Long before there was Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino, Larry Fitzgerald, LeSean McCoy, Aaron Donald or any other transcendent football star who once donned a University of Pittsburgh uniform, there was Marshall Goldberg.
For decades, long after his career was over, the halfback/fullback stood as the best player in program history and, even now, he’s still one of its most iconic. Having twice finished in the top three of the Heisman Trophy voting and having led his teams to a pair of national championships, Goldberg is a symbol of both nostalgia and hope. He’s a remnant of better days, when the Panthers were a national powerhouse, while also serving as a reminder of the heights Pitt can ostensibly reach.
Wednesday would have been the 100th birthday for Goldberg, who died in April 2006 at the age of 88. Though he has been dead for nearly a decade, his story on and away from the field remains captivating and relevant.
The son of a Romanian immigrant, Goldberg was raised in Elkins, W.Va., about 130 miles south of Pittsburgh. From an early age, he seemed destined for athletic greatness, earning all-state honors in football, basketball and track. His endeavors on the gridiron made him a particularly coveted prospect, even catching the eye of coaches at Notre Dame.
“In those days, a Goldberg at Notre Dame would have been a big thing,” Goldberg once said, referencing his Jewish heritage.
He ultimately chose Pitt, where he would help the behemoth of a program coach Jock Sutherland had built reach its apex.
After playing halfback for the Panthers his first two seasons, Goldberg voluntarily switched to fullback, a move that helped create one of college football’s most renowned units ever. With Goldberg at fullback, Dick Cassiano at left halfback, Curly Stebbins at right halfback and John Chickerneo at quarterback, Pitt had a double-wing offense became known as the “Dream Backfield,” a group that overpowered and out-maneuvered most anyone that stood in its way. Fordham coach Jimmy Crowley, one of Notre Dame’s famed “Four Horsemen,” was even once quoted as saying Goldberg and his three teammates were superior to the Irish’s legendary quartet.
In his three seasons at the school, Goldberg was a two-time all-American, rushed for 1,957 yards, a program record that stood until Dorsett broke it in the 1970s, and finished third (1937) and second (1938) in the Heisman Trophy voting. His numbers, while modest at first glance, came during an era in which offenses didn’t record anything close to the gaudy statistics they post today. That those thundering runs came from someone who weighed just 185 pounds seems even more unbelievable by modern standards (for reference, Pitt’s current starting running back, Darrin Hall, weighs 220 pounds at just 5-foot-11, no less).
With those individual accolades came overwhelming team success, as Pitt claimed national championships in 1936 and 1937. In Goldberg’s three seasons at the school, the Panthers went 25-3-2 and outscored opponents by a 630-127 margin. Guided by Goldberg’s prowess and Sutherland’s acumen, the Panthers were, in most every sense of the word, overwhelming.
“Tony Dorsett was Pitt’s greatest runner, but Marshall was one of the greatest football players,” said college football historian and longtime Pitt sports information director Beano Cook in a 2006 interview with the Post-Gazette’s Paul Zeise.
That run included the lone Rose Bowl victory in the program’s history, a rout of Washington that helped lead Pitt to its seventh of nine claimed national championships. The team’s experience in Pasadena, however, led to what would now be a shocking decision to decline an invitation to college football’s preeminent game the following year, as decided by a 17-16 vote.
In 1994, Goldberg explained the choice to the New York Times.
Pitt had taken its 8-1 record west and hammered Washington, 21-0, in the Rose Bowl in 1936. It was understood that each of the Huskies received $100 for expenses as well as new suits.
“We got nothing,” said Goldberg. “Except a sweater and a pair of pants. When we showed up for a reception with them, imagine how we felt. And this was with the Depression going on. Jock sold some bonds he had, and the other coaches threw some money into a pool. They gave us each $2, all they had. Then the bowl people took us out to the Santa Anita racetrack for an outing. Big deal. Two dollars at a racetrack. So we all threw in a dollar to make pools to bet. And tapped out quickly. You know what it’s like to stand around a racetrack with no money?”
His No. 42 jersey is just one of 10 that has been retired by the university.
Goldberg’s college exploits gave him a chance at a professional career, something that wasn’t always a given considering the relatively meager status of professional football in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He was a two-way standout for the Chicago Cardinals from 1939-43 and 1946-48, rushing for 1,644 career yards and helping lead the franchise to an NFL championship in 1947, a title he secured with an interception against the Philadelphia Eagles in the championship game.
Goldberg’s career was interrupted for several years by World War II, as he enlisted in the Navy, fighting in the South Pacific and eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant.
After retiring from football at age 31, he became a businessman in Illinois. In 1965, he took over a machine parts company – Marshall Goldberg Machine Tools Ltd., of Rosemont, Ill. – that made him a millionaire. He remained connected to his alma mater, becoming a prominent fundraiser and later joining its board of trustees.
Perhaps the most indelible aspect of his legacy, though, coincided with his death in 2006.
It was then that his daughter, Ellen Tullos, and his wife, Rita Goldberg, set up the Marshall Goldberg Fund for Traumatic Brain Injury Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Over the course of his career, Goldberg had suffered about 15 known concussions, the effects of which plagued him in his final years before he died in a nursing home. With the creation of the fund, the Goldberg family hoped, would come a greater understanding of what ailed a loved one and many untold others.
The fund was established at a relatively early time in the wider discussion of head trauma in football and, in many ways, helped advance the topic’s visibility. It came only one year after neuropathologist Bennet Omalu published his groundbreaking paper “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player” in the journal Neurosurgery and one year before the Sports Legacy Institute joined with the Boston University School of Medicine to form the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.
Goldberg’s on-field accomplishments have earned him enshrinement in more than a dozen Halls of Fame, including the College Football Hall of Fame. Though he isn’t a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, his impact away from the sport is just as lasting.
“I know a lot of great football players who aren’t in there,” Goldberg once said. “I don’t worry about that. There’s an old Italian proverb that says ‘Life begins tomorrow.’ I can’t worry about those things. I worry more about the stock market than I do about getting into the Hall of Fame.”
— Craig Meyer