The legend of Jack Ham is well known across his native Johnstown.
He was a college football all-American and helped Penn State earn the nickname "Linebacker U." He went on to appear in eight straight NFL Pro Bowls as the Pittsburgh Steelers won four Super Bowls in 1970s, securing himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But lifelong friend Steve Smear recalls a moment when that destiny hung in the balance as Penn State's coaches considered Ham and he pondered whether their program was right for him.
Both Smear and Ham are products of Bishop McCort High School and the football factory that was Johnstown in the 1960s. As Smear tells it, Ham made a visit to Penn State to see his buddy play in the Nittany Lions' spring game. He watched Smear struggle through his first battles as a down defensive tackle, moved that offseason from stand-up defensive end.
After the game, Ham told Smear: "You stink!"
Smear said he agreed, and responded: "Let's go to IUP or someplace. I'm never going to play here."
A few days later, Penn State head coach Joe Paterno called Smear into his office. The young tackle expected to get chewed out by the coach for his performance in the Blue-White Game.
Instead, Paterno asked Smear about a young linebacker from Johnstown. The Nittany Lions had one scholarship left to give that year.
"Joe said, 'I just want to know about this Ham guy,'" Smear – who went on to a stellar career in the Canadian Football League – recalled in an interview from his home in Annapolis, Maryland.
"Joe asked, 'Is he a good worker?' I said, 'Yeah, he's a worker.' And Joe said, 'On that recommendation, we're going to give him a scholarship.' Jack ended up in his freshman year being the best player they had taken. He wasn't highly regarded. Hey, all these kids that are 3-star, 4-star, 5-star – you never know."
Now we do, in a big way.
By the time he was a college senior in 1970, Ham was a key cog in the Penn State defense, collecting 91 tackles and four interceptions. He set school records that still stand for blocked punts in a career (4) and season (3 as a senior).
The Steelers picked Ham in the second round of the 1971 draft, and four years later he was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year as the Steelers captured the first of four Super Bowl titles in six years. Ham tallied 32 interceptions, 25 sacks and 21 fumble recoveries during his career.
Ham was enshrined in Canton in 1988, and entered the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame in 1990 – still the only Penn Stater in both halls.
Ham works for a drug services company in Pittsburgh and serves as Penn State's radio color analyst each fall.
In February, he was named to the "Super Bowl 50 Golden Team" by a Pro Football Hall of Fame Board of Selectors.
Ham is a minority owner of the North American Hockey League’s Johnstown Tomahawks.
In 2013, the franchise honored him with a bobblehead – a likeness with a hockey stick in one hand and a football in the other.
“They did a good job with it,” Ham said in 2015. “It really does look like me. I get a kick out of it.
“I certainly wasn’t great at hockey. That’s why I chose football.”
And chose Penn State – on the way to gridiron immortality – in a moment that almost didn't happen.