By Jim Render
Perhaps a few faithful UPPER ST. CLAIR TODAY readers noticed that I took a short hiatus from writing for the magazine. Much transpired during those months, including my retirement as USCHS head football coach. But enough about me, as I’m sure many of you have read more than you probably care to about the football life of ole JTR. I will, however, remind you that my football life would not have existed without the many marvelous and talented young men who excelled at Upper St. Clair High School. Many of them have gone from high school football field to collegiate honors and then on to very productive and successful careers. Their stories need to be shared and glorified, which is the reason I began writing these articles a number of years ago. I hope that my pride and respect for these boys explodes off the pages.
Mark Gentile moved from Bethel Park to Upper St. Clair when he was in the third grade. At that time, he played youth football for St. Thomas Moore. By the fifth grade, he was playing for the USC Athletic Association until he reached his freshman year at the high school in 1987. He played a grand total of one play on the freshman football team.
Have you ever seen a youngster try to jump up and grab the rim of a basketball hoop when he wasn’t ready for this athletic maneuver? Sometimes they fall backward. Sometimes they shatter their wrist. Mark managed to accomplish all of the above. Did I mention that he was a quarterback? By 1988, he was a 6'6", 145-pound sophomore ready to make his varsity debut. The word “speed” would not be used to describe his readiness. On our depth chart, he ascended to fourth team. He received quality playing time on our scout team, a team that runs the plays of our opponents so our defensive guys are well-prepared for Friday night games. In that regard, he did his job very well as we went on to win our first outright WPIAL championship.
Sometime during the winter of 1989, Mark and I had a conversation about his lack of speed. I strongly suggested that he join the track team that upcoming spring if, in fact, he wanted to be a quarterback at our level of competition. For those of you who follow speed levels of football players, the 40-yard dash is the universal common denominator. Not only did Mark heed my advice regarding joining the track team, but he worked hard enough that his time improved from a 5.7 seconds (slow) to a 4.8 (respectable among quarterbacks). Coupled with the fact that he lived on the hill above the stadium, Mark had easy access to running on the track as well as throwing footballs on the turf. Not too bad of a neighborhood “playground,” if you ask me.
As we began practice for the 1989 season, Mark put on 30 pounds of muscle and was in a four-way battle for the starting quarterback position. Each guy had unique talents, and in our scrimmages, each had different levels of success. As I recall, Mark received the fewest number of reps or play opportunities.
Understandably, this team had a lot of good returning starters coming back from a WPIAL championship the year before. Our running backs Doug Whaley and Pete Habib were both explosive, fast, and experienced. Could we find a quarterback who could keep the linebackers and defensive backs from crowding the running lanes? Shortly before the team’s opening game, I determined that what we needed was a guy with long arms who had the capabilities of throwing deep and keeping the defense from stopping our ability to run the ball. When the evaluation period was over and the final decisions made, our offensive team consisted of ten seniors and one junior quarterback—Mark Gentile.
This was a very talented team that became the first team in Pennsylvania history to win 15 consecutive games, including a WPIAL and a PIAA championship. The team was inducted into the WPIAL Hall of Fame in 2012. We had a group of very talented senior stars on this team, but it was Mark who was the glue that kept the team on track. He didn’t turn the ball over and he completed enough passes that the defense could not key on any one dimension of our offense.
One memorable pass was against North Allegheny late in the season. With the score tied 14–14 and time running out, we had the ball on about the 40-yard line, heading toward the high school building. We put Whaley in motion to the right, which drew the defensive safety with him. After the fake into the line, Mark used his height to throw over the linebackers to our great tight end and captain, Phil Dunn, who took it to the end zone. Without that play, our record could have included a tie as there were no overtime tie breakers in those days. Big games are won by the abilities of outstanding players.
In his senior year, 1990, Mark led us to our third consecutive football conference championship. He was also a starter on USC’s basketball team for two years and was voted “Athlete of the Year” by the coaches and the athletic director at the conclusion of his high school career in spring 1991.
When football season was over, I introduced Mark to Upper St. Clair graduate Mike O’Connor, who was an assistant football coach at Bucknell University. Coach O’Connor consistently and faithfully came to our high school every year looking for student-athletes who were interested in both academics and athletics at the collegiate level. Things fell into place, and Mark enrolled at Bucknell that fall. He said he was looking for a school where he could get playing time as well as a great education. As a freshman, he again was on the scout team as a part-time quarterback and sometimes as a wide receiver. As often happens at this level, athletes grow and are moved to new positions based on the needs of the team. Not being slow and skinny anymore, Mark became a tight end who blocked and caught just under 100 passes in his final three years and was voted to an All Patriot League 2nd team position.
Mark graduated from Bucknell in spring 1995 with a degree in civil engineering. Two weeks after graduation he began working for PJ Dick and Trumbull Corporation. Many readers of TODAY know that PJ Dick has been the construction manager for several USC School District renovation projects, including the new construction at the stadium that will house central administration offices as well as press box facilities for games and events. Mark is on the Trumbull side, which builds highways, tunnels, and bridges. When you ride the trolley (subway) from the North Shore to downtown Pittsburgh, you can be confident that it works because of labor by Pittsburgh proud men and women who were supervised by Mark Gentile and his co-workers at Trumbull. And, when you Ohio natives are in Columbus, note that the Olentangy River is cleaner because of a deep storage sewage tank that was constructed by the Trumbull Corporation. Yes, Mark was the supervising engineer on that project, too. How about the magnificent freeways around State College, Pennsylvania? Mark supervised that. And, the next time you are in Northern Virginia and cross the beautiful Woodrow Wilson Bridge on I-95 that takes you across the Potomac River, please smile with pride that Mark Gentile spent four years of his life engineering that construction.
Mark is in his 24th year with the first and only company he has served in his career. Very good to their employees, Mark said loyalty works both ways. While temporarily moving to various locations to be on the projects’ sites, Mark and his family make Pine Richland their home base. Now as vice president of Trumbull, his travel is more limited. There are still some long hours and his wife, Vicki, stays home to be in charge of daughters Caroline, a 13-year-old eight grader, and Cate, a, 11-year-old fifth grader. Mark makes time to coach lacrosse and basketball for his tall, athletic girls. He sometimes calls his old high school football coach to come watch his girls play when they travel to Upper St. Clair for games.
Mark’s dad, Dr. Tony Gentile, is a proud and emotional father and grandfather. My wife, Pam, rode home on the parent bus with Tony after the 1989 nationally-televised game against North Hills, where we came from a 0–26 deficit to win the game late in the fourth quarter. Dr. Gentile beamed and cried with pride most of the way home. Mark’s mother, Lois, lives in San Antonio near Mark’s youngest sister, Erin, who works with nuclear missiles while serving in the Air Force. Oldest sister, Kristen, is a lawyer, and middle sister, Carlyn, works for a pharmaceutical company. A half-sister, Natalie, is a medical doctor. Intelligence certainly helps during conversations at the Gentile family dinner table.
Mark Gentile has crossed a lot of “bridges” in his lifetime. As he moves down the “highway” of life, I predict his star will continue to rise. Mark is a great example of where ability combined with patience, determination, and hard work equals success, both on the various athletic fields and in a chosen profession.
This story first appeared in UPPER ST. CLAIR TODAY's Summer 2019 issue on pages 24 and 25.