Long-time Natchez resident Joe Fortunato, who died Monday at 87, out-lived most folks who would remember him as one of the most outstanding defensive players in the NFL, much less as an All American at Mississippi State in the early 1950s.
Today, on the day he is buried at Natchez City Cemetery overlooking the Mississippi River, he should be remembered.
How great a football player was Joe Fortunato?
He was an All American as a fullback and linebacker for Mississippi State. As a linebacker for the Chicago Bears, he was selected to the NFL’s All-Decade team of the 1950s. Yes, and he was still good enough to make first team All Pro for three years running in 1963, 1964 and 1965. He intercepted 16 passes and recovered 22 fumbles, the most of any linebacker in NFL history at the time of his retirement.
Says Fortunato’s college teammate Bobby Collins, “The thing you should know about Joe as a football player is that he had the speed to run people down and then the size and strength to cause a lot of damage after he got there. He was a great, great football player.”
Sadly and wrongly, Joe Fortunato was never inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Fourteen defensive players are listed on the NFL All Decade team of the 1950s. Thirteen of the 14 are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and then there is Fortunato who was still an All-Pro well into the 1960s.
Makes no sense. The primary criteria for Hall of Fame selection is that the player be dominant at his position during his era. By definition, Fortunato was that. And his “era” lasted a long time – 12 years – during which he missed only one game because of an injury.
Don Pierson, the now-retired, long-time pro football writer for the Chicago Tribune, believes Fortunato’s omission might be because he was overshadowed by other Bears linebackers, including Bill George and Dick Butkus. Pierson joined the Tribune after Fortunato retired but was a Hall of Fame voter for years.
“I remember that there was a push for Joe to be in the Hall of Fame long, long after he retired, but Joe, himself, wanted nothing to do with it,” Pierson said.
Sounds to this writer like Fortunato spent a lot more time beating his opponents than he did beating his own chest.
“If you didn’t know Joe and you just sat down to talk to him, you’d never suspect he was this great football star, feared by his opponents,” Collins said. “He was just a friendly, generous guy. He’d rather talk about you than about himself.”
Fortunato grew up in the steel mill town of Mingo Junction, Ohio, hard by the Ohio River. He worked in his grandparents’ grocery store as a child and in the steel mill as a teen, then headed to Virginia Military Institute (VMI) to play college football.
At VMI, Fortunato played for Slick Morton. When Morton came to State, Fortunato followed.
“When Joe transferred to State and when you put him and Jackie Parker together in the same backfield, you really had something,” Collins said. “Those two were as good as anybody had in those days.”
Fortunato’s name went up on the stadium at Scott Field last month in State’s Ring of Honor. He is the seventh Bulldog selected for that honor, following Johnie Cooks, Jack Cristil, Kent Hull, D.D. Lewis, Shorty McWilliams and Parker.
In Natchez, Joe Fortunato is remembered as a giver. He was the co-owner of Big Joe Oil Company and he was close friends with long-time Natchez mayor Tony Byrne.
“Joe was a whole lot more than a great athlete or football player,” Byrne says. “He was a great man, a warm, giving friend who loved people and loved this town. He did a whole lot for a whole lot of people. He is most known as a great Chicago Bear, but in life he was as gentle as a Teddy Bear.”
Byrne was in Chicago the day when Fortunato scored his only touchdown, recovering a Johnny Unitas fumble and taking it into the end zone. Says Byrne, laughing, “I don’t think Unitas ever knew what happened.”
“Joe would never tell you this but he was so respected by his teammates and coaches,” Byrne said. “He was the Bears captain. When they drafted a young linebacker named Dick Butkus, they assigned him to be Joe’s roommate. They wanted Dick Butkus to learn from the best.”
Butkus, probably the most highly regarded linebacker in NFL history, made the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, the first year he was eligible. Sadly, Joe Fortunato never did. But perhaps, more importantly, Big Joe is remembered in his adopted hometown of Natchez and at his alma mater Mississippi State as a Hall of Fame person.