The Heisman Trophy represents the pinnacle of individual success in major college football and is one of the most recognizable awards in sports. The distinguished list of recipients includes three Philadelphia metro area products, Monsignor Bonner’s John Cappalletti, Woodrow Wilson (N.J.) star Mike Rozier, and Overbrook (N.J.) product Ron Dayne.
In its 76-year history, no member of the Philadelphia Public League has ever taken home college football’s most coveted prize. Frankford’s Blair Thomas was a finalist on the 1989 ballot after a very productive career at Penn State, but he lost out to Andre Ware.
Despite the lack of a Heisman winner, the Public League does have its share of football success stories on the collegiate level. Irvin Sigler, a 1994 George Washington High graduate, reached the pinnacle of individual success as a member of Bloomsburg University at the Division II level. In 1997, Sigler was awarded the Harlon Hill Trophy after a record-breaking senior campaign for the Huskies.
During his career, Sigler set or tied 29 national and school records. He rushed for a combined 3,802 yards over his junior and senior seasons and scored 45 touchdowns in that span. He ended his career as the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) all-time leading career rusher with 5,105 yards. Over his four years, he helped lead Bloomsburg to four consecutive PSAC Eastern Division titles. In winning the Harlon Hill Trophy, Division II’s Heisman equivalent, Sigler capped off a remarkable collegiate career.
Sigler, a Northeast native, first made a name for himself on the gridiron as a member of the Far Northeast Raiders youth pound ball team located at Thornton & Comly Roads in Millbrook. From there, he moved on to George Washington.
“I kind of had a good reputation from youth football before I stepped on the field as a freshman,” Sigler said recently during a phone interview. He made a good first impression on the coaches in all aspects of his game, except one. “I ran a terrible 40-yard dash time,” Sigler admitted. “Thankfully, the coaches weren’t turned off. I like to be measured once we have the pads on.”
Sigler steadily moved up the crowded running back depth chart throughout his freshman and sophomore seasons. Despite his athletic prowess as a running back, Sigler was not afraid of contact and quickly proved to coaches that he could also contribute on the defensive side of the ball.
“Washington has always had a good stable of running backs,” he said. “I wanted to get in the game and contribute wherever I could fit in. If that meant switching to the defensive side of the ball so I could get on the field, then so be it.”
Heading into his junior year, Sigler was penciled in as a major contributor, but neither he, nor his coaches, knew exactly where he would be lining up. Longtime head coach Ron Cohen wasn’t afraid to move Sigler around the field from game to game.
“Irv never complained when we shuffled him from linebacker to defensive end,” Cohen said. “He was a pleasure to coach and he did well in school.” Cohen later added, “He’s just a great kid from a great family.” That family includes mother Allison and father Ronald, a star defensive end/tight end during his playing days at Olney High.
Sigler’s junior season ended with the team capturing their second straight Public League crown, and his brand of football started to garner some collegiate recruiting interest. At first, the attention came from Philly schools like Temple and Villanova; however, the most serious looks were coming from Division II programs. And while he was recognized at season’s end as an All-Public choice at running back, Sigler also received higher honors as an All-City pick at defensive end.
“I love contact so playing defense came very natural to me,” Sigler said. “But I have to admit, I love the attention that comes with carrying the football.” Luckily for Sigler, the recruiters liked his offensive abilities, and he was recruited primarily as a running back.
Bloomsburg was Sigler’s eventual choice for a variety of reasons, and he made believers of the coaching staff right out of the gate. As a freshman in a limited role, he reeled off some impressive runs, and although he felt ready to take on more carries earlier in his career, Sigler understood the coaches’ loyalty to the upperclassmen in the program. “I respected the time the junior and senior running backs had put in to make themselves and the program better,” he said.
As a sophomore, it became increasingly difficult to keep Sigler off the field. He opened his junior season as the team’s starting tailback and never looked back, turning heads throughout the country at the Division II level. By the end of his breakout season, Sigler had earned All-American honors and was already being mentioned as a pre-season Harlon Hill candidate.
As Sigler led Bloomsburg to its fourth consecutive PSAC title during his senior season, the NFL began to take notice, as the Rams, Bills, Saints and Jets let Sigler know that they were monitoring his progress for the upcoming draft. However, there was one major obstacle in the way of his NFL dreams.
“I was picked to play in the Division II All-Star game,” he recalled. “In the week of practices leading up to the game, a makeshift scouting combine was set up to measure the players speed, strength and agility. I ran a 4.8 (second) 40-yard time (his best recorded time yet) and I think that scared a lot of teams off.” The NFL draft and corresponding rookie free agent signing period came and went without any offers. Although disappointed, Sigler kept himself in peak physical condition and weighed his other professional options. “I couldn’t watch NFL games on Sundays,” he conceded. “I knew I belonged out there on the field if someone would only give me a chance.” Despite his reticence to give up on his dream, he knew it was nearly time to turn the page on football.
At 27, Irv decided that it was time to concentrate on starting a career so that he and his wife, Sommer, could start a family. He had earned a business degree with a minor in biology while at Bloomsburg and was now looking to use his education to start the non-football portion of his life…or so he thought.
He was hired by the School District of Philadelphia as a teacher, but soon found an opportunity to get back into football, as Sigler was offered the job as head coach at Thomas FitzSimons High School in North Philadelphia. The program was just getting started and the administration was looking for an energetic young coach who could mentor the kids both on and off the field. Despite a lack of experience, Sigler accepted the position, fondly recalling his own high school coaches, “Coach Cohen and Coach Mac (assistant coach John McAneney) acted as inspirational role models for me. There is a powerful relationship that forms between coaches and players.”
Sigler enjoyed working with the kids, but multiple controversies erupted during his inaugural season in 2007. The novice coach and his program were twice investigated by the district for using ineligible players in the season’s first two months, something Sigler vehemently denied knowing about. After the second investigation (the first had resulted in placing the program on probation for the rest of the season), FitzSimons’ season was canceled and Sigler was initially banned from coaching at any school through the 2009-10 school year.
Ultimately, the school appealed the decision and Sigler defended himself before the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) later that year. The PIAA eventually reduced the school’s punishment to two years probation, and Sigler was exonerated and had his coaching privileges fully restored. He had planned to return to coaching the following season, but instead left the school because “the whole episode destroyed my motivation,” he recalled.
Now 35, Sigler is the proud father of three: Irvin III, 8; Taylor, 5; and Ronald III, 2. Still living in the Northeast, Sigler hopes once again to work with young people. He still finds his way back to his high school alma mater once or twice a year. His picture is hung prominently in the school’s weight room with the other stars that helped construct the extremely respected program that Cohen has built at Washington.
Recently, Sigler received some great, unexpected news. Bloomsburg notified him that he had been elected into the school’s Football Hall of Fame, and he will be honored at a Nov. 2 induction ceremony. “Needless to say, I was blown away,” Sigler said. “I was unprepared for the honor.”
As the induction date nears, Sigler finds himself reflecting on all the people who were instrumental in making him the person and player that allowed him to achieve so much. He reflected, “I’ve loved my coaches from youth ball through college. They’ve all helped me take advantage of my opportunities.” ••EndFragment