Mike White| Wednesday, June 3, 9:35 p.m.
Fourteen years ago, Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley sent a recruiting letter to Tom Ricketts. Ricketts was 3 years old at the time.
Bradley knew Ricketts' father, Tom II, and sent the letter as a joke. Fourteen years later, Bradley recruited the younger Ricketts for real - and got him.
The younger Tom Ricketts, who will be a senior lineman at North Allegheny High School, made a verbal commitment to Penn State tonight. He called Bradley on the phone and made his commitment.
Both Ricketts and his father talked tonight in a phone interview about the letter from Bradley and laughed about it. They have the letter framed in their home. Ricketts will sign a letter of intent with the Nittany Lions in February.
Ricketts is the second top WPIAL offensive lineman to commit to Penn State in the past two days. Yesterday, it was Fox Chapel's Miles Dieffenbach. Dieffenbach's decision was a slight blow to Pitt. The Panthers were his top choice until the past month, and the Panthers thought they had a good chance to get him. What hurt the most was Dieffenbach's tie to Pitt. His father, George, is Pitt's womens tennis coach.
Ricketts' decision might have been even a bigger blow to Pitt. Ricketts father, Tom II, was a standout lineman at Pitt in the 1980s. His mother, Sandy (Albright) Ricketts, was a standout swimmer at Pitt. The parents have season tickets to Pitt football games. Ricketts' great grandfather was Charles "Doc" Hartwig, who was a first-team All-American at Pitt in the 1930s.
But the youngest Tom Ricketts wasn't swayed by the family tree. Pitt was his other top choice, but he really started to feel strongly about Penn State after visiting the school in April.
"Penn State has always been my secret favorite," Ricketts said. "Growing up, Pitt was a favorite, too. But just looking at the opportunities given to me, Penn State was the best thing for me. ... This past week - and maybe even a little less than that - I was pretty sure Penn State is where I wanted to go. The past three days, I said, 'This is where I need to be.' I love the campus, the coaching staff, everything about Penn State."
More from young Tom about his commitment: "Really, it's just about the best fit for me - as a student and player. Maybe as Tom Ricketts' son, it might have been best for me at Pitt. But as Thomas Ricketts III, Penn State is where I need to be."
Ricketts also had Florida State, Maryland and Stanford on his final list, among others. He played offensive guard last year, but will play offensive tackle this season at North Allegheny.
Ricketts' father said he never tried to sway his son to Pitt or any other school and said he was "excited" about his son's decision. "Of course I would've loved to see him go to Pitt, but of course I knew the situation he would've been going into. He would've kind of been walking in my shoes or my shadow, I guess. He would've had to deal with that. There are so many opportunities out there for him. He made his own decision."
When the elder Ricketts came out of Franklin Regional High School, his final two choices were also Pitt and Penn State.
"I just think he wanted to do his own thing and I respect him for that," said Ricketts, the father. "I praise him and hope he does well. I think he picked a great school."
The younger Ricketts said he feels bad for his parents because he said they will probably take more ribbing about his decision than he will.
"But it will just be fun stuff from people," said Tom Ricketts, the father.
The younger Ricketts runs the 40-yard dash in 5.0 seconds and has room to put on more weight and muscle. He has added about 15 pounds since last season. He also is a good student with a 3.3 grade average.
While the decisions of Ricketts and Dieffenbach were blows to Pitt, Penn State now has commitments from five players in the WPIAL class of 2010. The others are Canon-McMillan linebacker Mike Hull, Sto-Rox quarterback Paul Jones and Penn-Trafford offensive lineman Luke Graham.
None of the five are considered among the top 25 players in the country. None are a Terrelle Pryor type. But they all had a number of Division I offers and have potential.
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said a few years ago that he wanted to build a fence around Western Pennsylvania and keep top recruits here. But there was no fence in the past, there is no fence now and there will be no fence in the future. Some years, Pitt gets more WPIAL players than other years. Things go go in cycles. Pitt certainly hasn't gotten all of the best WPIAL players in recent years, but Coach Dave Wannstedt have gotten their share of WPIAL players, including some who were offered by Penn State. Anyway, if you can win on the field, who cares where the players come from?
Some Pitt fans, though, are fretting Penn State getting five players from the 2010 WPIAL class - and Bradley recruited all five of them. Some Pitt fans are blaming assistant coach Greg Gattuso for not getting Ricketts. But he didn't recruit Ricketts. Assistant David Walker recruited Ricketts. Gattuso doesn't recruit all of Western Pennsylvania for Pitt. Only parts of it.
There is always a chance some of the recruits could change their minds, especially if Pitt has a good season. But Ricketts said there is "no chance" he will change his mind. Dieffenbach pretty much said the same thing.
Things might not get better for Pitt in Western Pennsylvania in the near future, either. Some other top players from the WPIAL might go elsewhere. But the world is not ending for Pitt just because Pitt isn't getting WPIAL players. The days of Pitt living off the WPIAL are long gone. There just aren't enough top players in the WPIAL any more for Pitt to live off this area.
That said, it would certainly help Pitt if they get at least maybe half of the top players in the area. And losing ones with strong ties to Pitt hurts even more.
It is becoming more and more imperative that Wannstedt win on the field this season.