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December 10, 2010

A DEFINITION IN TOUGHNESS - Former Tech player Gene Breen ranks as one of the toughest players of his era

By: Jimmy Robertson

Gene Breen

Former Virginia Tech football coach Frank Moseley, a fearsome taskmaster, loved tough guys and instructed his staff to bring those types of players to Blacksburg during his tenure in the 1950s.

So Dick Redding, one of Moseley’s assistants, knew he was bringing in a Moseley type when he signed Gene Breen out of Mt. Lebanon High School outside of Pittsburgh. But Breen wasn’t quite so sure.

“I didn’t think I’d make the team,” he said.

Breen did more than that, becoming one of the best Southern Conference linemen – both offensive and defensive – in the early 1960s and eventually securing a spot in the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame. He also wrestled at Tech for legendary coach Frank Teske and helped the Hokies win the Southern Conference title in 1962 in that sport.

In football, Breen made an immediate impact during his sophomore season in 1961 for new coach Jerry Claiborne; whom Moseley, also the AD, hired to replace himself. Breen earned All-Southern Conference honors and helped the Hokies lead the league in total defense. In 1962, a knee injury limited him, but typical of his western Pennsylvania background, he played in every game. In 1963, he returned to form and earned first-team All-Southern Conference honors again, helping Tech lead the league in rushing. The Hokies finished 8-2 that season, including 5-0 in the Southern.

Breen served as the team captain for his entire career. In fact, Claiborne named Breen a captain not long after arriving in Blacksburg.

“I was very surprised,” Breen said. “That was a turning point in my life. That’s when I realized that I had potential.”

Breen graduated from Tech in 1964 with a degree in distributive education. A member of the Corps of Cadets, he graduated as a distinguished military student and also earned a spot in the listing of “Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities.”

Breen figured he’d embark on a career in teaching and coaching, but the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, coached by legendary Vince Lombardi, drafted him in 1963. So he decided to try the professional football route.

“I got a $1,200 signing bonus,” Breen said. “I hitchhiked to Green Bay, and when I got there, Lombardi gave me the $1,200. Then when I made the team, he gave me $9,000.”

Breen spent just one year in Green Bay. After the season, Lombardi traded him to the Pittsburgh Steelers, which gave Breen an opportunity to return to his hometown.

But Breen hated every second of his two-year stint with the Steelers.

“When he [Lombardi] traded me to Pittsburgh, I cried like a baby,” Breen said. “The Steelers were a bunch of bums. All they did was drink and gamble, and they didn’t show up for practice half the time. They didn’t have any weights and we had to practice in a mud pit.

“I didn’t like Art Rooney [the founder of the Steelers] either. After two years there, he cut me and I was glad. I was happy to get out of there.”

Breen went to Los Angeles and played for the Rams for a couple of years before getting out of football for good. He said he had 8-10 knee surgeries between college and the pros, and the pain became unbearable. Plus, football wasn’t as much fun as it was while playing for Lombardi, who died in 1970 at the age of 57.

“The NFL went to hell when he left,” Breen said. “In 1968, I was in Los Angeles playing for the Rams and we were playing the Packers. We were walking out the tunnel and Green Bay was walking back in on the other side. Coach Lombardi yelled at me, ‘Hey Breen, you gonna say hello?’ He gave me a hug and I thanked him for the opportunity he gave me. Then he told me to go out and play a good game.

“Coach Lombardi never used a swear word. He never belittled a person. He treated everyone the same, and that’s why they loved him. That’s why we won. It was the same way with Coach Claiborne, too. Jerry was a winner, and that’s why Virginia Tech was a winner.”

Following his playing days, Breen briefly dabbled in coaching. He landed a job at Marshall with Rick Tolley, a former Tech teammate. After a year and a half, he left and came back to Tech in 1970 as the offensive line coach under Claiborne.

At this point, his first wife and their five kids – four boys and a daughter – still lived in western Pennsylvania. Breen couldn’t afford to buy a house and bring his family to Blacksburg, so after a year, he decided to return to Pennsylvania.

“Coach Claiborne didn’t speak to me for years after that,” Breen said.

Breen started his own business, becoming a sporting goods representative. He knew plenty about sports equipment from his playing days, and he traveled all over the eastern part of the U.S, selling goods. It turned out to be a lucrative profession – one from which he ultimately would retire.

“One of my jobs as a rookie was to help the equipment manager,” Breen said. “Lombardi helped me learn that trade, too. I am what I am because of Claiborne and Lombardi.”

As a sporting goods rep, he often sold shoes to players and teams, and one of his clients was none other than O.J. Simpson, the former Buffalo and San Francisco great.

“He’s a bum now, but I liked him,” Breen said. “And he liked me. I took care of him. We got along well.”

Breen’s second wife, Nancy, ran the human resources office for Westinghouse Electric before Siemens bought that company in 1997. She was transferred to Florida, and she and Breen left western Pennsylvania in 1998. Breen retired from his job that year, and they currently live in Heathrow, Fla.

Despite battling knee problems and concussion symptoms, Breen has lived a rather blessed life, having played college and pro football and been a successful businessman. Plus, while bouncing around in the NFL, he managed to avoid going to Vietnam because his paperwork got hung up, and he later received an honorable discharge. Then, the year after he left Marshall, the Thundering Herd team plane crashed, killing all 75 on board, including Tolley and former teammate Frank Loria.

“God was on my side,” Breen said. “Twice.”