Earlier this month, the USF community lost a member of the legendary 1951 Dons football team. Joe Scudero, a running back and defensive back on the squad, passed away at the age of 89 after a battle with cancer.
A native San Franciscan, he was born Joseph Andrew Scudero on July 2, 1930. He attended Mission High School, the oldest high school in San Francisco, just as the country was emerging from World War II. At Mission High, Scudero was an All-City selection as a standout running back on the football team.
On the Hilltop, Scudero played on both sides of the ball. On offense he played as a running back, using his nimble stature to slice through opposing defenses with ease. He was an especially effective receiving threat, though, often sneaking out of the backfield into the open flat, hauling in a short pass, turning, and scampering downfield for good yardage. Scudero also played as a defensive back, again using his speed and agility to face off against receivers much larger than him.
Scudero was also a gifted special teams player, returning punts and kickoffs for the Dons. Loyola University, now known as Loyola Marymount University, named him to their 1950 All-Opposition team, declaring him one of the best players they faced that season.
Scudero was also a gifted special teams player, returning punts and kickoffs for the Dons.
He also spoke extensively in interviews about the bond shared among the ‘51 Dons. In a 1990 Sports Illustrated article, he said of the squad, “We’d break our necks for each other.”
Much has been written about the prolific ‘51 Dons. They were told they could not play in the Orange Bowl unless they left behind their two black players, Burl Toler and Ollie Matson. In the same 1990 Sports Illustrated article, Scudero shared how he reacted to the situation.
“What I think we should have done,” he said, “is send Ollie and Burl to one of those bowls and leave the rest of us home. Hell, the two of them could’ve beaten most of those Southern schools by themselves.”
When USF’s football program shut down due to financial struggles, Scudero transferred to the University of South Carolina to continue his collegiate football career. However, an eligibility issue as a transfer athlete prevented him from playing. He instead opted to join the professional ranks, playing one season with the Toronto Argonauts in the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union, a precursor to the Canadian Football League. In the 1953 season, Scudero scored five touchdowns for the Argonauts in 12 games.
The next year, Scudero joined the NFL, playing for the Washington Redskins as a two-way player, meaning he played on both offense and defense. He would go on to play 57 games over five seasons, followed by one year with the Pittsburgh Steelers. As an NFL running back, Scudero averaged 3.2 yards per carry. As a defensive back, he pulled in 10 interceptions and forced 11 fumbles. He was most successful as a return man, leading the NFL in kick return yards in 1955 with 940 yards.
He recorded 1967 all-purpose yards in his career and was named to the 1955 Pro Bowl.
In his offseasons, Scudero returned to USF, where he studied drama and performed with The College Players. In the Players’ 1954 production of “Julius Caesar,” Scudero played the role of Casca, alongside future California Lt. Governor Leo T. McCarthy, who assumed the title role.
Scudero acted professionally for a short time as well. He played Munro in a 1956 episode of the TV show “Gunsmoke.” Two years later, he appeared in an episode of the show “Dragnet.”
After his days of professional football and acting, Scudero worked in the public service sector in agencies such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Labor. He also spent all of 1986 on Roman Catholic retreats, studying and praying in California and Europe.
Scudero is survived by his daughter, his sister, and 15 of his teammates from the undefeated, unbroken ‘51 Dons.