Pat Vella, 89, was one of USC’s biggest fans

Special to The StateDecember 20, 2013 

Decades from 1940 to the present were represented by former athletes during the Homecoming halftime show of the Gamecock's game against Mississippi State Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia. Here, Clarence Sanders and Pat Vella represented the 1940's.

TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com

When the roll of the most ardent University of South Carolina fans is called, Pat Vella surely will be among the most prominent.

Vella, who died Wednesday at age 89, last missed a home football game in 1946. For those keeping score, he kept the faith during the administrations of 12 presidents of the United States — from Truman to Obama — and, more important to him, during the reign of 11 Carolina head coaches, from Enright to Spurrier.

“He didn’t play a whole lot,” USC historian Don Barton remembered Friday, “but he loved the University and always will rank with its greatest supporters.”

Vella, a native of Rockford, Ill., had an outstanding high school sports career and came to Columbia on a football scholarship after service in World War II. He arrived in 1946 and never left, operating businesses on Knox Abbott Drive in Cayce that evolved from Vella’s Open Air Market to Vella’s Shopping Center to Vella’s Deli to today’s Vella’s Restaurant and Tavern.

“He was a great guy,” said Marjorie Fusci, widow of former Carolina star Dom Fusci, who was Vella’s college roommate. “Dom thought the world of him, and we had some great times together.”

Marjorie and Dom would double-date with Vella and Joan, his first wife who is deceased, and Marjorie said, “We had a lot of fun. Pat has always been a great friend.”

Cy Szakacsi, a multi-sport USC athlete in the late 1940s who became a legendary high school basketball coach, called Vella “a real outgoing guy, happy-go-lucky. You couldn’t help but like him. He’s one of those people that I can honestly say that I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about.”

Vella, Fusci, Szakacsi and Bill Rutledge became — and remained — fast friends mainly, Szakacsi said with a laugh, “because we were all Yankees.”

“The shocking thing about Pat’s death is I had talked to him and Rose the day before he died,” Szakacsi said. “We stayed close all through the years.”

Some of Vella’s greatest contributions to the Gamecocks came from his friendship with the late Steve Wadiak, who set rushing records at Carolina. Since both came from the Chicago area, coach Rex Enright sent Vella to the train station to meet Wadiak, and the pair formed a fast friendship.

“Pat and Wadiak became a tandem,” Barton said.

Vella loved to talk about how Wadiak opened the coach’s eyes with dazzling runs in scrimmages and would say Enright asked him, “Where has that guy been?”

Vella has been honored as a legendary fan and is a past president of the USC Letterman’s Association. Marjorie Fusci remembered his service as a volunteer to coordinate the Lettermen’s Lounge during football games. And, of course, he and Rose, his second wife, renewed acquaintances at the Lettermen’s Lounge before and after football games.

He remained a fan until the very end, too. Marjorie Fusci said he passed away after attending Tuesday night’s South Carolina-Manhattan basketball game.

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