Countdown to 2023 Enshrinement: Joe Klecko

Enshrinement Published on : 7/29/2023
By Evan Rogers
Pro Football Hall of Fame

(Fourth in a series of features on the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2023)

JOE KLECKO'S path in football was anything but linear.

Despite his father playing semi-professional ball as a halfback, Klecko wouldn’t pick up the sport until his senior year at St. James High School. Instead, the future Hall of Famer opted to work odd jobs as a teenager, from serving as a bartender to pumping gas at his uncle’s shop.

Klecko did excel in his lone high school season, earning all-league and all-county honors. Due to academic reasons, college coaches suggested he take a year and play at a preparatory school before joining the collegiate ranks.

He decided instead to drive trucks for Robbins Motor Transportation Inc., where it was reported he made upward of $1,000 a week.

“I was a year out of high school, driving a dump truck for a living when I first met Joe (Robbins),” Klecko said. “He put me to work driving the big rigs, and I realized then I wanted an easier way to make a living.”

A year into his new job, Klecko began to miss football.

In time, he was approached by the head coach of the Aston Knights, a semi-professional team of the Seaboard Football League. Klecko would take up the offer and agreed to play under the identity of “Jim Jones” from Poland University – to preserve his collegiate eligibility. 

Games in the Seaboard League differed vastly from what Klecko experienced in high school. He said several players would show up to games drunk, and the brutal and physical playing style surpassed anything he had seen. 

“If a guy missed a block, he’d roll over and snap at a passing leg,” he said. “We were playing the Hagerstown Bears, and I had been beating my man on the pass rush every time. Finally, he hauled off and kicked me in the groin. It almost killed me.”

Starring on the defensive front, Klecko was spotted by John DiGregorio, Temple University's football manager at the time. DiGregorio told Temple head coach Wayne Harden there was a kid “playing sandlot football that’s better than anybody on your football team,” to which Harden responded with a request to gather film on this phenom. 

Unfortunately for Temple’s head coach, the Seaboard League had no recorded game footage, so Harden traveled to watch Klecko and the Knights play in person. According to Klecko, Harden offered him a full scholarship after watching one quarter of action. 

Klecko rose the ranks quickly at Temple and became a two-time All-East selection for the Owls. His athletic feats stretched beyond the gridiron while in college. 

The star defensive lineman joined Temple’s club boxing squad and tallied a 34-1 record en route to clinching two club heavyweight titles. Klecko’s love for boxing even allowed him to serve as Joe Frazier’s sparring partner for a brief time.

After earning All-American honorable mention as a senior, Klecko was selected in the sixth round by the New York Jets. He recorded eight sacks in each of his first two years in the NFL, starring on the Jets’ “PAK” defensive front alongside Lawrence Pillers and Abdul Salaam. 

By his third season, the “New York Sack Exchange” took hold with Klecko and Salaam pairing with Mark Gastineau and Marty Lyons. The Jets racked up a league-high 66 sacks in 1981, and Klecko led the way with 20.5. 

That same year, Klecko finished second for NFL AP Defensive Player of the Year and was selected to his first Pro Bowl. During his 10-year stint with the Jets, he earned Pro Bowl selections at three different positions — two at defensive tackle and one each at nose tackle and defensive end.

"You can't think of his 10-year period without him,” said JOE DeLAMIELLEURE, a fellow Hall of Famer who starred on the Bills’ “Electric Company” offensive line that faced Klecko twice a year. “I had to block Joe Greene and Merlin Olsen when I was playing and, believe me, Joe Klecko was equal to those two guys. If Joe Klecko had played one position for 10 years, he'd have been considered one of the top two or three players at that position, whichever one it was.”

From hauling heavy equipment to powering through games as Jim Jones on a sandlot field, Klecko’s rise to the NFL traveled an unusual path. Above all, his success never was guaranteed.

"What really makes this satisfying is knowing nobody ever gave me anything,” Klecko said. “I mean, everything I've got, I've earned.”

Evan Rogers is a student at the University of North Carolina and is an intern this summer at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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