OCEAN RIDGE — Former NFL player, businessman, sportscaster and philanthropist Mike Lucci died Oct. 26 following an extended illness. He was 81.
If ever there was a man for all seasons, it was Mr. Lucci, who filled his life with varied experiences and touched countless lives.
Michael Gene Lucci was born on Dec. 29, 1939, to a hardworking, closely knit Italian-American family in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, a town surrounded by steel mills. He grew up learning the importance of family and hard work.
Playing football was far from his mind until he grew to be 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds. That is when his gym teacher pointed Mike in a new direction, as a high school senior playing football for the first time in his life.
He was so successful that he earned a football scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, before transferring for his final three years to the University of Tennessee. He was named an All-American after the 1961 season and played in the College All-Star Game against the NFL champion Green Bay Packers.
He was a fifth-round draft pick, 69th selection overall, by the Cleveland Browns and made the NFL All-Rookie team in 1962. He played on the Browns’ 1964 NFL championship team before being traded to the Detroit Lions.
Mr. Lucci starred at middle linebacker for nine seasons (1965-73) for the Lions, was a team captain, Lions’ defensive MVP three times and earned All-NFL and Pro Bowl honors.
He was even a “movie star” during his football career. Mr. Lucci appeared with several of his teammates and head coach Joe Schmidt in the 1968 motion picture Paper Lion. The movie starred actor Alan Alda and chronicled author George Plimpton’s training camp “tryout” as a quarterback with the Lions in 1963.
Mr. Lucci was inducted into the Michigan, Pennsylvania and National Italian-American Sports halls of fame, as well as the Beaver County (Pennsylvania), Western Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Italian halls of fame. He served as an analyst for Lions games on WJR Radio (1976-78) and for NFL games on NBC-TV (1979-80).
Mr. Lucci became a successful businessman following his football career. He climbed the corporate ladder to become the president of Bally’s Total Fitness, which grew to more than 20,000 employees in 300 locations. He co-owned 19 Burger Kings in Michigan and Illinois, and was co-owner of Venture Contracting and Development based in Troy, Michigan.
Throughout his life, he made giving back to others a priority. Mr. Lucci raised more than $2 million for Spaulding for Children’s efforts to find permanent homes for the most hard to place children. He established an education endowment fund, as well, for Spaulding’s children.
He hosted an annual golf tournament in Florida that raised over $650,000 for Gridiron Greats, an organization led by his good friend Mike Ditka, which helps former NFL players who have fallen on hard times. Other philanthropic endeavors included support of Sparky Anderson’s CATCH Charity for Children and the St. Louis Center.
However, his most important role was as Mike Lucci, family man. He is survived by his wife of 58 years, Patricia, their two children, son Michael (Rebecca) Lucci and daughter Michelle Lucci, grandchildren Michael III and Nicholas, sister Kathy (William) Sholudko, nephew Billy Sholudko, and longtime assistant Nora Moretz. He was preceded in death by his parents, Rose and Louis Lucci.
A family interment has taken place. Donations may be made in lieu of flowers to Gridiron Greats, 350 S. Northwest Highway, Suite 300, Park Ridge, IL 60068, or at www.gridirongreats.org/donate.
— Obituary submitted by the family