Category: <span>WHS Wall of Champions</span>

Joe Sparma – Wall of Champions

Throughout the course of life we all make decisions that affect our future.  While these choices are usually of a minor nature, oftentimes a big decision at an early age can have a profound effect on one’s ultimate destiny.  Such was the case with former Tiger Joe Sparma.  After achieving enormous success as a multi-sport athlete in high school, Joe chose to continue on the path of football at Ohio State University.  Only that decision snowballed into a resolve to leave college early and pursue a career in major league baseball.

Woody Hayes, the Ohio State head coach in the late 1950s, recruited Sparma after a successful couple of seasons quarterbacking the Massillon Tigers.  Joe’s greatest asset was passing the ball, during a time when most high school teams preferred to keep it on the ground.  But now it was college ball, where passing was more common.  It all sounded so good.  But Woody’s offense was unlike other schools, preferring the run to the pass, believing that three things can happen when you pass the ball and two of them are bad.  In fact, OSU fans commonly referred to his offense as “three yards and a cloud of dust.”  There just wasn’t a place at Ohio State for a passing quarterback.

So many local fans tried to discourage Sparma from choosing the Buckeyes, saying that all he would do is hand the ball off to the tailback.  But Woody apparently wanted Joe badly and surely didn’t relish him lining up across his Buckeyes wearing another Big Ten uniform.  So he went hard after Sparma and secured his commitment.

“Joe Sparma was a pure passer.  Just an outstanding pure pro passer.  That’s the reason I wanted him to go to school where he could pocket pass.  But Woody Hayes was a hell of a salesman.  Woody didn’t want him to go to school in the Big 10 and passing against him.  I don’t think there’s any doubt about it that Sparma could have been a great pro football player.” – Coach Leo Strang from Scott Shook’s “Massillon Memories”

Joe did end up starting 11 of the 18 games in which he played and he did manage to pass the ball some.  However, he had developed differences of opinion with Hayes during his sophomore year and subsequently elected to leave school.  Ironically, the relentless Woody talked him into staying for his junior year.  Nevertheless, Joe’s relationship with Woody did not change by the following year and it was finally time for him to leave.  Fortunately, professional baseball was waiting.  How his life might have been different had he chosen a college that utilized a more balanced attack.  Joe always wondered what it would have been like to play quarterback in the NFL.


Joe Sparma was born in Massillon, Ohio, on February 4, 1942.  It was at an early age that he found his calling, playing sports.  “I remember exactly the day I first wanted to do well in sports,” he earlier mentioned to Steve Doerschuk from the Massillon Independent.  “I was a fifth grader at Franklin School watching the older kids play a basketball game.  I watched the team score.  I heard the cheers from the handful of people at the game.  Something went through me.”

That ‘something’ caught big and Sparma went on to become a 3-sport athlete at Massillon, lettering multiple times in football, basketball and baseball.

“He was one of the finest athletes we ever had in Massillon.  He was captain of the baseball, basketball and football teams.  He was a good student.  He may have had a record of being a little hard to get along with, but never with me.  I can’t say enough about him.  He’s been a real good friend through all the years.” – Ducky Schroeder, former Massillon assistant.

His high school career spanned three seasons, the first in 1957 as a backup quarterback under Lee Tressel and the next two as a starter under Leo Strang.  As a sophomore his numbers were modest, finishing the year with one rushing touchdown and three passing.  His team finished No. 2 in the state with an 8-1 record, losing to No. 1 Cleveland Benedictine 13-7 on a 4th quarter TD.  The Bennies were led by running back and future NFL assistant coach George Sefcik.  It didn’t help that several Tiger starters were hit with the flu bug during the week of the game.

But they did manage to defeat No. 4 Warren Harding 20-14 in the infamous clock game.  In front of 21,384 fans, Sparma entered the contest with little time left on the clock and proceeded to toss a 46-yard pass to Clyde Childers (Georgia), who made a miracle catch inside the ten, first tipping the ball and then catching it and racing the final yards into the end zone for the win.

In 1958 Joe became a regular and led his team to an 8-1-1 record, outscoring the opposition 220-45.  It was good enough for a 4th place finish in the state poll.  The lone loss was to 7-2-1 Warren Harding by the score of 6-0.  But the Tigers did tie No. 1 Alliance 8-8.  Sparma finished the year with nine passing touchdowns and two TDs rushing.

His senior year was spectacular as the Tigers finished 10-0 and were named both Ohio State Champs and National Champs.  They outscored their opponents 431-46.  For the year, Joe completed 28 of 85 passes for 660 yards and 14 touchdowns.  He also rushed for a pair of TDs.  His best statistical performance came during a 65-0 victory over Canton Lincoln when he threw for 127 yards and four touchdowns, three to James Wood (his No. 1 receiver) and one to Bob Barkman.

Massillon also defeated Canton McKinley that year, 20-0.  “Right before the McKinley game, Jim Muzzi (WHBC) asked Joe Sparma who was the best team he played against all year.  Sparma’s remark was ‘Our second team.’  Muzzi about dropped his teeth.” – Leo Strang –from Scott Shook’s “Massillon Memories”.

The statement was not meant to demean McKinley since beating them was always at the top of his list.  It’s just that Massillon’s overall program at that time was just that good.  “Dad always remembered where he was from.  Beating McKinley meant as much to him as winning the World Series.” – Joe’s son, Blasé Sparma.

Following the season Sparma was named First Team All-Ohio.  He was also invited to play in the Ohio North-South All-Star Classic, where he led the North to victory.  Incidentally, the South quarterback was Roger Staubach (Dallas Cowboys and Pro Football HOF).

Sparma’s baseball career at Massillon was equally impressive.  According to former Massillon assistant coach Ducky Schroeder, he was the best pitcher in the state.   “When he was in a groove, there wasn’t anybody in high school who could hit him.  He pitched a no-hitter against McKinley when he was a just sophomore and recorded five no-hitters when he was a senior.”

Then it was off to Ohio State, where he played both football and baseball.


In 1961 Sparma joined the varsity football team as a sophomore (freshmen were not permitted to play at that time) initially as a backup quarterback, entering games on occasion to pass.  Eventually, he worked his way into the No. 1 role and was named the starter in four games.  He ended up completing 16 of 38 passes for 288 yards and six touchdowns, including a 200-yard passing effort against Michigan.  During that final game he connected with Bob Klein on an 80-yard touchdown pass, currently ranked 6th all-time in the OSU record book for the longest completion.  The Buckeyes as a team finished 8-0-1 and 6-0 in the Big Ten.  “We weren’t picked to do much that year,” said Sparma.  “But after we beat Michigan (50-20), we were ranked first in the nation in one of the polls (Football Writers Association of America).”

By winning the Big Ten, the Buckeyes were eligible to participate in the Rose Bowl.  But the OSU faculty voted not to go, concerned that athletics was beginning to have too much influence on campus.  Also, the Big Ten contract with the Rose Bowl had expired in 1959 and it needed to be modified to prevent the west coast teams from receiving the bulk of the sponsorship money.

“As I look back, it would be nice to reflect on having played on a state championship football team, pitching for a World Series champion and playing quarterback in the Rose Bowl,” said Sparma.  “But Ohio State officials voted not to let us go.  I don’t know whether it was because they were on some academic kick, or what.  But it was very weird.  The students almost rioted.”

The students actually did riot.  Nevertheless, No. 2 Minnesota went instead and ended up losing to Washington, 17-7.

Joe Sparma crosses the plate after hitting his only home run at Ohio State, in 1962 as a sophomore

The following spring Joe was on the mound, playing for Manager Marty Karol, whose career with the Buckeyes spanned 25 years.  A fastball pitcher, Sparma helped his team to a 19-14-1 record, including a 9-5 mark in the Big Ten, good enough for a 3rd place finish.  Joe was 5-5 with a 3.05 ERA, both tops on the team.  He also struck out 102 batters in 79.2 innings of work.

After the season, he received a contract offer from professional baseball for $40,000.  But it was then that Woody Hayes talked him into another year on the gridiron.

During the 1962 football season Ohio State finished with 6-3 record.  Joe, playing at 6’-1”, 194 lbs., started seven of the nine games and completed 30 of 71 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns.  Then in the spring of 1964 he again excelled in baseball, going 6-3 with 93 strikeouts in 88.1 innings.  His team went 23-13-1 and finished 3rd in the Big Ten with a 9-6 mark.

But that was it and he left Ohio State for the next level.   “I really loved football,” he said.  “But I loved baseball, too.”


In 1963, Sparma accepted a contract with the Detroit Tigers, which included a $32,000 signing bonus.  After playing minor league ball with Knoxville and Duluth-Superior in 1963 and then again with Knoxville during part of the next year, he was called up to the majors.

In 1965 he became a starting pitcher for the Tigers, recording a 13-8 record and striking out 127 batters.  Sparma had a fastball that clocked in a 98 mph and he could consistently throw in the low 90s.  The first time he faced Mickey Mantle, he struck him out twice.  Mantle said he had never seen anyone throw faster.  Joe ended up beating the Yankees five times that year.

In the first meeting, he was assigned to be the starting pitcher on “Mickey Mantle Day” in New York.  When Mantle came to bat for the first time in the game, Sparma walked off the mound, approached Mantle, and said: “You know, I’ve never had a chance to meet you in person, and I’ve always admired you.”  Sparma and Mantle shook hands, and Sparma went back to the mound and struck Mantle out. Mantle turned to Detroit’s catcher Bill Freehan and said: “They have a day for me and your manager’s got to put some hard-throwing kid out there. Couldn’t he have put in some soft-tossing left-hander for me to hit off of, so I could look like a hero in front of all those people?” (Bill Freehan, “Behind the Mask” (1970), pp. 7–8)

Prior to the 1966 season he had a car door slammed on his pitching hand, causing him to miss spring training.  He subsequently went 2-7.  But he returned to form the following year posting a 16-9 record, including eleven complete games, five shutouts, 153 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.76.

In 1968 he pitched a 1-run, complete game vs. the New York Yankees to clinch Detroit’s first pennant since 1945.  The Tigers would go on to win the World Series over the St. Louis Cardinals.  But Sparma was used sparingly during the series, relieving starter Denny McClain in Game 4.

Joe Sparma is in Row 4, 4th from the left

In 1970, with his pitching numbers diminishing, Sparma was traded to the Montreal Expos.  But he was released after pitching just 27 innings with a record of 0-4.

During his major league career, Sparma compiled a 52-52 record.  He also had an ERA of 3.94 along with 586 strikeouts over 183 games.  Offensively, at a time before implementation of the designated hitter, he batted a respectable .119.


Joe Sparma with wife Connie

Joe had only pitched eight years and was still in his late 20s, but his services were no longer required.  Following his release, he was offered a position as a minor league coach, but he turned that down and opted instead to join Worthington Steel.  There, he worked his way up to vice president of sales and marketing for Buckeye Steel, a subsidiary.

Unfortunately, he died on May 14, 1986, at the age of 44 after a heart attack and subsequent heart bypass surgery.  He was survived by wife Connie, two daughters and a son, Blase, who lettered three years on the Ohio State baseball team (1994-96).


 In 1994 Joe Sparma was honored with a place on the Massillon Tiger Wall of Champions, joining the second class of inductees.  Then in 2011 he entered the Stark County Hall of Fame.

Horace Gillom – Wall of Champions

Horace Gillom – Wall of Champions

Paul Brown coached at Massillon for nine years and compiled a record of 80-8-1, winning six state and four national championships.  To accomplish that feat, he had at his disposal many outstanding high school football players.  Players such as Tommy James and Fred Blunt and Bob Glass and Edgar Herring.  But there was one player that Brown called “the best all-around athlete I coached at Massillon.”  That was Horace Gillom who, according to Brown, was “successful at everything he did.”

Horace “Big Horse” Gillom was born in Roanoke, Alabama, on March 3, 1921, but grew up in Massillon along with his two brothers, Jake and Odell, who also played for the Tigers.  His football career began in junior high where he played end and punter at Longfellow under Coach Bud Houghton.  Houghton immediately noticed Gillom’s proficiency at punting the football.  However, although he demonstrated tremendous distance and hang time for a young player, he needed more steps than normal to get his punts off.  So he simply moved Horace back an additional three yards and that gave him the room he needed.

Gillom’s varsity career spanned three years at Massillon, from 1938-40, during which time he was a starter at end, linebacker and punter.  He also had the fortunate experience of playing on three undefeated championship teams.  During his sophomore season, wearing No. 66, he scored 26 points from his end position via four receiving touchdowns and one 2-point conversion.  A sophomore starter also on defense, he was paired at middle linebacker with Vince “Rocky Snyder” in a 6-2-2-1 alignment.

As a junior, Horace really began to stand out and not just by changing his jersey number to 22.  Now, in addition to his normal duties, he was tasked with returning punts and kickoffs.  And on defense, he became the sole middle linebacker in a defensive alignment that was changed to a 7-1-2-1.  Coaches said that he was equally effective against both the run and the pass.  On a team that outscored its opponents 460-25, Gillom tallied 42 points, those coming from four receiving touchdowns, one rushing touchdown, one punt return TD and one pass interception returned for a TD.  At the end of the season he was awarded First Team All-County and First Team All-Ohio.

Coin toss prior to the 1940 Massillon-McKinley game.  Left to right – Massillon’s Ray Getz, Massillon Coach Paul Brown, Massillon’s Horace Gillom, McKinley’s Matthew Brown and McKinley Coach Johnny Reed.

Jersey No. 55 must have suited Horace more than 66 and 22, for it was during his senior year that he really dominated the football scene in Massillon.  His team finished 10-0, outscoring the opposition 477-6 and repeating as both state and national champs.  Four opponents that year finished the season with just a single loss, that coming to the Tigers.

As co-captain, playing at 6’-1”, 210 lbs., Gillom was extremely fast and became a significant deep pass threat.  He also had very large hands, well suited for a receiver.  For the year, he recorded a team-high 108 points, with ten touchdowns rushing and another eight receiving.  As a high school punter, Horace was simply unmatched, with many kicks traveling over 50 yards.

Offensively, Gillom scored at least one TD in nine of the ten games played, including four against Steubenville.  He also had an incredible touchdown reception against Canton McKinley at the end of the first half, erasing a rare 6-0 deficit.  The pass covered 45 yards, which was secured at the 20 under tremendous defensive pressure by tipping the ball into the air and then catching it with one hand.  After shedding the defender, Horace raced to the end zone, spurring Massillon on to a 34-6 victory in Paul Brown’s final game as coach of the Tigers.  He wrapped up his football career in Tigertown by repeating as First Team All-County and First Team All-Ohio.  In addition, the Associated Press named him Ohio’s Most Outstanding High School Player.

Between football seasons, Gillom spent time on the basketball court where, during his senior year, he was named All-County.  In the post-season tournament, Massillon advanced to the state semifinals, where he was named All-State Tournament 2nd Team.  The basketball squad was also coached by Paul Brown and he called Horace the greatest high school athlete he had coached during his time at Massillon.

In 1941 Paul Brown left to take over the head coaching responsibilities at Ohio State University.  Of course, Horace Gillom went with him.  Horace played freshmen ball that year, but left due to academic difficulties.

The next three years were spent in the military defending the United States in the WWII European Theater.  During his time there, he survived the Battle of the Bulge and was subsequently awarded three Bronze Stars.

After discharge, Gillom tried college football once again, this time at the University of Nevada, which was led by former Canton McKinley coach Jimmy Aiken.  He led the nation in punting that year, but he again left school due to poor academics.

That didn’t stop Paul Brown from snatching up the 6’-1”, 225 lb. punter in 1947 for a position with the Cleveland Browns, a team he stayed with through the 1956 season.  Throughout his tenure he was the full time punter, although he did play a couple of years at end, catching 74 passes for 1,083 yards.

As a punter, he was one of the best.  Paul Brown said in his autobiography that he had never seen a better one.  Here is a list of his and his team’s accomplishments:

  • 1947 – Defensive end; won AAFC championship; 2nd in league in punting with a 44.6 average.
  • 1948 – Offensive end; undefeated season; won AAFC championship.
  • 1949 – Offensive end; won AAFC championship; league absorbed into NFL.
  • 1950 – Tied for first in American Conference; won semifinal playoffs; Gillom’s punts kept the New York Giants in poor field position throughout the game; won the finals vs. Los Angeles; 2nd in the league in punting with a 43.2 average.
  • 1951 – Lost in the Championship Game; led the league in punting with a 45.5 average.
  • 1952 – Lost in the Championship Game; led the league in punting with a 45.7 average.
  • 1953 – Lost in the Championship Game; 2nd in the league in punting.
  • 1954 – NFL champs; 2nd in the league in punting.
  • 1955 –
  • 1956 – Released during the season due to a sore back.

Nevada, Cleveland Browns, Horace GillomFor his career, he is ranked as the 2nd best punter in NFL history with a 43.8 average.  His punts had very little chance of return on account of his tremendous distance and hang time.  In fact, he punted over 400 times before one was returned for a touchdown.  “Gillom had such a powerful leg and kicked the ball so far; before that punters used to line up 10, 12 yards behind the center,” running back Sherman Howard later said.  “He started the 15-yard drop.  And with Horace, he would kick it so high that by the time guys got down, the ball was coming down, so most guys had to fair catch.”  Lebovitz, Hal (May 28, 1978). “What does the ledger show?”. Cleveland Plain Dealer. p. 2

He holds the Browns’ record for the longest ever punt at 80 yards against the New York Giants in 1954.  He also had a 75-yarder against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1950.   “Horace was the greatest punter I’ve ever seen play pro football,” said Lin Houston, former Cleveland Browns player.  “They can talk about Ray Guy all they want.  He couldn’t hold a candle to Horace.”

Gillom was also one of the first black athletes to play professional football, but never saw himself as a pioneer in that regard.

Horace and his wife Mamie raised a son and daughter and he split work between the Los Angeles Recreation Department as an Assistant Athletic Director and a local hospital where he was a security guard.  Unfortunately, Gillom left us too early, dying of a heart attack at the age of 64 on October 28, 1985.

In 1985 Gillom was inducted into the Canton Negro Oldtimers Athletic Association Hall of Fame.  In 1994 Massillon honored him with a place on the Wall of Champions.  In 2007 he became a Cleveland Browns Legend, which denotes the best players in their history.  And in 2009 he was inducted into the Stark County Hall of Fame.



Mel Knowlton is the Latest Inductee to the WHS…

At halftime of Friday night’s game, former Massillon player and assistant coach Mel Knowlton will be inducted into the Washington High School “Wall of Champions” for his skill on the gridiron and his contribution to the sport of football.

Coach Mel Knowlton

Mel grew up on Massillon’s west side and attended Lorin Andrews Junior High School, where he excelled in both football and basketball.  His athletic prowess continued at Washington High.  He was All-Ohio in basketball during the 1932 – 1933 season and was Paul Brown’s first quarterback in 1932.  He went on to play at Miami of Ohio where he was a three year letterman in both football and basketball.

Mel’s coaching career began at Edmund A. Jones Junior High, where he was head football and basketball coach from 1937 to 1940.  In 1941 he accepted the head coaching job for the Steubenville Big Red.

World War II interrupted his coaching career, with Mel serving from 1942 to 1946 as an Air Navigation Instructor.  Upon discharge he resumed coaching,  this time at Alliance High School, and remained head coach there until 1969, finishing with a career record at Alliance of 150–86–6.  His Alliance teams had 7 top ten finishes in the AP Ohio High School Poll.  But the 1958 team could be considered his best, tying Massillon 8-8 and winning the Associated Press State Championship.  Mel was also named the AP Ohio Coach of the Year.

Mel also received numerous other awards.  In 1972 he was inducted into the Ohio High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame. In 1993 he was inducted into the famed Miami of Ohio “Cradle of Coaches” Hall of Fame.  And in 2007 he was inducted into the Stark County High School Football Hall of Fame.  Now in 2017 he is being inducted into the Massillon Washington High School “Wall of Champions.”