It’s never a good sign when the best receiver in your team’s history played during FDR’s administration, but when Indiana’s your team that’s the type of thing that happens. (My buddy’s grandfather is the still the leading rusher in DePaul history, but at least they gave up football before the war).
However, the lack of good football at IU in the last half-century should not diminish the accomplishments of Pete Pihos, who died Tuesday at the age of 87.
Back in the leather-helmet era, Pihos was as good as it got at the position. He was called “the best pass-receiver of the year” by legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice in 1943. Like so many in his generation, Pihos left school to serve in the military during World War II. He returned to IU in 1945, leading the Hoosiers to the greatest season in school history: a 9-0-1 record, the Big Ten title and the No. 4 ranking in the nation. The following year, he set school records for receptions and scoring.
He was no less successful when he made the jump to the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles. He led the NFL in receiving three times in his nine-year career and was a first-team All-Pro five times, earning induction to Canton and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970.
Unfortunately, those memories did not remain with Pihos in his waning years as he suffered from dementia, and was even the victim of a douchebag con artist who wrote a bunch of fraudulent checks for Pihos’ signed memorabilia. Those checks were supposed to pay for Pihos’ medical care, and fortunately the NFL and NFLPA came up with the financial aid he needed while the guy who took advantage of an old man with dementia got a whopping year in prison.
Anyway, back to the original point of all this. Even though Pihos’ own memories were forgotten, the memory of him should not be. No offense to redshirt freshman safety Shaquille Jefferson, but he should not be wearing Pihos’ No. 35. No one should be. Pihos is the only former Hoosier commemorated in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and deserves an honor befitting of that accomplishment.
If new coach Kevin Wilson is serious about making IU more than a laughingstock, one of his next actions should be a push to retire the number of the greatest player and one of the most significant winners in Indiana history. Hoosier football does not have a glorious past, but it’s about time they formally recognized one of the players who provided the program one of its few brushes with greatness.