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Gino Marchetti, Football Hall of Famer and hamburger giant, dies

Despite his football achievements, he is probably better known in Philadelphia for helping start the Gino's hamburger chain.

Gino Marchetti, defensive end for the Baltimore Colts, in July 1961.
Gino Marchetti, defensive end for the Baltimore Colts, in July 1961.Read moreAP

Gino Marchetti, 93, the rugged Pro Football Hall of Famer who lent his money and his first name to a drive-in hamburger chain that for a time in the 1960s was more popular than McDonald’s in the Philadelphia area, died Monday at Paoli Hospital.

“I kissed him, and he knew me and smiled. That was Gino’s way of saying goodbye,” Joan Marchetti, his wife of 41 years, told the Baltimore Sun.

A relentless defensive end throughout the Baltimore Colts’ glory days, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Mr. Marchetti was the son of Italian immigrants. Born in West Virginia, he grew up in Northern California. At 18, he enlisted for World War II and served as an Army machine-gunner during the Battle of the Bulge.

“The first time I ever saw snow, I slept in it,” Mr. Marchetti once said of his wartime experience.

After a year at Modesto Junior College, he enrolled at the University of San Francisco. There, playing for future Eagles coach Joe Kuharich on a team that included fellow future Hall of Famer Ollie Mattson, Mr. Marchetti led the Dons to an undefeated 1951 season.

Though invited, San Francisco, with Mr. Marchetti among the loudest objectors, refused to go to the Orange Bowl after its African American players were told they couldn’t participate.

Selected in the second round of the 1952 NFL draft by the New York Yankees, who soon afterward became the Dallas Texans and in 1953 the Baltimore Colts, the hard-charging Mr. Marchetti revolutionized his position. A nine-time All-Pro first-teamer, he was, according to Sports Illustrated in 2016, “a blend of size, quickness and agility that would be embodied by Deacon Jones … Reggie White … J.J. Watt.”

While sacks weren’t recorded during his 13-year career, one postseason film review of the team’s games by Colts officials determined that he had 43 sacks in 12 regular-season games.

His Colts won an NFL title in 1958’s “Greatest Game Ever Played,” during which Mr. Marchetti shattered his right ankle. He watched the rest of that win over the New York Giants on the Yankee Stadium sideline and was back in uniform when Baltimore repeated in 1959.

“He’s the greatest player in football,” Rams coach Sid Gillman once said. “It’s a waste of time to run around this guy’s end. It’s a lost play.”

Despite his football achievements, Mr. Marchetti is probably better known in Philadelphia for a business investment. In 1958, using the $4,674 he’d earned in the championship game, Mr. Marchetti started a hamburger chain along with teammate Alan Ameche and others.

By 1969, Gino’s had 100 locations in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey, and in Philadelphia at least was the most popular of the 15-cent hamburger chains. By 1972, there were 330 locations and Gino’s had expanded into Virginia. In 1982, when the then-King of Prussia-based company was purchased by Marriott International for $48 million, the total had grown to 359.

Marriott converted 184 Gino’s into Roy Rogers restaurants and closed the rest, the last one in 1986 in Dundalk, Md.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, Gino’s drive-ins were popular weekend hangouts for Philadelphia-area teenagers, who were drawn there in part by the chain’s ubiquitous TV and radio jingle, “Everybody goes to Gino’s ‘cause Gino’s is the place to go.”

The Gino Giant burgers, which ads called a “Banquet in a Bun,” were a prototype for McDonald’s Big Macs. Muhammad Ali once sang their praises in a TV commercial. In the 1970s, Mr. Marchetti’s company acquired the mid-Atlantic rights to Kentucky Fried Chicken and added it to menus.

In 2009, Mr. Marchetti tried to bring back Gino’s as a more upscale burger joint, but despite opening a drive-in across from the King of Prussia Mall, the venture failed.

In retirement, Mr. Marchetti lived in Wayne and elsewhere on the Main Line. He had a summer home in Cape May, a 38-foot yacht, and a motorcycle.

Funeral arrangements were pending.