This Sunday evening at the Genetti Hotel, the West Branch Valley Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame will induct 12 new individuals to its membership rolls. Among those to be recognized is former South Williamsport High School and Lycoming College football standout Jason Zalonis. His selection makes the Hall of Fame a Zalonis family affair as his father, John, and brother, Brett, had previously been inducted.
“It is a tremendous honor that I never thought would be coming my way,” Jason admitted. “I watched my dad and my brother both go in, and it is really special for our family. They both deserve it a lot more than I do. It was a pleasant surprise and a great honor, and I am looking forward to it.”
Zalonis’ background highlights the deserved honor. Playing for South Williamsport, where he holds nine school records, he was a second-team all-state safety and first-team all-conference quarterback and punter in 1989, leading the Mountaineers to a state runner-up finish and its first district title. As a three-year letter winner at Lycoming College, he helped the Warriors win a MAC title and a trip to the NCAA Division III championship in 1992 when he had 34 tackles and four interceptions.
Football in the Zalonis family was a way of life, and his interest in the game began at an early age.
“It probably started since I could walk, Jason recalled. “My first bus ride was for one of my dad’s games when he was coaching at Montgomery. I was a ball boy for Bucknell when he coached there. Ever since I was a little kid, I was interested in football.”
I can still vividly recall a visit to the Zalonis home one Christmas season when the Z-brothers were young boys. Father John encouraged the pair to show me what Santa had brought them. Soon the family living room was the scene of an impromptu football game with the pigskin bouncing off walls and furniture. There were smiles all around, and surprisingly nothing was broken.
At South Williamsport, Jason was the quarterback on successful teams coached by his dad, and as he described it, “was a pretty unique experience.”
“He was often harder on Brett and me than anyone else on the team. He pushed us pretty hard. The game was a big part of our lives, and we constantly talked about it, reviewed film to break down our play and what opponents would be doing. A lot of times after games, when my teammates would be off doing other things, Dad and I would be reviewing the game film. It was tough, but it was something I wouldn’t trade.
“The friendships you made, the teammates, the camaraderie, those were the best things. It was so much more than playing in a game on a Friday night. Growing up in a small town like South Williamsport, you grew up with your friends together, played football together, and it was more like a brotherhood. Those were the greatest things for me. Lifting, running, playing with all those guys, those experiences with teammates is what I remember most.
“Brett was four years younger than me, but we were always competing like brothers do. We couldn’t pass each other in the hallway without trying to compete to see who could get down the hallway first. We’d be constantly wrestling around and tackling one another. There were lots of fights in a brotherly way.
“After Brett saw what I had gone through, he didn’t want any part of playing QB. He had played the position in Pop Warner but switched to running back and played defense in high school, where he was a much better player. Brett and I are different personalities. He is quieter and didn’t want that spotlight shining on him.
“Coming out of high school, I had opportunities to go to some Division 1 schools, but I decided to go to Lafayette with a better chance to play early. I had a good freshman year, but there were some coaching changes that changed our defensive schemes going into my sophomore year. I was recruited to play defensive back, and those changes led me to transfer. In those days, if you transferred up in NCAA classification, you had to sit out a year. If you transferred down, you were immediately eligible to play. An opportunity arose to come to Lycoming, so I decided to come back home and play.”
Zalonis credits his days as a high school QB with helping him achieve success as a defender.
“Playing those two positions is like flipping a coin and getting heads or tails. Playing QB, you had to read defenses and try to beat them. Because of the experiences I had gained as a QB, as a defensive back, I was better prepared to put myself in a position to know what the offense was trying to do. You run offenses on tendencies, and defensively you can read things quicker when you have an understanding of offensive execution. So, for me, I was better able to understand both sides of the ball.”
Jason now resides in Hummelstown and is a podiatrist practicing in Hershey. His wife, Crystal, is also a physician who has practiced at Hershey Medical Center. They are the parents of daughter Riley, a senior at Lower Dauphin High School, where she is active as an elite competitive dancer and stage actress. Son Conlan is a sophomore basketball player at Lower Dauphin.
Come Sunday night; the Zalonis trio will indeed be three Hall of Fame amigos.