James Ricca; 'Mammoth' Lineman for Redskins

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

James "Big Jim" Ricca, 79, a gargantuan lineman who played both ways for the Washington Redskins in the early 1950s and who later founded an Arlington-based advertising agency, died Feb. 11 at Inova Fairfax Hospital after a brain aneurysm. He lived in Sterling.

Undrafted when he graduated from Georgetown University in 1951, Mr. Ricca signed with the Washington Redskins as a free agent. The Washington Post reported at the time that he was the largest rookie the team had ever signed.

He would be considered small by current NFL standards, but at 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds, he was "mammoth," newspaper sports pages regularly noted. The Post once wrote that he "gives the impression of something from outer space when he pulls on his helmet and shoulder pads."

Normally a middle guard on defense, he was quick and agile enough to shift into a linebacker position on some plays. In a game against the New York Giants in 1954, he scored two touchdowns off recovered fumbles, one of them a 43-yard ramble. Penalties nullified both plays.

The Post also noted that he sold insurance in the offseason, a necessity for a family man whose highest annual salary with the Redskins was $8,000. He also sold used cars for Tom's Chevrolet in Wheaton.

A son described him as "a gentle giant," although he could get riled. After a 1952 loss to the Giants, he and teammate Paul Lipscomb, a lineman almost as big as Mr. Ricca, got into a fight in the locker room over who was to blame for the team's fourth-period collapse the day before. Mr. Ricca ended up with a gash on his chin that required seven stitches to close. "The usually good-natured Ricca said, 'Aw, it's all in a day's work,' " The Post reported.

After playing four seasons with the Redskins, Mr. Ricca was traded to the Detroit Lions, where he was praised as a successor to the Lions' Les Bingaman, called by The Post "the frightening 300-pound middle guard who called it quits after last season." Mr. Ricca told The Post that he was elated about the trade. "It's like -- well, it's like a ballplayer being traded from the Washington Senators to the New York Yankees," he said.

Mr. Ricca played only six games with the defending Western Conference champions. After a loss to San Francisco, Detroit's volatile head coach, Raymond J. "Buddy" Parker, went into a tirade aboard the team plane, blaming the newcomer, Mr. Ricca, for the team's problems. Traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, he played one season before retiring in 1956.

James Emmanuel Ricca, a Brooklyn native, was born in a car on Long Island, arriving unexpectedly while his parents were taking a country drive. Born with one blue eye and one brown, he was totally blind in the brown eye until multiple surgeries gave him minimal sight. The blindness kept him from serving in the military but not from boxing and playing football in high school.

After graduating from Brooklyn's Boys High School (now Boys and Girls High School), he enrolled at Georgetown University and remains the last Hoya to have played in the NFL.

At the end of his football career, he became a radio host for WINX-AM, with the Washington area's first sports-talk show. He also sold cars at Rockmont Chevrolet in Rockville.

In 1968, he opened Jim Ricca & Associates Advertising, with automotive executive Robert M. Rosenthal as a partner and Rosenthal Chevrolet as his first account.

"I do all the creative, all the buying, go to all the client meetings, handle radio, TV, print, all the production, casting and writing. I enjoy working," Mr. Ricca told The Post in 1980. "The secret to my success has been my ability to provide personal service."

He stayed involved with football. He was an assistant coach at St. John's College High School and the Landon School and was head coach for Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Wheaton. For 20 years, he was president of the Redskins Alumni Association, when the organization was involved in a number of charitable activities. He was a founding member of the Catholic Youth Organization in Washington and enjoyed supporting the athletic exploits of his children and grandchildren.

He retired from the advertising agency in 2000.

His marriage to Mary Haley Ricca ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 20 years, Linda Woolfenden Ricca of Sterling; four children from his first marriage, John Ricca and Lorrie Ricca, both of Poolesville, Chris Ricca of Grasonville, Md., and Jody Steiber of Bethesda; two stepdaughters from his second marriage, Lisa Brewer of Ashburn and Melanie Otto of Sterling; a brother; 19 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company