Francis Joseph Tripucka
Born: December 8, 1927 (Bloomfield, N.J.)
Died: September 12, 2013 (Woodland Park, N.J.)
National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame (1997)
Sports Hall of Fame of New Jersey (1999)
Denver Broncos Ring of Fame (1986)
Colorado Sports Hall of Fame (1983)
A tidy $25,000 payday lured north to Canada the quarterback known as Trip.
Frank Tripucka was an expensive acquisition for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1953. The drop-back quarterback, whose strong arm found greater purpose on the wider Canadian field, had several seasons of National Football League experience after guiding Notre Dame to an undefeated season.
In 1956, a 33-0 end-of-season drubbing of Calgary included Tripucka passing for 224 yards for a season total of 3,274, a Western Interprovincial Football Union record. He also set a new standard for completed passes in a season with 216, as well as most pass attempts in a season and most passes in a single game.
Tripuka (truh-PEW-kah) piloted the ’Riders for six seasons, his tenure ending in acrimony and a trade to eastern Canada. But he would be back to Regina within the year.
Even by football’s mercenary standards, Tripucka’s professional career included odd twists and turns.
His father, the family name originally spelled Trypuczka, immigrated to the United States in 1910 at age 14, after which he became a carpenter, settling in New Jersey. Young Francis, Frank to his friends, was encouraged to play sports such as baseball and basketball, but the football coach at Bloomfield High had to win over the boy’s mother before she’d allow him to play on the gridiron with the Bengals.
At 6-foot-2 and a slender 172 pounds, Tripucka also starred at first base for the baseball team. At quarterback, he led the football squad to a state championship in 1944. His play earned him a scholar ship to Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., where he spent two seasons as backup to fellow Polish-American Johnny Lujack.
As the No. 1 signal caller in 1948, Tripucka guided the T-formation Irish to an undefeated 10-game season, the only blemish a 14-14 tie against the unranked Southern California Trojans in the season’s final game. The quarterback suffered broken bones in his back and two cracked ribs in the game. Notre Dame was ranked No. 2 behind Michigan in the final Associated Press poll of college football.
Tripucka completed 53 of 91 passes for 660 yards and 11 touchdowns, the latter a record for Notre Dame.
The defending champion Philadelphia Eagles selected him in the first round (ninth overall) in the 1949 NFL amateur draft. With veteran Tommy Thompson set at quarterback, the Eagles traded Tripucka to the woeful Detroit Lions, who would go on to miss the playoffs for the 14th consecutive season.
The Chicago Cardinals picked him up in an offseason trade in exchange for three players. The college star would be a backup to Jim Hardy, a former Trojan who had himself been a first-round pick in 1945.
After two and a half seasons in Chicago, the backup was acquired by the Dallas Texans on Nov. 5, 1952. The Texans were so bad they made the Lions seem like a powerhouse. The new franchise, playing its inaugural season, played home games at the Cotton Bowl, a 70,000-seat stadium. In Tripucka’s first game with the club, the Texans attracted only 10,000 patrons to the cavernous stadium to see yet another loss for the home side. The Texans would not play in Texas ever again.
Unable to meet payroll, the owner turned the club over to the league. The NFL moved the club’s front office to Hershey, Penn. The club’s next home game, on Nov. 27, would be played at the Rubber Bowl in Akron, Ohio. The opponents were the Chicago Bears, coached by George Halas. By then, the Texans were 0-9, all losses by double figures.
The game was played as the second half of a doubleheader. Most of the crowd left after the first game — a high school match — leaving so few patrons that Texans coach Jim Phelan quipped the pre-game introductions should be skipped and the players should troop into the stands to shake hands. (The high school game claimed an attendance of 14,800, the NFL match just 3,000.)
Late in the game, the Texans trailed 23-20 — having squandered an 18-point lead. Taking the ball on his own 25-yard line, Tripucka drove his hapless squad downfield before scoring on a one-yard plunge for what would be the franchise’s only victory. The club was disbanded and the players dispersed after the 1-11 season.
The $25,000 offered by Saskatchewan must have been very appealing after the fiasco in Dallas. He quickly established himself as a top passing quarterback in the circuit. The Roughriders finished in second place in his first four seasons in Regina, and only missed the playoffs once in six seasons, but failed to get past the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (three times) and the Edmonton Eskimos (twice) in the Western playoffs.
It was after playing in the 1958 all-star Shrine game in Hamilton that Tripucka told a reporter it was time for the Roughriders to trade him. “I’ve ‘had’ Regina and Regina has ‘had’ me,” he said. “The club should let me go to another team. I don’t want to play another season in Regina.” Tripucka said he was never favoured by Roughriders fans after replacing the popular Glenn Dobbs as pivot.
A Roughrider acknowledged Tripucka was not popular on the prairies, in part because Dobber had been so colourful on and off the field.
“Frank isn’t a running quarterback and every time he gets caught with the ball the fans think it’s his fault,” said general manager Ken Preston, “when maybe it’s just because somebody missed a block.”
Four months later, Tripucka was sent east to the Ottawa Rough Riders in exchange for a guard, a tackle, two backs and a quarterback in what the newspapers described as a “five-for-one, brawn-for-brains shuffle.” The trade left Ottawa with three quarterbacks in Don Allard of Boston College and promising Canadian Russ Jackson, who would go on to a hall-of-fame career.
CFL Trip played in only eight games for Ottawa before being released after the Rough Riders signed Babe Parilli, another former Notre Dame QB, as an understudy to Jackson. Tripucka was immediately signed by his old team, the Roughriders, as head coach.
Saskatchewan was 0-9 and struggling through a disastrous season. Tripucka won his first game as head coach, beating the B.C. Lions, 15-14, in Vancouver. Then, they lost three more games, as well as all three quarterbacks to injury. With a full component of 12 American imports on the rosters and with sealed under CFL rules at the end of the season, Tripucka was ineligible to play, but he did so anyway, suiting up for the final two games of the season, to be played on a Saturday and two days later on Monday. The ’Riders played an invigorated, inspired game with the coach on the field, narrowly losing by a point to Edmonton, 20-19, before defeating the Blue Bombers in Winnipeg, 37-30. After the game,
CFL commissioner J. Sydney Halter declared Tripucka ineligible and awarded the game to Winnipeg as a forfeit. Halter, who died in 2012, aged 87, said all statistics in both games would be counted.
The following season, Tripucka moved to Denver to be an assistant coach of the fledgling Denver Broncos, a charter franchise in the American Football League, a rival to the NFL. He was hired by Broncos head coach Frank Filchock, who had been his coach when he first arrived in Saskatchewan.
“We were playing a preseason and both our quarterbacks couldn’t hit the side of a barn,” Tripucka said. “So at halftime Filchock says to me, ‘Trip, you know the plays, you’re in shape, your arm is okay, so how about you going in and giving the fans their money’s worth?’ I went in the second half, got the team moving and ended up playing four seasons.”
He led the league in passing yardage in its inaugural season with 3,038 yards, 20 more than Jack Kemp of the Los Angeles Chargers, the future Republican candidate for vice-president. No pro quarterback had ever thrown for 3,000 yards. He also led the AFL in passing yardage in 1962.
In 1963, he played two games for the Broncos and seven games for the Roughriders, finally bringing to an end a peripatetic pro career. He had gone from playing for Detroit to Chicago to Dallas to Regina to Ottawa to Regina to Denver to Regina yet again.
He established several long-standing quarterback records in Denver, those marks lasting until the great John Elway joined the Broncos in Denver.
In 1978, he attended a college basketball game at Madison Square Gardens in Manhattan. His youngest son, Kelly, was playing for his alma mater, Notre Dame, against Fordham, which was coached by his eldest son, Tracy, and included on its roster yet another son, T.K. “I’m just an observer,” the elder Tripucka said before the game. “How can I root for anyone?” Kelly Tripucka went on to play in the NBA for 10 seasons.
In 1988, an armed robber confronted Tripucka and his wife Randy (née Jewkes) in their bedroom before forcing them into the garage. When the intruder put down his gun for a moment, the 60-year-old retired athlete grabbed an ax handle to beat him. The gunman fled, only to be captured soon after by police.
After football, he worked as a Miller Beer distributor for 23 years.
Tripucka had his No. 18 retired, the first Bronco to be so honoured. He readily agreed to allow Peyton Manning to wear the number when he joined the team in 2012. “It’s been retired for 50 years,” he told the Star-Ledger newspaper of Newark, N.J. “That’s enough.”