SR: Joe what made you decide to be a Bulldog?
JF: I tell you what. I am originally from Ohio. I went to VMI on a football and basketball scholarship. The coach there was Slick Morton. After my first semester, Slick Morton got the head coaching job at Mississippi State. He wanted me to come down and visit and look at things to see if I wanted to transfer schools.
I wasn’t happy at VMI. It was a military school and it had all the hazing and things like that. I went home after the semester and then I went down to see him at Mississippi State. While I was down there, I enrolled in school. I never did go back home.
SR: You won a lot of awards throughout your career and we will talk about those shortly, but are there any special memories that standout from your college days?
JF: One of the games when we played Tennessee would be one. It was my senior year and Tennessee was national champs. We played them and we had one heck of a ball game. I was playing both ways at the time. I think we beat them 6 or 7 to nothing. After the game General Neyland, who was their head coach, was looking for me. I was thinking,” Aw heck, what’s the problem going to be?”
He found me and he grabbed me and he said,” Joe, I have enjoyed coaching against you and you are one of the greatest players we have ever played against since I have been at Tennessee.”
Editor’s note: The 1950 Tennessee Volunteer football team went 11-1 and was recognized as National Champions by nearly every major media outlet. The lone blemish on the Tennessee schedule that year was a 7-0 loss at Scott field to Mississippi State.
SR: People who have stadiums named after them generally don’t offer false praise.
JF: (Laughs) That’s right. That talk with him was one of my greatest memories.
SR: After you left MSU you went on to play for the Bears, where you had a great career. There aren’t many players that can compare their football resume with yours.
JF: I played fourteen years with the Bears. I was second team All-Pro three times and first team All-Pro three times, so six times I was an All-Pro. I was also the defensive captain of the Bears my last three or four years. I then coached two years with the Bears. I coached linebackers one year and then I was defensive coordinator the next.
I went to the Pro Bowl five times. In 1963, I was voted as the defensive captain of the Pro Bowl, Johnny Unitas was the offensive captain and Vince Lombardi was the coach. Up the that time I believe I was the first player from the Chicago Bears to be elected defensive captain of the Pro Bowl.
There’s one more thing I want to tell you and I am not bragging.
SR: Brag all you want Joe. I love it. You’ve certainly earned it.
JF: When they picked the greatest three-hundred players in the history of the National Football League a couple of years ago, I was one of them. In the 90 years of Chicago Bear football they selected me as one of the seven all-time greatest linebackers. Mike Singletary, Dick Butkus, Bill George, Larry Morris, (Otis) Wilson and one more I can’t remember got picked.
Last season I was voted the SEC Legend of the Year for Mississippi State. We went to Atlanta to receive that award at the championship game.
SR: You played in an era when they say only real men played football.
JF: That’s right and I will tell you I played in every game for thirteen years except for one. I started and played in every game, but one. I pulled a hamstring and got held out of a game against the 49ers. That was in my tenth year and it was the only game I ever missed. I never wanted to lay out. I was always afraid that someone else might look better than me and take my job. (Laughs)
SR: How closely do you follow MSU today?
JF: I have been following Mississippi State ever since I got out of school. I do everything I can for them. I love to make a game or two. I don’t get up there as much as I want to. I stay in touch with some of the players I played with. We have been to just about every one of the reunions in the past five or six years. I enjoy Mississippi State.
Mississippi State saved me. I come from a little town and my family was real poor and I didn’t have much. If it wasn’t for Mississippi State I would have probably never got a college education or played football or played pro football or anything like that. I owe everything I have to Mississippi State. I am not saying that just because you are taking this down, but I mean that. That is the truth of the matter.
They were so good to me down there. That was the first time I had ever even been away from home. I had never been away from home until I went to Mississippi State. I went to VMI first and then to Mississippi State. They took care of me and were nice to me. I had to work for everything I got. They didn’t give me anything. Well, we had a great training table and I got all the food I wanted to eat.(Laughs) That was the most important thing at the time. Money didn’t mean anything to me at the time as long as I had something to eat and something to put on my back.
SR: What are your impressions of Mississippi State football today?
JF: I think they are on the right track. I really do. I was with Coach Croom and had the chance to talk to him. I think he is doing the right thing. The players that want to play he is keeping them and the players that don’t want to go to class he is not letting them stay on scholarship. I think that is what he should do.
Your education comes first and football is helping you get that education. You better get an education because most of the time now you have to have an education to get a job. Mississippi State gave me my chance in life.
Joe and his wife are retired and as he said he never went home. Fortunato lives in south Mississippi and spends his time fishing and signing autographs. Joe claims he gets more requests for autographs now than he ever did as a player. Joe Fortunato is a true MSU Legend.