Thursday, Sep 19, 2019

Former NFL player dedicated his life to helping others

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John Powers played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Minnesota Vikings in the early 1960s. Powers is the only person from Harvard to play in the NFL. Courtesy photo

John Powers may have spent five years playing professional football in the National Football League, but to friends and family his biggest impact came off the field.

Powers, who passed away at age 37 after a yearlong battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1978, is the only Harvard resident to ever have played in the NFL. He spent four seasons as a tight end with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1962 to 1965 and a year with the Minnesota Vikings in 1966 before knee injuries forced him into retirement.

But his story hardly begins on a football field. Born and raised in Harvard, Powers’ parents both passed away when he was a young child, and he entered an orphanage. At age 9, he was adopted by Jerry and Opal Powers, Harvard residents who owned a successful laundry and dry cleaning business at the time.

Powers first played football at Campion High School in Prairie du Chien, Wis., where he spent most of his high school days. He would go on to have a successful, yet injury-riddled career at Notre Dame and in the NFL, where he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the ninth round of the 1962 NFL draft.

“He was a running back in high school, but wasn’t in a position to start [at RB at Notre Dame],” said Rich Powers, the youngest of John’s three children. He played center briefly early in his college career before having his best collegiate season at tight end his junior year. “He was injured early on his senior year and was drafted mostly because of his strong junior season.”

Back in the ‘60s, tight ends were used mostly for blocking purposes, meaning Powers rarely showed up on the stat sheet. Still, he was a major fixture for the starting offense and managed nine catches and 209 yards receiving during his career. Perhaps his most important catch, however, was his wife, Bobbie, a flight attendant from Pittsburgh whom he met while a member of the Steelers. “He was very shy and very quiet,” said Bobbie Powers, who still lives in McHenry County today. After dating for awhile, then drifting apart for a couple of years, Bobbie and John rekindled their relationship and married. “He was very religious. After we married, he would kneel and pray every night.”

Knee injuries derailed Powers’ football career, and, although he was released from the Steelers after four years, John hobbled through a final season with the Vikings in order to reach the minimum number of years needed to qualify for NFL retirement benefits.

After his retirement, John and Bobbie would have three children – a daughter, Phalynn, and two sons, John Paul and Richard. And although his playing career was over, Powers spent the next decade of his life preparing handicapped students for life after high school, helping to place them into jobs upon graduation from the Special Education District of Lake County. He followed this calling despite a high-paying offer to work as an NFL scout.

“It was really important for him that the special education kids had a place in life,” Bobbie Powers said. “He would drive them all over the state trying to find them jobs.”

Rich Powers, now a school superintendent in Iowa, recalled his father’s humanity above all else.

“I think that, because of losing his parents early on, he had a very strong interest in helping the less fortunate,” he said. “He was quiet and soft-spoken. He felt a person should walk softly and that you should let your actions speak for you.”

Despite his soft-spoken nature, Rich Powers laughed when he remembered how much fun his dad would have with the kids.

“I remember [my parents] were not excited about the idea of having a dog,” he recalled. “He’d say, ‘You want a dog? I’ll be the dog,’ and would pretend to be a dog.”

Although he had no trouble transitioning out of football, Bobbie Powers said she and her husband kept in touch with their best friends from the team and organization.

“We had the entire Steelers team over for dinner,” she said. “John was loved by Mr. [Art] Rooney [founder and original owner of the Steelers]. And Mr. Rooney was a great person.”

When his father was dying, John Paul Powers wrote Rooney a letter, to which he quickly responded.

“From the first day of practice, your dad was a favorite of mine,” Rooney said in the letter. “He was a real fighter, and you will learn what it takes to win, from him. God will call him early.”

All three of the Powers children have been successful professionally, as college athletes and, most of all, as people, Bobbie Powers said.

“[John] would be so proud of them. He would’ve wished we had 15 kids,” she said, laughing. “He would absolutely adore them. Family came first with him.”

Despite his father’s early death, Rich Powers said he did indeed learn plenty from his dad but added that his mom deserves a lot of credit for keeping the family together.

“It was hard on the family, losing him so early, but we became independent and strong because of it,” he said. “We all graduated from college and have had successful careers and personal successes. My mom did that. But he was a great dad and a super guy. We all lost out [not having him longer].”

And John Powers’ legacy lives on beyond his children. After his death, the John Powers Center opened in Vernon Hills, named in honor of his work with the handicapped. It provides instructional and integrated services for students from early childhood to eighth grade who are deaf or hard of hearing.

If John Powers were around today, Bobbie Powers said he would want to thank the Harvard community and its residents for all their support of the Powers family during their tragic situation.

“He absolutely loved Harvard,” she said. “He loved all the people here.”