Pihos' daughter crafts dance work in honor of her father

Posted: June 10, 2012

TO SAY THAT Eagles' Hall of Fame wide receiver Pete Pihos lived a memorable life would be something of an understatement about a man who survived the bloody slaying of his father when he was 14, invaded occupied France under Gen. George Patton and helped the Birds win NFL championships in 1948 and 1949.

That only made Pihos' last decade - as he struggled against ever-worsening dementia in a North Carolina nursing home before his death last August at age 87- all the more tragic for his youngest daughter Melissa.

"I wanted to find a way to keep his memories alive - because they were really deteriorating," Melissa Pihos said by phone from Winston-Salem, N.C., near UNC-Greensboro where she teaches after earning a master's degree in choreography.

The result is a one-of-kind, multimedia tribute to a nearly forgotten pro football legend of the 1940s and 1950s - combining Melissa Pihos' talents in choreography and dance with her growing passion for film. Her documentary film/dance production about her father, called "PIHOS: A Moving Biography," is touring several cities this summer and comes to the Mandell Theater at Drexel University on June 19. All ticket sales benefit the Alzheimer's Association, which is sponsoring the production.

One could find irony in the life of a six-time NFL Pro Bowler nicknamed "The Golden Greek" interpreted by dancers on a stage. After all, Pihos - who scored 61 touchdowns in nine seasons with the Eagles - made the Hall of Fame not so much for graceful moves on the field as for running over people. His championship coach, Greasy Neale, once said that "Pete is like a bull."

But for his choreographer daughter, dance is one way to make sense of the complex inner life of a man who found gridiron glory but also battled inner demons, including four failed marriages before his descent into an illness that was diagnosed as Alzheimer's disease.

In his final years, the hard-hitting Pihos - who also played linebacker and missed only one game in his career - was admitted into the NFL's 88 Plan, which pays for medical and nursing-home care for players whose dementia may have resulted from playing football. Although concern about pro football and brain injuries has become front-page news, Pihos doesn't deal with that issue in her new production.

"Back then, they didn't know," Melissa Pihos said of the links between repeated blows to the head and permanent brain damage. "He loved the game, and he made a choice to play it."

But Pihos had to overcome quite a bit of adversity even before reaching the NFL. The son of Greek immigrants growing up in central Florida outside of Orlando, he was barely a teenager in 1937 when a man walked into the restaurant where his dad Louis Pihos was working and killed him with a hatchet-like device. No one was ever convicted for the crime, which so infuriated the young Pete Pihos that he vowed to become a lawyer in a personal quest for justice.

His plans were interrupted - like most men of his generation - by World War II. Pihos ended up in the 35th Infantry Division under Patton fighting during the siege of Saint-Malo in Brittany, France, and then in the Battle of the Bulge. Hardened by his experiences, he returned to the University of Indiana and became an All-America end, abandoning his dream of the law for a career in pro football. The rest is history, including a touchdown in the 1949 title game won 14-0 by the Eagles in a virtual monsoon in the L.A. Coliseum.

After football, Pihos was 51 and on his final marriage when Melissa was born. She had begun studying filmmaking during her dad's final years at the nursing home, and she realized her new interest could be a way to tap into the memories that he could no longer share. One day in class, she mentioned a poignant letter from her father when her parents were getting divorced, and a classmate suggested that she return the favor. The result was an award-winning short film called "Dear Dad" - weaving candid footage of Pete Pihos' struggles with dementia with black-and-white clips from his years with the Eagles.

Inspired, Melissa Pihos worked like an investigative reporter to expand the project, traveling the country to interview surviving teammates from the '48 and '49 Birds such as Bill Mackrides and Al Wistert, as well as Bears Hall of Fame tight end and coach Mike Ditka, after Ditka had told Pihos that her dad "was my hero."

And she's not done. Pihos hopes that "PIHOS: A Moving Biography" is also a step toward completing a full-length documentary film titled "Pihos: A Life in Five Movements." She said her projects are all working toward a goal line that even non-football fans can relate to: eradicating Alzheimer's disease.

"To see what it could do to someone like him, one of the strongest people, who'd been in the war and then as a star on the football field," she said, "we need to find a cure."


For tickets to see

"Pihos: A Moving Biography" at

The Mandell Theater on June 19, go to

http://www.showclix.com/

event/227775.


Contact Will Bunch at bunchw@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @Will_Bunch. Read his blog, Attytood at www.philly.com/

philly/blogs/attytood/.

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