Wake Forest doctor to be inducted in College Football Hall of Fame

wrupard@newsobserver.comJuly 8, 2013 

— Joe Micchia is OK with people not knowing he played college football.

That’s part of the reason why he moved from his Pennsylvania hometown, and set up a doctor’s office in Wake Forest with his wife, Gina.

But on Aug. 28 in Atlanta the world will know of Micchia’s accomplishments when he is inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Now working as a doctor at a family primary care unit he runs with his wife, Micchia isn’t one to bring up his football career.

“He’s always been that kind of person,” Gina Micchia said. “He’s very humble. He doesn’t talk about his career. He doesn’t live in the past. Whenever we met in medical school, I never knew how big of a career he had in football. It was slowly discovered, because he’s not one to brag.”

Micchia doesn’t have need to brag anymore. A two-time All-American quarterback at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa., Micchia led the Titans to back-to-back undefeated seasons and consecutive NAIA Division II national championships in 1988 and ’89. As a starter, Micchia finished with a perfect 31-0 record.

Micchia, 46, was the school’s first-ever 4,000-yard passer and he still holds school records in career touchdown passes and touchdown passes in a season.

“A lot of people down here don’t know I played football,” Micchia said.

The former quarterback says he was caught off guard when he found out he had been elected to the hall of fame. Micchia knew he had been nominated for induction, but says he hadn’t put much thought into it after the nomination process.

“I don’t know if it’s still hit yet,” Micchia said. “About two-and-a-half years ago I got a call from my college and they had told me that I was nominated for the regional and it (the nomination) had passed regionals. That’s the last time that I had heard anything.”

It was Micchia’s sister who broke the news to Micchia that he had been elected to the hall. She had seen a news report from the Pittsburgh area that the former quarterback was going to be inducted.

“It’s still kind of crazy,” Micchia said. “I’m starting to hear from old friends and previous coaches and now it’s kind of starting to settle in. I don’t think it’s really going to hit though until I go there.”

Micchia will be the NAIA’s representative in the National Football Foundation Divisional College Football Hall of Fame class of 2013. The Divisional Hall of Fame is a branch of the College Football Hall of Fame that enshrines players and coaches from the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision, Divisions II, III and the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics).

Focus on academics

Micchia was involved in athletics from a young age. Hailing from the fertile football grounds of western Pennsylvania, Micchia began playing football at age 8. He idolized NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton and wore No. 10 because of the Minnesota Vikings’ star.

A three-sport athlete in high school, Micchia wanted to pursue a career in athletics, either as a coach or a doctor in sports medicine.

While in high school, Micchia was inspired by three doctors who worked closely with the school’s athletes. He saw how dedicated to their craft they were, and began to think he might want to become a medical doctor.

“I realized what they were giving to the community and how the community looked at them and said ‘I want to be just like them someday,’ ” Micchia said.

Micchia decided to major in biology, and he signed a national letter of intent to play football at Youngstown State, a Division 1 FCS (formerly 1-AA) school about 12 miles away from his Sharon, Pa., home.

At the start of college, Micchia still wavered on what to do with his biology degree. Micchia asked his high school coach for advice on whether to pursue coaching or medical school. His coach warned him of the lack of job security that many coaches had.

“I came from an area (Pennsylvania) where people constantly lose their jobs,” Micchia said. “The mills were going under. So I said, ‘OK, I’m going into pre-med.’ ”

Being a biology major at Youngstown State, Micchia struggled to manage the time commitment that both academics and athletics required. Many of his biology labs were scheduled in the afternoon, around the same time Micchia was supposed to be in practice.

Youngstown State’s head football coach Bill Narduzzi was fired following the Penguins’ 5-6 record in 1985, and the school hired Jim Tressel, who would go on to win four 1-AA national championships at Youngstown State and a BCS National Championship at Ohio State.

Since Tressel did not recruit him, Micchia felt he was not in the coach’s plans to start at quarterback for the Penguins. That, mixed with his difficulty of managing class and football, made Micchia look to transfer.

“At that point in time, between the coaching change and I knew I wasn’t going to go play in the NFL, my goal was to get into medical school,” Micchia said.

A high school friend of Micchia’s, who was playing at Westminster at the time, heard Micchia was considering transferring, and helped convince Micchia to switch programs. Micchia also thought Westminster had a great biology program.

“It was very difficult to manage classes at the Division 1-AA level, you were really expected to be at the stadium by 12:30 in the afternoon and the rest of the day was committed to football.

“At Westminster, I would actually miss two practices a week. I would have labs in the afternoon for my biology program. A lot of players had to miss practice.”

Micchia transferred to Westminster College, which at the time was a NAIA college. Westminster traditionally had a very good football program that had won three national titles when Micchia transferred.

Westminster head football coach Joe Fusco would hold the first-team repetitions until the very end of practice in hopes of getting snaps for his star quarterback. Fusco said Micchia would often miss two practices a week, and when he was able to make it, Micchia would sometimes only get 15 to 20 minutes of time in and sometimes had to run plays in his street clothes.

“Academics were really pushed first,” Micchia said.

Legacy at Westminster

Micchia started four games for the Titans in 1987, and helped lead the team to the NAIA playoffs, but he missed the season-ending defeat to Geneva because of an injury.

Westminster had aspirations to make a deep run in the 1988 playoffs. The team was returning much of its core, and Micchia would be the full-time starting quarterback, but the 1988 national championship game didn’t come easy for Micchia and the Titans.

On a cold, snow-covered field, Westminster and Wisconsin-La Crosse battled to a 14-14 tie in the national championship game. On fourth and ten with 7 seconds remaining, Micchia threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to win the game, and the national championship, for the Titans.

“The weather was crazy, and winning in the fashion that we did, it was probably a storybook ending,” Micchia said.

Twenty-five years later, coach Fusco still marvels at the way the team, and especially Micchia, came through in the clutch.

“Probably in all of my years of coaching that was the most exciting play you can see,” Fusco said.

Westminster and Micchia won another title the following season, with Micchia named the game’s MVP for a second time. At Westminster, Micchia became one of the most dominant passers in school history, being named a second team All-American in his junior season of 1988, and a first team All-American in 1989.

According to Fusco, Micchia was “the ultimate winner,” who thrived in late-game situations.

“He was a real gamer,” Fusco said. “He enjoyed the challenge, and I can’t count how many times we scored in the waning seconds of a game.”

At one point, the Westminster football team had a 27-game winning streak, which was the longest in the nation, regardless of division.

Now, Micchia challenges his three daughters in whatever they want to play. All three of his daughters play travel and school soccer, and when they want to play with their father, Micchia doesn’t let up.

“To this day it’s disgusting how everything he plays, he wins,” Gina Micchia said. “Even the kids don’t want to play with him because whether it’s a card game or soccer or tennis, he wins at everything. We play pinball and he wins.”

A humble man

Following his playing days, Micchia attended medical school at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. After graduating and gaining residency, Micchia moved back to western Pennsylvania and worked in a private practice with his wife.

Living in the same county he grew up in proved to be difficult. Micchia was pulling 70-hour weeks, working both at his private practice and for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center system, which left little time for his family.

“I love my hometown, but it was very difficult to be there because you never had any private time,” Micchia said. “Every time you were out, you always ran into people, which was nice, but when you were in a hurry, it was impossible. It was very difficult for me. I’m a person that can’t just say no.”

The Micchia’s opted to move to the Triangle because they had relatives who lived in the area and it gave them a nice lifestyle change for their growing family.

Micchia says he enjoys the quieter lifestyle in North Carolina compared to the hectic one he left in Pennsylvania. He thinks it will come as a shock to most people, including his patients, to find out that he was recently elected into the College Football Hall of Fame.

“I’ve always been a personal person,” Micchia said. “It doesn’t bother me that a lot of people don’t know. I don’t live on that. I’m more excited for our college. I think it’ll bring a lot of support for that program, both academically and athletically.”

Micchia will be the fifth Westminster player or coach to be inducted into the hall of fame, joining his former coach, Fusco.

Fusco says he thinks the things Micchia has accomplished on and off the field were not an accident.

“I knew he’d be a success,” Fusco said. “Joe was very dedicated to academics and he knew what he had to do and put the time in to do it. There aren’t many people who work harder than him.”

Rupard: 919-829-8954

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