Mike Malatino’s nose, like the rest of his body, wasn’t very big, but he sure could sniff out the football.
In one semi-pro game for the Glove Cities Colonials, played at Bishop Scully High School in 1977, he made five interceptions against the Rotterdam Eagles. He ended up with 13 picks that year, and his ability to force turnovers was one of the reasons the 66-year-old Johnstown High School graduate will be inducted into the American Football Association National Hall of Fame this week at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
“He was all over the field,” praised former Colonials’ teammate and coach Clayt Sitterly, an outside linebacker who got to see Malatino make key defensive plays for nearly a decade. “He was a smart player and a good defensive back. He was always a gamer. He wasn’t very big, but he was able to roll-tackle very well, and he stayed in shape.”
Rick Sager, who played for the Colonials from 1977 through 2000 and also served as the team’s head coach in 2000, helped Malatino get inducted by pulling all the old statistics together to back his nomination.
“I was Mike’s backup in the old days,” Sager said. “When he was out there, he made it look so easy. He was able to read what was going to happen before it happened. He was a natural. He is also the humblest guy I ever met.”
Malatino, 5-foot-9 and just 145 pounds, played an almost unbelievable 23 years for the Colonials, who competed most of those years in the Empire Football League, and also played in the Eastern Football League and the North American Football League.
He was elected to the team’s Hall of Fame in 1998. Among his noteworthy accomplishments with the Glove Cities franchise were three defensive MVP awards, three Most Dedicated Player awards, five league all-star laurels and one selection to the All-Minors Team in 1980.
Malatino played more than 220 games and was the team captain 10 times. During his playing years, the Colonials compiled a 131-95 record. He led the league in interceptions twice and finished with 75 picks for his career. He also made more than 600 tackles.
“I played for the team beginning in 1968 and then played through the 1970s,” Malatino recalled. “I also played well into the 1980s. When I heard that [former NFL QB/kicker] George Blanda played in four decades, I came back to play again in 1990 and 1991 and was a player/coach in 1992.”
Malatino was stunned by the announcement that he was going into the AFA Hall of Fame.
“My wife knew about it for more than a year before I did,” he said. “I came home one night after having a few drinks with the guys, and she told me I had a call from Dave Burch of the AFA. I didn’t have any idea what was going on. I was in shock, and I still haven’t fully grasped the entire idea.”
Of all the games Malatino played, two stuck out in his memory.
“I enjoyed every game,” he said. “We played teams from all over the state. But the first year we played Watertown was special. They were very good, and the first time they got off the bus, we all looked at them, and they looked like a pro team. We were small and tiny compared to them. But we ended up beating them 42-0. They didn’t expect that to happen, but they were very good sports after the game, and after that, it turned into quite a rivalry.”
The other special memory for Malatino was the time he made the five interceptions in one game.
“I knew the quarterback on the other team, and we were joking around before the game,” Malatino said. “The first pass he threw, I caught it. He tried to throw it away three more times during the game, and I made the interception each time. Finally, he was trying to get rid of the ball one more time late in the game. He smiled at me, and I smiled back at him. I ended up making another interception. After the game, we joked about it.”
Malatino said the camaraderie of the old semi-pro football days was something special.
“We had a lot of guys who didn’t like to lose, but it was a great time to play football. After the games, we all went out and had something to eat and a few drinks. Even the opposing team came along. I remember the first time we beat the Brooklyn team, and we asked them to follow us after the game. They were surprised, but they came along anyway.”
Even some of the fiercest rivalries — like the Johnstown vs. Gloversville football rivalry — were softened when all the area players got together to play for the Colonials.
“When I first started to play, we had 6 or 7 guys from Johnstown, maybe 6 from Gloversville, some from Amsterdam and another 3-4 guys from Canajoharie,” Malatino said. “We were all one team. One of the best things to come out of those days were all the friendships. We still keep in touch with some of our opponents.”
Malatino hopes that more of his teammates will get inducted into the AFA Hall of Fame, because he said playing semi-pro football was one of the best things he ever did.
“It was fun. It was a great social outlet. I enjoyed playing defense, and I enjoyed hitting people, even though I wasn’t a very big guy,” he said. “It was a different era back then. We would get 4,500 people to watch our games sometimes here at Knox Field, and we even had rooter buses so when we went on the road, we had just as many fans as the home team did. The whole community was involved back then.”
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