The bathroom window of a random frat house in Oakland — Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, of course — creaked open, and a big, burly high school senior rolled out of the opening and directly into a snowdrift below. It wasn’t the most graceful landing, but the puff of snowflakes beat the flurry of fists waiting inside.
Burt Grossman picked himself up, brushed himself off and trudged back through the cold February night to his hotel down the hill.
Grossman, a high school senior making his first visit to Pittsburgh, looking into playing at Pitt, had been hosted by former Pitt lineman Tom Ricketts. Ricketts actually brought Grossman to the party, left and allowed him to be sucked into conversation with one of the frat bro’s girlfriends. So, when the frat was looking to beat him up, he slipped into the bathroom, rolled out the window and escaped.
For a college visit, it was certainly unconventional. Grossman acknowledged that most people wouldn’t go to Pitt after a visit like that. But he wasn’t like most people — and neither was that Pitt team in the late 80s.
It took a particular kind of 17- or 18-year-old kid to choose Pitt over the likes of schools like Miami, Notre Dame or UCLA in the middle of the 1980s. Pittsburgh in February is certainly very, very different from Coral Gables in February, and with the collapse of the steel industry at the time, Pittsburgh was going through a change unlike any seen in the last century.
Unemployment skyrocketed as steel mills closed one after the other. A recession hit Pittsburgh. It took some toughness to commit to Pitt. Grossman was one of those kids. Tony Siragusa was another. And for three years, they shared a home. But their bond lasted a lifetime.
The Early Days
Twitter wasn’t around in the mid-80s. There were printouts, physical copies of recruits’ traits as opposed to social media posts, that detailed the local recruits in the area. It just so happened that Grossman (Philadelphia) and Siragusa (Kenilworth, New Jersey) were two of the top defensive linemen in the class and also happened to hail from the northeast. Grossman had heard of Siragusa, but there wasn’t a connection.
That connection wasn’t established until the pair arrived at Pitt ahead of the 1985 season, coming into Pitt’s summer camp as the fresh new meat on the underachieving team.
“He was the typical loud North Jersey Italian guy,” Grossman said. “You think of John Gotti. You have to remember these are the time of the mafia and everything else. I remember Tony and I got into a huge fight in Pittsburgh at the Decade. And the guy that owned the Decade was a mob guy in Pittsburgh, and Tony’s uncle had to come out from New Jersey and have a sit down so him and I wouldn’t get killed.”
So, yeah, it was a fast friendship. Grossman and Siragusa lived together, drank together, fought together and played together. And, did I mention they drank together? There wasn’t a bar in Oakland that carded them. Not a 6-foot-3, 270-pound lineman and 6-foot-4, 250-pound end.
The Italian-American family man and the Philly native from a broken home didn’t have a whole bunch in common at first, but the connection was instantaneous. There was so much difference, but at the same time, neither had met a person like the other. It was a good fit — even if it wasn’t always the best fit.
Grossman wasn’t close with anyone in his family. He didn’t know his grandparents, he wasn’t close with his mother or father. Family was somewhat of a foreign concept. Until he Siragusa that is. If anybody has ever embodied what it means to be family-oriented, it was Siragusa. He brought Grossman back to North Jersey often, for events like Christmas, and it was like a scene out of Goodfellas — big family, even bigger plates of food. There was a smorgasbord of food left out at all hours.
Where Grossman wasn’t close with parents, grandparents, whoever, Siragusa shared that bond ten-fold with his own siblings, parents, grandparents, extended and even eventually the family that built with his long-time wife Kathy. He came into Pitt with Kathy and eventually married Kathy in 1995. “Tony would have probably been alright going back to Northern Jersey and opening a bar up,” Grossman said.
But that didn’t stop Grossman and Siragusa from being young, adventurous kids in the midst of a dark, gloomy city. It wasn’t the time nor the place that it is now. While both were at Pitt for football, sometimes fun came first — and the most fun came from spending every night — yes, every night — out together.
With a residence at the Towers as freshmen, there were six or seven bars within walking distance of their dorm room in Oakland. And, as previously mentioned, there wasn’t a soul checking their IDs. If it was a night ending in Y, well, they were at the bar. Except for Friday nights, but that was only because they weren’t allowed out.
Football in the morning, a quick, quick lift and then the bars. There wasn’t much studying. There wasn’t much lifting either. Grossman and Siragusa really wanted to hit up Zelda’s or Sanctuary in Oakland. They weren’t always forced to pay for drinks, but when they were, a 10-dollar bill went a helluva lot further then than it does today. A dollar Iron City Light followed by a shot of tequila. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
There were nights spent stumbling around Oakland, being dumb 19-year-olds who picked fights with people who stared too long, but the fun wasn’t just limited to Oakland. Grossman vividly remembers a night at a random bar in Coraopolis. There were bikers, a game of pool and suddenly, their letterman jackets were under new ownership. “You look back at it, and it’s like how did I get out of there alive?” Grossman laughed.
However, while there were plenty of nights where a few too many IC Lights led to drunken chaos, a fight at a bar called ‘the Decade,’ a mob-owned bar called ‘the Decade,’ was the sort of wake-up call that Grossman needed. A knocked-out bouncer, a brawl in the street and a jury trial that left suit-clad Grossman and Siragusa sitting in a courtroom facing aggravated assault charges.
The charges were all dropped, except for one simple assault case against a random kid. A kid who demanded $20,000 from Siragusa. And without the means to pay up, Grossman never let him forget who footed the bill for a night that woke up a pair of foolhardy kids. However, it wasn’t just the trial (or even a firebombed IROC Camaro) that drew their attention, it was a mafia sit-down.
Siragusa’s uncle came out to Pittsburgh after the incident, sat the pair down and… well, emphasized the error of their way. It sounds ridiculous, Grossman is aware of that now, and he’s able to laugh about it, but only because of how surreal it actually is. A sit-down with the mafia? It was a different time.
It was a like scene out of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas or Casino. That was Tony Siragusa.
After Grossman and Siragusa earned varsity letters as freshman and sophomores in 1986 and 1987, that’s where the fork in the path was reached. Siragusa’s injury issues began with a torn ACL ahead of the 1988 season, stunting his NFL Draft stock, while Grossman used the 1988 season to build his own draft stock.
The San Diego Chargers selected Grossman with the eighth pick in the 1989 NFL Draft, starting a productive career that was eventually cut short by his own injury problem. Grossman recorded 10 sacks as a rookie in San Diego while Siragusa attempted to put together a strong senior season and rebuild his draft stock.
But with fear that Siragusa’s injuries were too severe to ever recover from, despite a strong senior season (60 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks), all 12 rounds of the 1990 NFL Draft came and went with new commissioner Paul Tagliabue calling his name. The one-time first round prospect signed as an undrafted free agent with the Indianapolis Colts and spent seven seasons in Indy before signing with the Baltimore Ravens.
As a starting defensive tackle on Baltimore’s 2000 defense that allowed an NFL record-low of 10.3 points per game to power the Ravens to a title in Super Bowl XXXV, a decade of toiling paid off as Siragusa reached the pinnacle of NFL success. Individual success? Check. Team success? Check. A larger-than-life legacy? Check.
Siragusa spent 12 seasons in the NFL, Grossman spent six seasons in the NFL and the pair combined for 840 tackles and 65.5 sacks to complete the careers of one of the most renowned Pitt pass rush duos in history — in completely contrasting paths. They each reached the top in their own ways.
But in going from a 270-pound defensive tackle who could explode off the line and run a 4.8 40-yard dash to a 340-pound tackle who served as a fire hydrant up the middle, Grossman lamented Siragusa’s potential that the NFL — and even Pitt — was never able to see.
“You know, I don’t know if (Siragusa) would have had a ceiling,” Grossman said. “He was similar to Aaron Donald. I mean, you look at Donald, he’s, you know, 270 pounds or so, but the way he moves and his leverage and those things. Tony didn’t have, you know, and this could have been when we played or whatever, he didn’t have the work ethic that Aaron Donnell has, I don’t know if anybody does, right?”
Donald is a freakish athlete who has dedicated himself to perfecting his craft as perhaps the best defensive player in NFL history. There’s no shame in not reaching that peak of perfection, but to be honest, Grossman and Siragusa never really strived for such. After all, when the weight room called at Pitt, the IC Light called louder. The talent was always there, in every way though, and Grossman felt Siragusa was always just a step ahead.
Before he became a beloved football personality on TV with @NFLonFOX…
He played college football at Pitt, becoming a fan favorite and one of the best defensive linemen in the nation.
RIP Tony “Goose” Siragusa. pic.twitter.com/sZgVcVnEEv
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) June 22, 2022
“We were basically mirrors of each other,” Grossman said. “He was probably a little better than me and a little more talented than me, you know, sophomore year, and I went on to be the eighth pick in the draft. I don’t see why he wouldn’t have been the eighth pick in the draft, right? I wouldn’t have said it then, but he was probably a little more talented than me. The difference was I never got hurt. And he did.”
Despite Grossman and Siragusa going their separate ways after their years together at Pitt, not having physically seen each other in years, their communication picked back up five or six years ago. They would text a few times every week, connect on radio shows and Zoom calls and catch up over the unforgettable memories forged in Oakland.
And Tony, Grossman said, was always Tony. He never put on an act, whether he was at Pitt, Baltimore, starring in The Sopranos. Tony was Tony. That’s what Grossman — and so many — loved about him. Siragusa was a Pitt man, a Super Bowl champion, a husband and father and a friend. He was unabashedly himself.
And when Siragusa didn’t answer his texts Wednesday, he was sad. Of course. But he wasn’t totally surprised.
“Yeah. And like I said, he’s had, you know, weight or heart problems in his family, but Tony wasn’t gonna go stop smoking cigars or stop drinking or stop eating pasta,” Grossman said. “Tony wasn’t gonna do that; that wouldn’t be authentic to Tony’s life. So, I mean, it’s funny because my, you know, my roommate in the pros was Junior Seau, which really hit me hard when he died because it was suicide. But Tony’s really didn’t because Tony was the happiest person, most authentic person I know. And I don’t think he would have been unhappy. I mean, he kind of squeezed 200, 300 years of life into his 55 years. And he did it the way he wanted to do it. A lot of people would want to have his life so it didn’t really hit me that hard, to be honest.”
Siragusa was 55 years old when he passed away in his sleep Wednesday. He left behind his wife Kathy, his children and a loyal friend in Grossman — along with the entire football world — in his wake. Siragusa was the particular type of guy that Grossman — and Pitt — won’t ever forget.