Dynastic Duo: Second-generation gridder John Ricca, with third-generation Keith
Dynastic Duo: Second-generation gridder John Ricca, with third-generation Keith Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Keith Ricca is the best quarterback the Catholic University has ever had. He’s thrown for 875 yards and 10 touchdowns in just the last two weeks and has now smashed every major career passing record for the school.

All the Catholic U. records used to belong to his oldest brother, Kevin Ricca, who started at QB for the Cardinals from 1994 to 1997.

Catholic hosts Bridgewater this weekend. It’s the home team’s last regular season game. A win puts Catholic at 9–1 and into the NCAA Division III playoffs. A loss likely means the season’s over.

But Ricca, a 6-foot-5, 216-pound senior, will have more than the team’s future riding on his back. Because when Catholic’s 2008 season ends, so does a family tradition: Guys named Ricca have been playing for and starring on local high school and college teams for three generations and 60 years.

There are no more Riccas ready to suit up.

“I’m the last guy,” says Ricca. “There’s nobody behind me. Saturdays have always meant football day for my family. I know I’m not ready for it to end. I don’t think any of us are.”

“There’s nobody in the Ricca pipeline,” adds Keith’s dad, John Ricca, an all-American during his playing days at Georgetown Prep in the 1960s and early 1970s and now an assistant coach at Catholic. “No more tailgates. I don’t know what everybody’s going to do next week, or next year. But it looks like this is it.”

The Ricca dynasty started in 1948 at Georgetown University, where “Big” Jim Ricca starred as a lineman.

He took a year off from football while finishing up his foreign service degree, but he got back in the game when the Redskins offered him a job in 1951.

His nickname wasn’t ironic. At 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds, he was hailed as the hugest rookie the Skins had ever signed and the second biggest player in the entire NFL.

Big Jim, who died last year at 79, remains the last Georgetown player to play in the NFL. (The Hoyas’ pro drought probably would have ended this season, had Alex Buzbee, a former Georgetown defensive end, not blown out a knee in training camp.)

He became one of the most popular guys on the team, known as much for his aggressive play—some called it dirty—as his big frame.

During Big Jim’s run here, local newspapers did a lot of reporting on his first son, “Johnny” Ricca, born in 1952. The baby weighed 21 pounds when he was four months old, and 38 pounds when he was 21 months old. While chronicling his growth, the Washington Post also came close to predicting the youngster’s future, saying he was “growing up in a football playing family” and that “in 20 years, the Redskins tackle situation should be greatly improved.”

The Redskins weren’t in the cards, but the kid did in fact stay in the family business. John Ricca grew up to be one of the best athletes Georgetown Prep ever produced, making All-American teams in football and all-conference squads in basketball. And after a solid college career at Duke, Ricca, who back then played defensive end at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, was drafted by the New York Jets.

But he opted to shun the NFL and instead signed with the Washington Ambassadors, of the new World Football League, which debuted in 1974. “I wanted to play in my hometown,” John Ricca tells me.

Ricca was punished for his loyalty: Two weeks after Ricca signed his contract, the Ambassadors moved to Virginia, then folded before ever playing a game. All of the players and coaches were transferred to the Florida Blazers, a team based in Orlando that itself folded after a year. Ricca then tried latching on with the Jets and Chicago Bears, but the NFL blacklisted most WFL players, so who knows if he was given a fair shake.

He came back to D.C. and started a coaching career, and, just as he had been raised, began raising his own sons (three boys out of six kids) to play football.

“In our family,” says John Ricca, “we’re not academians, but we’re pretty good at sports.”

All three third-generation Ricca ballers grew up to be quarterbacks. Kevin, the oldest by several years, starred at St. John’s College High School, where his father was head coach from 1987 to 2001, before enrolling at Catholic. Kevin left the school as the best QB in Cardinals history, and, along the way, became his little brothers’ role model.

“I used to get so worked up before every game that I had a routine to calm me down, where I’d play catch with [middle brother] J.D. and Keith on the sidelines,” says Kevin, now 33.

“We thought Kevin was the greatest football player ever,” recalls Keith, 11 years his junior. “Some of the best times I ever had came watching Kevin play with my whole family at the games. He wasn’t just our big brother—he was our hero, and J.D. and me wanted to grow up to be just like him.”

In a lot of ways, J.D. and Keith did just that.

J.D. QB’d for his father on the St. John’s varsity squad, then became the starter at Hampden-Sydney College, a liberal-arts school outside Richmond. He was twice named Virginia College Division player of the year and set the records for career passing yards, touchdown passes, and completions. All those marks were broken this season by Keith Ricca.

When John Ricca left St. John’s College High and took the head coaching job at St. John’s Prospect Hall, a prep school near Frederick, Keith followed him and became a four-year starter at QB there.

When it came time to pick a college, he didn’t listen to anybody’s offer but Catholic’s.

“I wanted to be like my big brother,” Keith says.

Kevin says he’s gotten as many thrills watching his little brother break his old records as he got setting them. “It’s been amazing,” he says. “And I tell Keith that as long as they just put ‘K. Ricca’ in the record book, people won’t know if it’s him or me anyway.”

And every game Keith’s played at Catholic has come before a huge contingent of Riccas. In 2005, family loyalties were tested when Hampden-Sydney, an Old Dominion Athletic Conference rival, came to Catholic, QB’d by freshman Keith Ricca.

In the only Ricca vs. Ricca matchup in family history, Keith threw for more yards and TD’s, but J.D.’s squad triumphed.

“That was still the highlight for me,” says Keith. “How many kids get to start at quarterback against their brother, who’s also a quarterback? And in front of our whole family and so many friends? It was an amazing day.”

The biggest Ricca reunion ever should come this weekend, on senior day at Catholic.

“Everybody I’ve ever met in my life will be there,” laughs Keith. “The last game, the last family tailgate. It’s going to be real emotional, real weird for everybody. All of us know that this is something that has been so special to us coming to an end.”

“I tell you this: I’m going to wear my sunglasses real tight on Saturday, because I’m going to be a mess,” says Kevin. “It’s not just about football for us, it’s about family. I grew up looking at pictures of my grandfather in a leather helmet. My whole life, we’re a family that meets at the football field. I’m going to have to sneak down to the sidelines and ask Keith to throw to me to calm me down, just like I did with him when he was little.”

Kevin, who married four months ago, is the only Ricca son to get hitched so far. He says that, given the family history, his dad has dropped surprisingly few hints that he’s eager for his offspring to get working on the next generation of football-playing Riccas.

“With all the football players we’ve gotten so far in this family,” Kevin says with a laugh, “I’ll probably have a damn cello player.”