Inaugural Willie Thrower Award to honor football pioneer, recognize top WPIAL QB

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Feb. 27—Willie Thrower established himself as a top-level quarterback at New Kensington High School in the 1940s before making his mark in college at Michigan State and making history as the first Black quarterback in the NFL.

More than a half century after he worked to break color barriers in the sport he loved, his accomplishments and legacy will be honored through an award that recognizes today's top quarterbacks.

The Willie Thrower Memorial Foundation will present the inaugural Willie Thrower Memorial Award to the top quarterback in the WPIAL and City League from the 2020 season.

"There has been so many great people who have worked separately but also together moving towards this in Willie's memory," said Melvyn Smith, a longtime friend of Thrower and the Thrower family and a member of the award committee.

Thrower died in February 2002 at the age of 71.

"This puts his name out there again and gives people the chance to know more about all that he accomplished," Smith said. "It was special to hear some of the responses of the kids as they learned more about Willie and what this award means to them."

The five finalists — Jeannette freshman Brad Birch, Upper St. Clair senior Ethan Dahlem, Central Valley senior Ameer Dudley, Thomas Jefferson senior Jake Pugh and Pine-Richland senior Cole Spencer — will be honored at a luncheon and ceremony April 10 at the Northern Westmoreland Career & Technology Center, just a stone's throw from Valley High Memorial Stadium where a statue of Thrower has stood since 2006.

A 29-pound miniature version of the statue will be presented to the award winner at the luncheon. Valley graduate Stephen Paulovich sculpted the statue and the trophy at his studio in Louisville, Ky.

The five finalists were determined through voting by a panel of 68 WPIAL and City League coaches and media members who covered high school football this fall.

"We're very happy, in our first year, to be able to deliver this award," award committee member Jonathan Whaley said during a news conference in the shadow of the Thrower statue Friday afternoon.

Whaley said the award will celebrate past, present and future athletic successes.

Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the award presentation ceremony will not be open to the public. It will be streamed online.

Former Brashear and West Virginia quarterback Major Harris, who led the Mountaineers to the 1988 national title game, will be the keynote speaker.

A member of the Westmoreland County Sports Hall of Fame, the Alle-Kiski Valley Sports Hall of Fame and the WPIAL Hall of Fame, Thrower led New Kensington to WPIAL football titles in 1946 and '47 before becoming the first Black quarterback in the history of the Big Ten.

Nicknamed "Mitts" because of his large hands and arm strength while standing just 5-foot-11, Thrower was a part of the Spartans' 1952 national championship team.

He joined the Chicago Bears in 1953 and made history in October of that year as he broke the color barrier for quarterbacks against the San Francisco 49ers in front of 36,909 fans at Wrigley Field.

The 1953 season was Thrower's only one in the NFL.

"This is a blessing," said Melvin Thrower, Willie's son who played football and basketball at Valley and graduated in 1997. "To see this, I know my father's name and legacy is still here. It's important for people to know that young kids today, both boys and girls, can become something and do great things. My father showed that. He faced a lot, and didn't back down from it all. He was such a mentor to me and many others."

The finalists

Here is a look at the five WPIAL quarterbacks up for the inaugural Willie Thrower Memorial Award:

—Brad Birch, freshman, Jeannette: Recently presented a Division I offer from Oregon, the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder had a breakout first season, leading the Jayhawks to their 10th WPIAL title and completing 117 of 184 passes for 1,676 yards and 30 touchdowns.

—Cole Spencer, senior, Pine Richland: The Trib HSSN Player of the Year led the WPIAL in passing by completing 157 of 221 attempts for 2,626 yards and 33 touchdowns as the Rams ended up 11-0 and won the Class 5A state title. Spencer will wrestle in college at Penn.

—Ethan Dahlem, senior, Upper St. Clair: A dual threat under center, Dahlem led USC, a WPIAL Class 5A playoff qualifier, in both passing and rushing. He finished with 1,567 passing yards and 14 touchdowns while also running for nine scores.

—Ameer Dudley, senior, Central Valley: As the Warriors dominated games, the Harvard recruit spent most of the third and fourth quarters on the sideline. He threw for 1,297 yard and 16 touchdowns as Central Valley claimed WPIAL and PIAA Class 3A titles. He helped the Warriors go 25-2 combined in his junior and senior seasons.

—Jake Pugh, senior, Thomas Jefferson: The steady signal-caller helped the Jaguars claim WPIAL and PIAA Class 4A championships. He threw for 1,881 yards and 25 touchdowns, including 216 yards and two scores and two rushing TDs, in a WPIAL title-game win over Aliquippa.

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at or via Twitter .