By CHRIS LARICK
For the Star Beacon
Athletes are defined by moments. The game-winning home run, the long touchdown pass, the shot that finds the bottom of the basket in the final second — those are defining moments.
But there are other moments that define the athlete’s character, ones that go unnoticed by most people.
Rick Malizia, the only athlete ever to win Star Beacon Ashtabula County Player of the Year honors in three sports, can pinpoint a few.
In 1979 and 1980, Malizia, the son of Gene and Louise Malizia, was the quarterback on the outstanding Geneva teams of those years, teams that won undefeated Northeastern Conference championships and went 9-1 each season.
But Malizia points out a contribution most people aren’t aware of.
“One of my jobs was holding the ball for field goals for Richard Spangler,” Malizia, who will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Touchdown Club Hall of Fame on Dec. 3, said. “He was a great field-goal kicker. I said, ‘I will get it down.’ My junior year, we won the Conneaut game on a 42-yard field goal that hit the crossbar. When he made it, he said, ‘Great job!’ I took a lot of pride in that. I knew he was going on (to college). We practiced that a lot.”
Spangler, of course, went on to kick for the Ohio State Buckeyes for four years.
Malizia had never played basketball and was considering whether he should wrestle or play basketball in the seventh grade. He finally based his decision on one thing: Bob Herpy, Geneva’s great fooball coach, was also the eighth-grade basketball coach.
“I went out for basketball to impress him,” Malizia said. “He loved kids who were tough. That turned out pretty well.”
Malizia’s organized athletic career actually began in Ashtabula Little League baseball when he was 8 years old. Gene, Rick’s dad, moved the family, first to Austinburg, then to Maple Lane in Geneva, where he built a house, when Rick was in the seventh grade.
That meant that neither Rick nor his brother Mike (one year older) never played football or basketball in the Geneva Midget Leagues as did Mark, four years younger than Rick. But it didn’t mean that Rick had never played those games before.
“Every day growing up, every kid, that’s what we did (played sports),” Rick said. “There were no video games. It’s so different now, when kids never play, except when their parents are along. We were always out in the yard playing ball, tag or kickball. That’s how you grew up.”
Playing a variety of sports was common back then. Malizia regrets that kids tend to specialize in one sport these days.
“My son (Miles) plays everything,” he said. “In seventh grade at Geneva, those were starting blocks for what was taught at the high school level. You’d just go and figure out what position you would play. I was smaller, so that meant quarterback or running back.”
Malizia played running back in the seventh grade, but switched to quarterback in the eighth grade.
By the time he got to his freshman year, he was blooming as a quarterback. The Eagle freshman team, featuring several stars-to-be, was very good.
Before beginning his sophomore football season, Malizia had surgery on his tailbone. But by the third game, he was starting in the defensive backfield and wound up leading the team in interceptions. He also returned punts and kickoffs.
“They kicked away from me every time on the kickoffs,” he said. “But I did get to return some punts.”
“Those were all great Geneva teams back then,” Malizia said. “Two years before, they had been 10-0. In our senior year, we only lost to Willoughby South, which went on to be the state runner-up in Division I, losing to Canton McKinley. We killed the other teams. Six or seven of us had started as sophomores. Coach Herpy once said our 1981 class was his best of all. Thirteen or 14 of us were first team all-conference.”
Among the players on that team were Rob Merrell (tight end), Chris Braat (fullback), Randy Ankrom (tailback), Van Robison (linebacker), Jeff Shahan (Defensive Player of the Year two years in a row), Tim Leary (Offensive Lineman of the Year). the younger Shahan, Kevin Costello, and Rick Spangler and Rick Hunt in the defensive backfield.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Rob Merrell was our best player,” Malizia said. “He was 6-4, 225 and played four years at Youngstown State. His dad (Jim) played at Ohio State.
“We were still running the ball. I threw for 1,000 yards, probably 600 or 700 of them to (Merrell) and ran for 1,200-1,400 yards. He was also our best defensive player at linebacker, played both ways. Our team was really stacked.
“The thing I remember is that everyone on that team was very good. Our defense was the toughest defense we played against when we were practicing. We were coached by Herpy, (Tom) Koehler, Rick Hunt, Dick Pierce. That was a coaching staff. The legends of Geneva were the coaches.”
Malizia was so good at quarterback that Herpy, sometimes not the most flexible of coaches, allowed him to call audibles.
“Merrell and I had signals to change plays,” Malizia said.
During his junior year, college football scouts were beating a path to Geneva’s door to see Merrell and Malizia. He went on several paid visits to campuses. Teams wanted to know if he could play wingback. More important to Malizia was whether or not they’d allow him to play baseball, his best sport, too. The colleges said no.
“I was 6-foot, 190, not big enough for the Big Ten,” he said. “Rob Merrell at 225 was kind of small for a tight end. I don’t regret not playing (college football).”
Malizia’s basketball career was nearly as successful as his football career. Every summer, he had attended Bill Koval’s Bronko basketball camp. He became only the second freshman Koval ever used on the varsity team (Jay McHugh was the first). In that freshman year, he was the fifth or sixth man, a defensive specialist.
“I played with Jay McHugh and Ernie Pasqualone, against the very best all-time,” he said. “It was tough playing against those guys, but my athletic ability let me give Jay a good go. Meanwhile, I was getting better and better.”
Malizia teamed with Ralph DeJesus at the guard positions in his junior and senior seasons. At that time, the Eagles had some big men in Tim Leary (6-4), Merrell (6-4) and sophomore Tim Brueggeman (6-6). Those three didn’t shoot a lot, but rebounded and got the ball to Malizia and DeJesus. Malizia scored about 24 points per game as a senior and DeJesus added 20. At the end of the season, Malizia was named Star Beacon All-Ashtabula County Player of the Year, just as he had done in football and was about to do in baseball.
Malizia has only nice things to say about Koval, sometimes a controversial figure despite his success.
“Bill Koval taught me the life lessons I learned at Geneva High School,” Malizia said. “He had a strong personality. I was going to do it his way or sit the bench. That was exactly what I needed at the time to prepare me for my college career.”
In one of Koval’s drills that Malizia recalls, he would have 6-foot-5 assistant Jeff Pizon stand on a chair with a broom. Malizia would have to shoot over him, 50 times a night.
At the end of Malizia’s senior year he played in the Star Beacon Senior Classic with Koval as his coach. Malizia has been in baseball practice for three weeks and was rusty. He scored only a few points in the first half.
“At the half, Bill Koval said, ‘When are you going to start to play?’ I scored 20 points in the second half and made the winning shot,” Malizia said.
“He was a man when he was a coach out there,” Malizia said of Koval. “He didn’t kid around with the players. I learned a lot from Bill Koval.”
Because of his defensive skills, Malizia was always assigned the opponent’s best scorer and was always the “one” when Koval used a box-and-one against the other team.Conneaut’s Brad Gee, one of the best players in the league, could score just four against him.
“If I was going to shoot a lot, I ought to play defense, too,” Malizia reasons. “It wasn’t something that I’d think about, I’d just go in and play.”
As good at football and basketball as Malizia was, he was even better at baseball.
“I had played baseball from an early age,” he said. “I had dreams about a major-league career. I spent a lot of time at camps.”
By the time he was a sophomore, Malizia was probably the best player at Geneva. By his junior year, he was being heavily recruited, 30 or 40 letters a day.
“I would go to tryout camps for the Indians and Pirates,” he said. “(Scouts) would time you, rank your arm and speed.”
Though he had done some pitching as a sophomore, he spent the rest of his career in centerfield, the position he felt he had the best chance to advance in. His brother, Mark, and Shaun McHugh, both freshmen, did the majority of the work on the mound for the Eagles.
“At Geneva, we’d have 40 people at a game. After a game, scouts would have you run, throw from deep third, measured everything from your head size to your foot size.”
When it came time to pick a college, Malizia knew what he wanted to do — head south.
“I needed to develop more than I could in the northeast,” he said. “I realized that early on.”
One of the chief scouts recruiting Malizia was South Florida’s Robin Roberts, a Hall of Fame pitcher. He became a favorite of Roberts and eventually agreed to a scholarship to go there.
“I had a great freshman year,” he said. “I had to work twice as hard, running the bases and taking batting practice.
“They put me in right field. I batted about .285, playing about half the time. I was getting a lot of attention. I wanted to get south to Miami. I realized that Miami-Dade was where anyone who wanted to go to the pros went.”
In his only year at Miami-Dade North, Malizia had what he described as a “phenomenal year,” leading his team in batting with a .410 average and stealing 33 bases in 33 attempts. He decided to transfer to Stetson, the ninth-ranked college team in the country, largely because of the academic opportunities that school offered.
“I was at the top of my game,” he said. “I could see how I had matured.”
His junior year, hitting second in the order, he smacked nine home runs, drove in about 65 runs in as many games and stole 46 out of 46 bases. As a senior, he hit .385 while batting leadoff, belted six home runs and drove in 95 runs, setting a school record for hits (95). He also stole 44 of 45 bases, being thrown out trying to steal third when he hadn’t gotten the steal sign.
“I was thrown out once in four years of college and in high school, not at all,” Malizia said. “I was a little stockier than most centerfielders, so they probably didn’t think I could run.
“I made several all-star teams,” he said.
As a team, Stetson finished ninth in the country in his junior year, 18th his senior season. Stetson reached the regionals both years, but fell in the super-regionals to Miami. In his senior year, his brother Mike was playing centerfield for the Hurricanes. The two brother centerfielders attracted the media, looking for an angle.
After his senior year, he signed a contract with the Baltimore Orioles, starting in the New York-Penn League. Despite having a good year, he was released. The Kansas City Royals called him, but he wanted to finish his college degree in investment banking. He did that, then called around for a baseball job.
“No one needed me anymore,” he said. He then turned down an opportunity in the Orioles’ system to become a scout, a decision he’s not sure he’d make now.
But things have turned out well for him. After graduation, he interviewed at Merrell-Lynch in Cleveland. He told his interviewer that he wanted to be an investment banker and convinced him of his dedication.
“The guy hired me that afternoon,” Malizia said. “It took me three years to be the best at Merrell-Lynch. I got promoted. Now I hire guys like that all the time.”
After 10 years at Merrell-Lynch, Malizia moved to Morgan-Stanley in Chicago, running the Mideast Region office.
“I have 20 years of Wall Street upper management experience,” he said.
When he married (a union that lasted just five years but produced two great kids), Malizia started his own businesses. He is now part owner of three businesses, is a 49 percent owner of a radio station in Des Moines, Iowa, where he works from, and has invested in a fitness business with former St. John pal, Jamie Brenkus. He named his two investment banking businesses, Miles Parker Associates and T Rae (the T is for Taylor) after his children. Altogether, he employs 12 people.
“These employees are lifers for me,” he said. “They would never leave me.”
He looks back on his career, he knows athletics prepared him for success.
“College baseball was great,” he said. “It taught me so much for preparing for the world.
“Growing up in Geneva, we knew we would get to play. Things always seemed to be easy. But there’s an awakening for all athletes, when you have to dig deep and find out what you’re made of. There’s a lot of downfalls and potholes. It’s always easy to be on top, but this isn’t Geneva anymore. I had to go get it if I wanted it. If everyone went through high school with the kind of support that Geneva gave us at that time, have the right attitude and character, he could go (a long way).
“It just ran out; I rode it as far as I could. Everybody needs a helping hand to have success. Kids ought to thank their parents and community. I’m raising two kids and am a family man. I am grateful for what has been given me and am trying to pass that down to my kids.”
Malizia’s daughter, Taylor, is 9. She’s a cheerleader, dancer and gymnast. “We’re inseparable,” Malizia said.
His son, Miles plays all sports and Rick coaches him in all of them. In football, he’s a quarterback, of course.
“He’ll see me throw the ball,” Malizia said. “I race them. He wants to be good for me. I don’t see him being a big natural athlete like my younger brother (Mark), though. He kind of reminds me of me. His footwork is the best and his arm is the best. He switch-hits when he bats. He’s fundamentally sound. I love being a dad.
“I’m 50 now. I went to our (Geneva High School) class reunion last year. I basically left after high school. I realize how good I had it in Geneva. I knew they were gonna be there.
“When I look back, I can’t think of anything bad. If my kid had everything I had, how could he not succeed?”
Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.
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