During the course of my sports broadcasting career, when people ask me what my favorite sport is to cover, I always give the same answer: high school football.
The reason why: John Fedko. For the past 29 years he brought the best of western Pennsylvania high school football to WPXI-TV and created a level of excitement for the sport rivaled in only a few regions across the country. And that era is now coming to an end.
Monday on TribLive Radio, Fedko announced that not only would it be his last on-air appearance in the studio, but he also will not return to host “Skylights” this upcoming season. He has decided to step away from broadcasting to devote more time to the capital campaign as President of Vincentian Academy and to spend more time with his two sons as they progress in amateur baseball. His son Christian, a junior infielder at Vincentian, is expected to announce his college commitment this week.
“Personally, I don’t think this is a big deal,” Fedko said during his farewell show. But with all due respect, I couldn’t disagree more. Frankly, I don’t think enough is being said about it.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, my parents were frequent viewers of WPXI, and Friday was my favorite day of the week for two reasons. One was “Skylights” during the 11:00 news, and the other was “The Fedko Zone,” the self-named, musically-accompanied blooper reel near the end of the 6:00 show.
It was evident within 30 seconds that John was different from any other sports anchor you ever watched, and he used a style that had never been seen before, even despite his admitted stylistic nod to Howard Cosell.
But Fedko took Cosell’s style and gave it a unique combination of energy, flair and excitement that kept you coming back every week. The songs he used while reading highlights, the nicknames, even the way he pronounced “THE LITTLE PREXIES!” made the shows more appealing.
“The thing I am sad about — because eras end in media around here — is that I thought it was fun,” Fedko said. “I tried to make ‘Skylights’ fun. If you didn’t care about the two teams, but you kind of liked high school football, you were tuning in.”
It was because of John Fedko that I learned the names of young men who became local legends like LaVar Arrington, Mike Caputo and Kevan Barlow, among many others.
I think back to 20 years ago, during my freshman year when John came to Schenley High School to present us with the Skylights Spirit Award. (That was back when Baby Kaley was actually still a baby. She is now a cheerleader at the University of Miami.) I remember the packed gym, the drumline playing, the cheerleaders dancing and John singing “Happy Birthday” to my sister Rebekah, who was the squad’s captain.
It was experiences like those that were the defining moments of many students’ high school years. They were also the catalyst for some who aspired to do the same thing he did, like myself. If you grew up in western Pennsylvania and went on to cover high school football for local news, odds are you probably copied a gimmick or two from John Fedko. And if you didn’t, well, you probably weren’t that good, anyway.
When I first started covering high school football as a television reporter in Arkansas, my go-to Fedko gimmick was the cheerleader skits. With every game I covered, I always looked for new ways to get fans and students involved in the coverage of the game, because I knew it was how John did it; because “Skylights” became one of the measuring sticks for how high school football is presented.
“High school football is a part of western Pennsylvania that is critical to the fabric and the history of the city,” Fedko said. And he helped to cultivate that into a large facet of the local media landscape every fall.
It took creativity, energy, foresight — and frankly, guts — to do some of the things John did, like incorporating North Allegheny athletic director Bob Bozzuto or a shout-out to a local priest in every show.
It was because of John Fedko that we learned to be careful when you’re carrying an abnormally-large stack of boxes. You never know when some lunatic might come out of nowhere to collide with you and send everything flying.
Then there were the school visits, the skits and the crowd-surfing. Part of the allure of “Skylights” was that when John Fedko was on the air, you expected the unexpected. He was a game-changer long before spread formations and up-tempo offenses. When “Skylights” hit its peak in the 90s, there was nothing like it on television anywhere in the country.
“When I got here, I sold them on ‘Nobody’s covering high school football,'” Fedko said. “We had a general manager, John Howe at Channel 11, who was a genius. He was innovative and open to anything. He was open to failure. When you try something like ‘Skylights’ you’ve got to be open to failure.”
Friday nights in Pittsburgh will never be the same because of the man who became high school football’s voice for at least two generations and one of the most unique voices this business has ever seen.
“I’ve had my run here, and I’m absolutely okay with fading into oblivion,” Fedko said. “God has been really good to me. I’m in a really good part of my life here. I have a lot of things that I’m really involved with now that I love.”
During my short time working with him at TribLive Radio, John always left the studio offering the same adulation: “You’re the greatest!”
No, John. You are the greatest. And just in case you ever decide to come back to high school football, we’ll leave the Friday night lights on just for you.