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Merlo beat the odds in many games

The sixth in a series looking at the Class of 2009, scheduled for induction on Oct. 29 at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.

Even as a 100-1 underdog, Joe Merlo liked his chances.

In 1953, Merlo entered the final home game of his high school basketball career against South Park High School as a long shot for the Yale Cup scoring title. He scored 54 points -- without benefit of the three-point line -- and took the title while setting a single-game scoring record.

His career spanned the high school, collegiate and professional levels -- in five sports. Even his first trip to the bowling lanes was a stroll. As a 9-year-old he bowled a 104.

"I've had a good career," he said. "I'd do it all again. Even though my knees are shot, I'd do it again."

Merlo broke countless records at Buffalo Public School No. 52 as Athlete of the Year in basketball, softball and track. He made All-High in basketball and as a shortstop in baseball.

After graduation, Merlo was drafted and signed in 1953 by baseball's New York Giants, with whom he spent a few weeks in spring training camp alongside Willie Mays. At the urging of his father, Merlo ended his brief professional stint and enrolled at Buffalo State College.

"Spring training was a good experience," he said. "But I went to college, and I'm glad I did."

Merlo was named basketball MVP all four years and received All America and All Western New York honors. He became the first player to score more than 1,000 points in Buffalo State history and set a record of 30 straight free throws as a junior.

After graduating from Buffalo State, Merlo spent 31 years as a basketball and baseball coach, as well as teacher and administrator, at North Tonawanda High School. He remained involved with Buffalo State as the men's and women's basketball scorekeeper.

"No matter where I go, I'm known for something or I run into somebody from those days that I know," he said. "I definitely have no regrets of anything that I accomplished as far as sports."

Merlo already stands in the Lafayette High School Hall of Fame, Buffalo State College Hall of Fame and the Western New York Baseball Hall of Fame. His competing days are behind him and his accomplishments enshrined. But his penchant to play and inclination toward excellence remain.

Merlo recently played his first round of golf, albeit reluctantly.

"I keep kidding that I'm a baseball player," he said. "If I'm going to hit the ball that far, I'm not gonna go get it."

He played nine holes and shot 55.

"When I did something, I did it," he said. "I didn't browbeat. I just did it because I enjoyed doing it. If something came out of it, great. And if it didn't, it didn't."

But he figured the odds were usually in his favor.


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