean Patrick, Michelle and husband, Richard Beckermeyer; Col. (Retired) Bruce A. Cordelli Sr. and wife, Deborah (LeBlanc), of Alexandria, Va. and children, Bruce A. Cordelli Jr., Cassidy Cordelli and fiancé, 1st Lt. John Kennedy; Mark and Teresa (Pascucci) of Scranton, Pa.
He is also survived by a sister, Carolyn Farrell, and a sister-in-law, Mary Cordelli and their daughters. His family is extremely thankful to Pete’s caregivers, Kathleen Topa and Mindy Tallo. We extend our thanks to the kind staff at Mid-Valley Manor and MVHCC. Pete loved his family, friends, students, those he coached and his country.
It was a good run Coach. God-speed.
The visitation will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 4, and from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 5, at the James M. Margotta Funeral Home, 1019 Main St., Peckville, Pa. The Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Saturday, at Sacred Heart Parish Church, 1101 Willow St., Peckville, Pa. Donations may be made to: Alzheimer’s/Dementia Research, the Wounded Warrior Project, or to the Neshaminy Football Hall of Fame. James M. Margotta Funeral Home, Peckville, Pa. www.margottafuneralhomes.com