USC great ‘Little Tony’ Boselli approaches Football Hall of Fame heaven with ‘Big Tony’
Big Tony and Little Tony, that’s what everyone called them.
The nicknames seemed a bit silly as “Little” Tony Boselli sprouted and didn’t stop growing, rounding into the best left tackle in college football when he was at USC, then the No. 2 overall draft pick who became a 6-foot-7, 335-pound fixture for the Jacksonville Jaguars and — as of Saturday — that club’s only player enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Meanwhile, Big Tony was 6 feet, 185 pounds — Little Tony passed him at age 13 — yet loomed as large as anyone in his son’s life.
“He was a great dad,” Little Tony said. “He was involved in all the right ways. He was not the Little League dad who was trying to convince the coach, yelling at the coach or anything like that. But he went to every game and was just super supportive, and he’d only give you a critique if you asked for it.”
Big Tony was a self-made man, working his way up from a McDonald’s manager to store owner to someone who owned nearly two dozen of the franchises in Colorado before selling them with the intent to retire. Those dreams of drifting gently into the sunset of his life didn’t last long.
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A month after settling his business to his daughter in the summer of 2020, he was diagnosed with stage-four melanoma that had metastasized into his liver, lungs and brain. He was 71.
Four years in a row his son had been inching closer and closer to Canton but in the selection process ahead of four Super Bowls, the fateful Hall of Fame knock never came. His dad rode that emotional roller coaster with him, the joy of reaching the finals, the hope that this would be the year, and the disappointment of falling just short.
Never was that heartbreak more acute than in early 2021 when — with the clock ticking down on his dad’s life — Boselli was turned away once more.
“When I got the call that I didn’t make the Hall of Fame again, in my fifth year, I remember it was a different emotion,” he said. “The first thought that came to mind was, my dad probably isn’t going to make it through the year. And so if I do make it next year, he won’t be here.
“He was at a point where the treatment wasn’t working. We were hoping for the best. We were hoping for a miracle, but that was the first thing that went through my mind.”
Tony Boselli Sr. died May 31 of that year, having moved from Jacksonville back to Colorado to spend his last few days in his home state. He saw his son’s injury-shortened but spectacular career — seven seasons, five Pro Bowls, three All-Pro selections — but wouldn’t be there for the bronze bust.
“The thing about my dad was, he was always available,” said the younger Boselli, who grew up in Boulder. “We would play pickup basketball during basketball season almost every day when he got home from work.
“During football season, we’d be in the back yard throwing it, playing touch football with my friends or siblings. It was year-round. Then during the summers, we spent all day every day at the reservoir because we had a ski boat. My dad was always about family.”
That’s what made it so tough in January when Boselli got the word he’d finally made it into the Hall of Fame. He could share the moment and the joy with everyone but Big Tony. It was both beautiful and bittersweet.
His friends and family planned a reception for him at USC’s Heritage Hall. People flew in from all over. Teammates from college and the pros were there. Former Trojans coach John Robinson was there. Family galore. There was food and drinks.
“I’ve coached three Hall of Fame linemen — Anthony Munoz, Jackie Slater and Tony Boselli,” said Robinson, who coached both USC and the Rams. “They were all kind of equal in terms of the potential they had. Tony had marvelous size, speed, balance and he was a mean SOB.”
After the celebratory dinner, they lowered the lights. His wife, Angi, had a highlight video made of his career.
“So this video starts playing and she and the Jaguars had gone through and gotten a bunch of people I’d played with and ex-coaches, and they were all saying nice things about me,” Boselli said. “Some of my friends were making fun of me and telling jokes.”
And then …
“All of a sudden, at the very last video, my dad pops up on the screen,” he said. “At this point, I had no idea they had videoed him. And there’s my dad. And he starts talking about me and how proud he is of me.”
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Angi, who met her future husband when they were at USC together, had the foresight to interview her father-in-law for the day Boselli eventually would get to Canton.
“I’m sitting there and I couldn’t watch it,” Boselli said. “I just put my head in my hands. I heard probably 10% of it. I was just blown away that my wife and good friends had thought to do this. And there’s this video of my dad.”
As of this week, he could not bring himself to watch the video. He plans to Friday night, in private, on the eve of his induction.
“My family jokes with me that they’ve never seen me cry,” Boselli said. “I’m not a super emotional person. But I knew I couldn’t watch that video, and if I was asked to talk, I wouldn’t be able to get through it. I just remember being overwhelmed.
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“The one thing I remember hearing him say was how proud he was of me. And for a son to hear that from your dad, I mean, what else do you need? Outside of, `I love you.’ It’s like, check those boxes, I’m good. It doesn’t really matter, anything else.”
Boselli doesn’t typically wear a watch, but he’ll be wearing one of his dad’s favorite watches when he delivers his speech Saturday. He figures he’ll build up a head of steam early in the talk — inductees are limited to eight minutes — before thanking his family near the end.
“I had to give my dad’s eulogy when he died,” he said. “That was probably the hardest thing I ever had to do. I only had to stop once. I got choked up a number of times, but there was only once that I really had to pause because I wasn’t going to get through it without just falling apart. So I’ll take my time. I’ll take it slow and try to keep my composure.”
It’s a big task. Little Tony is up to it.
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