Sisto Joseph Averno Sr., a guard who played on the Baltimore Colts in the 1950s and went on to sell Chevrolets for 57 years, died of complications from Parkinson's disease Monday at Northwest Hospital. He was 86 and lived in Pikesville.
Born in Paterson, N.J., he was the son of Roberto Averno and Elvira Isabella Salerno. While a student at Paterson High School, he played football and was scouted by colleges.
He won athletic scholarships, but he forged a birth certificate so he could enlist in the Navy during World War II. He was assigned to the South Pacific and served as a gunner's mate aboard a destroyer.
"He never spoke of any gruesome experience there," said his son, Sisto J. Averno Jr. of Owings Mills. "He talked about the funny things that happened at that time. That was his nature."
He found that his scholarships would still be valid after the war. He had two, at the University of Maryland and at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., which he ultimately selected because it was closer to his home. He earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy and was later inducted into the Muhlenberg College Athletic Hall of Fame.
After college he was drafted by the Colts and came to Maryland.
"The first time I saw Sisto was at the Colts training camp at Westminster," said fellow player Art Donovan. "There wasn't even enough equipment to go around. Guys kept leaving, and after a week, we made the team. We became great, longtime friends."
Mr. Donovan recalled their time playing: "He was a tough guy. He made the team just being tough. He was a guard and played defense and offense. He made less money than anybody on the team, $4,000 a year. He was so serious it could be funny, saying things like 'We gotta do this' and 'We gotta do that.'"
Mr. Averno played professional football with the Baltimore Colts in 1950, 1953 and 1954. In between, he played with the 1951 New York Yanks football team and the 1952 Dallas Texans.
"He was a sturdy, dependable interior lineman who didn't get much recognition at the time," said Vince Bagli, the former WBAL-TV sportscaster who lives in Carroll County. "Years later, that whole bunch of original Colts bonded together in a friendship. They were loyal to each other."
Mr. Averno remained a loyal Colt alumnus and attended all games.
His son said he almost never heard his father curse. "One night, I heard his cussing out loud. He was watching television and heard that [Colts owner Robert] Irsay had pulled out of Maryland," he said.
His son said his father was initially reluctant to become a Ravens fan, but he became a "die-hard" follower of the team.
Mr. Averno had another career. For 57 years, he worked six days a week with the Luby and Fox Chevrolet dealerships in Baltimore.
"He believed in Chevrolets only. And he was honest. He told people to get out, go to other dealers and get their price — and come back to" him, said his daughter, Dina Averno of Pikesville. "People kept coming back and coming back. His book of sales referrals was 5 inches thick, with 50 names on each page."
She said her father retired about 10 years ago. "People are still coming up to me and telling me they bought a car from him," she said. "He lived his whole life for his family, his wife and his kids."
A Mass of Christian burial will be held at 10 a.m. Monday at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, 65 Sacred Heart Lane, Glyndon, where he was a member.
In addition to his son and daughter, survivors include his wife of 61 years, the former Margaret E. Meredith; two other daughters, Kimberly Noppenberger of Taneytown and Gia Muth of Las Vegas; a sister, Dolores Tullo of Paterson, N.J.; and seven grandchildren.