Joseph Francis Fortunato Jr.

Published 12:01 am Thursday, November 9, 2017

March 28, 1930 – Nov. 6, 2017


NATCHEZ — Services for Joseph Francis Fortunato Jr., 87, of Natchez, who died peacefully at his home Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, will be 11 a.m. today at St. Mary Basilica with the Rev. David O’Connor officiating.

Email newsletter signup

Burial will follow at the Natchez City Cemetery under the direction of Laird Funeral Home.

Visitation will be from 10 a.m. until time today at the church.

Joseph Francis Fortunato Jr. was born March 28, 1930, in Mingo Junction, Ohio.

He graduated from Mingo Junction High School in 1948. He lettered in football, basketball and track three years. He made all Eastern Ohio and voted Most Valuable Defensive Player in Ohio-West Virginia All-Star game.

Recruited by several colleges, Joe went to Virginia Military Institute (VMI) one semester. Coach Slick Morton left VMI and accepted the head coach job at Mississippi State and recruited Joe to come to Starkville and play football for the Bulldogs. He attended Mississippi State from January 1949 until January 1953, where he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in education. He was all SEC defense in 1951, All South defense in 1951, All American defense in 1951, Alternate Captain of team in 1952 and played and was the defensive captain of the Senior Bowl, and played in the East-West Shrine Game.

He served in the U. S. Army from 1953 to 1955. The 1953 and 1954 teams won the post champion. In 1954, he was the head coach for the Army Football team.

He was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1953, and served two years in the U.S. Army. He played for legendary coach George Halas, Chicago Bears from 1955 to 1968. He made All Pro first team in 1963, 1964 and 1965. He was All Pro second team in 1962.  He played in the Pro Bowl in 1959, 1963, 1964, 1965 and 1966. In 1966, he was voted Defensive Captain Pro-Bowl Team. In 1963 to 1967, Defensive Captain of the Chicago Bears. He started every game except one with the Bears. In 1967, he was player coach and in 1968 he was an assistant defensive coordinator for the Bears.

Joe was voted to the Hall of Fame Upper Ohio Valley and Mississippi State Hall of Fame, Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, Italian American Hall of Fame (Chicago), All-time National Football League (NFL) team of Mississippi, and selected as one of the top 300 players in history of NFL. In 1963, he was selected as Pro Athlete of the Year in Chicago. He was selected to the All Pro squad of the 1950s, and second team all-pro of the 1960s. He is on Soldier Field wall in the 1960s decade team. He was honored by Mississippi State University in 2005, with the Distinguished American Award and served as honorary captain of the home game.  He was also selected by Mississippi State University as the SEC Legend of the Year in 2005, being honored on the field at halftime of the championship game. In August 2007, he was inducted to OVAC Hall of Fame. In 1999, he received the SGMA Heroes Award for the state of Mississippi, for the outstanding contribution to the sports community. He also received the Distinguished Service Award, Junior Chamber of Commerce. He was selected as Natchezian of the year by the

Chamber of Commerce. On Nov. 4, 2007, Mingo Junction, Ohio, honored him with a key to the city, a sign entering town- Home of Joe Fortunato, and named a highway after him. In 2017, he was also selected to be in the Ring of Honor at Mississippi State.

He served on the following commissions: Chairman of the Natchez Adams County Port Commission, board member of the Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the Natchez Adams County Economic Community Development Authority, Advisory Board of the Britton and Koontz First National Bank,  served on the “Ahead” highway committee for Mississippi Department of Transportation, board of directors and past president of the Confederate Oil Invitational, past president of the Miss-Lou Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. He was the founder of the Joe Fortunato Celebrity Golf Classic. The tournament proceeds provide funds to the seven area high schools scholar athletes scholarships from the Miss-Lou Chapter NFFCHOF. He helped with youth sports activities. He served on numerous charitable organizations and fundraisers. He was founding member of Krewe of Phoenix, Mardi Gras. He served as grand marshall of the Krewe of Alpheus Parade. Joe was a member of St. Mary Basilica in Natchez.

He started a business with a partner in 1969. He was co-owner of Big Joe Oil Company, Big Joe Operating Company, Big Joe Real Estate and other business ventures being successful due to working hard.

Joe has set up a scholarship at Mississippi State University to be given each year to a deserving student and a scholarship in Mingo Junction.

Joe was a very good man, always wanting to help. He did a lot of things no one knew about.

Joe stated a number of times that Mississippi State University saved his life. It gave him an education and the opportunity to play college football and then to the NFL which opened doors for him.

He was preceded in death by his father, Joseph Francis Fortunato Sr. and his mother, Irene Laguna Caputo; his stepfather, Stanley Caputo; one sister, Teresa Caputo; and his first wife, Mary Joy “Noonie” Fortunato.

Survivors include his wife, Catherine Stringer Fortunato; one son, Mike Fortunato and wife, Lyn; two daughters, Sallie Fortunato and husband, Don Langley, and Anna Payne and husband, Brett; two stepsons, Jason Stringer and wife, Marlo, and Damon Stringer; grandchildren, Robby Robertson, Logan Payne, Nicholas Stringer, Bowen and Seeley Cate Stringer and Courtney Fortunato; one great- granddaughter, Marilyn Sibley; one brother, Butch Caputo and wife, Linda; one sister, Annette Sunderman and husband, Wallace; and a number of nieces and nephews.

Pallbearers will be Jason Stringer, Damon Stringer, Brett Payne, Robby Robertson, Pat Biglane and Jerome Smith.

Honorary pallbearers will be Tony Byrne, Doug Madison, Bruce Kuehnle, Keith Champion, Greg Champion and Bruce Laird.

A special thanks to Deaconess Home Health, Dr. L. England and his staff and a special thanks to our caregivers, Kita Smith, Jerome Smith and Jayden, Terry Bernard, Charles Crossgrove, Johnny Mae Johnson, Robin Scott and Charlotte Payne.

Memorials may be made to the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund;; 8770 W. Bryn Mawr, Suite 1300, Chicago, IL 60631; Mississippi State University Fortunato Family Scholarship Fund or to a charity of choice.

Online condolences may be sent to