Sports Illustrated recently came up with a list of the greatest athletes by jersey number, and it’s no surprise that No. 13 was reserved for Dan Marino.
Marino wore it on his jerseys at Central Catholic, Pitt and the Miami Dolphins, making popular a number once associated with the superstitious as bad luck.
Which brings us to an interesting trivia question: Who was the last Pitt football player to wear No. 13 before Marino? You might be surprised to find that the answer is a colleague of mine at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Chaz Palla, an award-winning sports photographer, played for the Panthers from 1978-81 (his father, Chuck, also played at Pitt, lettering in 1958).
Chaz Palla came to Pitt as a safety but ultimately became a placekicker after Panthers coaches saw his leg strength at a practice. Initially, he was issued No. 6 before going to his first training camp but switched to No. 13 upon his return.
“It’s kind of funny because I just found the Tangerine Bowl program,” said Palla, now 48 and a 15-year veteran a the Trib. “Me and Cowher are both in it, and I’m (listed on the roster as) wearing No. 13.”
Cowher, of course, would be then-North Carolina State senior linebacker Bill Cowher, who would later lead the Steelers to a Super Bowl XL championship. (The jersey number story, by the way, is true. I checked the program).
Anyway, Palla was a year ahead of Marino, so he anticipated the number change when the Central star signed with the Panthers over Arizona State.
“Foge Fazio actually came up to me in the locker room at some point near the end of the season and said, ‘You know, Marino wants 13,’” Palla said. “I figured as much, considering most people that wear that number would want to continue wearing it because most guys are superstitious.”
Palla switched to No. 15, which he wore the next three seasons. He holds no grudge against Marino for taking his number. In fact, Palla said he used to snap to Marino during an “outside drill,” now known as seven-on-seven, because the 6-foot-2 Palla was the same height as Pitt’s centers.
When Palla graduated, he went from dressing for Pitt football games to shooting them for the sports information department and has plenty of Marino photos. Not everyone believes Palla, but he dispelled one group of doubters at a charity golf event at Oakmont Country Club when Marino recognized Palla and gave him a hug on the ninth green.
Now, Palla is reminded every time he shoots a Steelers or Panthers game at Heinz Field, where their No. 13 hangs from the rafters as one of Pitt’s eight retired jerseys.
“I think it’s a great story to tell people,” Palla said. “Most people think it was a quarterback, Tom Yewcic, who was the last person to wear it. It’s just a funny story to tell.
“What am I? I became a sports photographer who, in my own arena, is known, but anybody who knows football knows who Dan Marino is.
“In a neat way, I’m part of that retired legacy.”