Obituary: Ernest B. Bonelli / Fullback, defensive back who played for Panthers, Steelers
Died Oct. 12, 2009

Thursday, October 15, 2009
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When the Steelers brought back players from the 1940s as part of their 75th anniversary season, Ernest B. Bonelli stood on the grass at Heinz Field to rub elbows and shake hands with James Farrior, Ben Roethlisberger and others prior to a game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Mr. Bonelli was a 60-minute man who played fullback and defensive back on the 1946 team under Jock Sutherland, who also was his college coach at the University of Pittsburgh.

"He always said he was very blessed to have an opportunity to play for the Steelers and the Panthers," said Mary Bonelli, one of his five children.

Mr. Bonelli, 90, died Monday surrounded by his wife and children at Friendship Village in Upper St. Clair. Over the weekend, he was able to watch on TV as Pitt and the Steelers won their games.

A native of Russelton, he was a person of distinction during Super Bowl week. Mr. Bonelli began his professional career in 1945 with the Chicago Cardinals, who later became the Arizona Cardinals, the Steelers' opponent in Super Bowl XLIII. He watched the game from his home in Siesta Key, Fla., rooting for the Steelers.

The son of a coal miner, Mr. Bonelli was a baseball player who didn't want his father to know that he was involved in the rough-and-tumble sport of football. He had a sister forge his father's signature on the permission slip required by Aspinwall High School.

"He almost hit the roof when he found out. But after he went to see my father play, he became a big fan," said Mary Bonelli.

Athletics opened doors for Mr. Bonelli. He accepted a scholarship from Pitt, where he was a varsity letterman of distinction because he played football and baseball for the Panthers. He was also a teammate of famed running back Marshall Goldberg.

In 1939, Mr. Bonelli was on the first college team to take an airplane to a game, even though it still took three days to fly to Seattle to play the Washington Huskies.

"Some of the players got airsick and couldn't eat their meals. My father always had a healthy appetite and had a couple of extra meals during that trip," Mary Bonelli said.

Also in 1939, when some Hollywood starlets came to Pittsburgh on a promotional tour, Pitt athletes provided escorts for a dance at the William Penn Hotel.

"He danced the night away with Lana Turner," his daughter said. "He always was a hoofer."

Two months before Pearl Harbor, Mr. Bonelli enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. When war broke out, he served as a radar operator on B-17 combat missions and was part of the invasion of French North Africa at Casablanca in 1942.

During the war, he played for the Third Air Force Gremlins, sharing the backfield with future NFL Hall of Famer Charlie Trippi. After hostilities ended, he played in the College All-Star Game in Chicago, where Cardinals owner Charlie Bidwill saw enough to offer him a contract for $400 a game.

"He was very excited about the opportunity, but his mother was worried about him and wanted him to 'get a real job,'" Mary Bonelli laughed. "He made the decision to play in the NFL, and it worked out."

He was traded to the Steelers for the 1946 season, then spent the next 36 years as a sales representative for Sherwood Medical Co.

The former president of the Pitt Varsity Letterman's Club, he was a member of the Steelers Alumni Association. He was a former baseball coach in Mt. Lebanon and he belonged to that community's Parent-Athletic Council. In later years, he was inducted into the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago, the Fox Chapel Area Hall of Fame and the Western Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.

Friends will be received from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. today at Laughlin Memorial Chapel in Mt. Lebanon. Mass will be at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow at St. Anne's Church in Castle Shannon, with entombment following in Mt. Lebanon Cemetery.

Contributions are suggested in his name to the Panther Football Scholarship Fund at 316B Craig Hall, 200 Craig St., Pittsburgh, PA 15260.