The family sprang from solid Polish stock; "not just Polish, but purebred," Klecko says. His dad was a truck driver and a triple-threat semi-pro halfback. While he never nudged his boy toward football, he would often regard him reproachfully and sort of groan out loud. The young Klecko responded by becoming more reclusive. He retreated to an uncle's garage, where he pumped gas after school and spent the rest of his time converting a '55 Chevy into a dragster.
"It was while I was campaigning that car that I began to come out of it," Klecko says. "I wasn't great—I was no Big Daddy Garlits—but that car was a brute, and drag-racing it on those quarter-mile strips took guts I didn't know I had. I had it all full of trick things—to drive it you had to fight it. I never lost in it. The day after I sold it, the guy who bought it wiped it out in his first race."
As a gesture to his dad, Klecko had made one brief run at football as a freshman at St. James High. This cameo appearance consisted of a tryout on "the plank." Says Klecko, "The coach threw down this 14-foot board, a 2-by-12. One guy would get up on each end of it. And then they would run at each other and crash head on in the middle. The guy still on the plank made the team." Klecko got up on his end of the board, but something in his silhouette, some suggestion of tenderness, infuriated the coach. "Oh, for God's sake, Klecko," he yelled. And that did it. Klecko stepped down and went back to the garage. His dad—"He was pretty mad at me"—went back to brooding.
Klecko grew three inches and added 60 pounds in the two years following the plank fiasco, and before the start of his senior year he finally came storming out of the garage and announced to his dad, "I'm gonna play some football."
This time Klecko more or less bit the plank in half, made the team and tore his way through the season, playing on the defensive line and ending up on the all-county and all-league teams. When he graduated in 1971, several colleges expressed interest. The problem was that they all proposed stashing him in a prep school until his grades matched his size.
Klecko declined. "Listen, I couldn't go through another year of Jane Eyre," he says. "And I didn't need college. I already had a good job driving a truck." Beginning in his senior year of high school, Klecko had been a construction worker, driving dump trucks, and then was hired to muscle huge tractor-trailer rigs for Robbins Motor Transportation Inc. in Eddystone, Pa. Robbins specializes in hauling heavy, ungainly stuff that other truckers won't handle. Klecko was, and during the off-season still is, a natural at wrestling the 18-wheelers. "I once fought my way across the country carrying a propeller for a supertanker," he says. "The thing weighed 130,000 pounds and was 22 feet across, wide as most roadways."
It was a hardening experience. A member of the Robbins crew recalls riding shotgun one time when Klecko jumped a long line of trucks at a refueling stop, reasoning that he was moving priority cargo, heavy equipment for a nuclear plant. "The other drivers figured, priority my fanny," the shotgunner says, "and a whole bunch of them came strolling over to kick hell out of the driver. But when Joe came climbing down out of that cab, turning his shoulders to get out through the door, they all sort of gulped and said, 'Ah, nice rig you got here, kid. Just came over to look at it.' "
This was pretty tame stuff compared to the Great Blackberry Brandy Caper. The year after Klecko graduated from high school and went into trucking full time, along came the Knights, a new semi-pro team based in Aston, a few miles from Chester. The Knights were made up of a few local former high school players and a clutch of semidisabled and definitely jaded retreads. Klecko signed on, but to protect his amateur status he 1) played for free and 2) had himself listed as one Jim Jones, whose school was the University of Poland. The University of...what? "You know," says Klecko, "good old Cracow A&M."
The sandlot players were scarred and bent and disillusioned; not all of them had teeth. The quarterback was 5'7" and played in horn-rimmed glasses. The backup quarterback didn't have a thumb on his right hand. The action was strictly down and dirty.
"If a guy missed a block," Klecko says, "he'd roll over and snap at a passing leg, trying to rip out the calf muscle. Listen, we were playing the Hagerstown Bears, and I had been beating my man on the pass rush every time. Finally he hauled off and kicked me in the groin. It almost killed me. I crawled back to our team, all doubled over, and you think I got sympathy? 'Get him, you dummy,' they said. So on the next play, I steamrolled him over backward and then drop-kicked him in the ribs. That settled that."