LEAP of FAITH: Aluminum Athletic Equipment’s Tim Driscoll at his Royersford headquarters//Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
The past and the present line the lobby and corridors of Royersford’s Aluminum Athletic Equipment. It’s founder, John Marzucco, is honored with old photos. A framed warm-up suit memorializes his days at Penn State in the late 1920s, when he was a standout hurdler.
Marzucco’s teams bred three Olympians—and though he wasn’t one of them, he would soon produce a product of more lasting value to his sport. Inspiration came after he took a nasty spill over an old-fashioned wooden hurdle in a crucial Penn State meet.
“They were like steeplechase hurdles for horses,” says Marzucco’s nephew, Tim Driscoll. “If you hit one of them, it wasn’t forgiving.”
That’s something Marzucco certainly knew—and he figured he could do better. While in the infirmary, he began pondering the idea for a superior alternative: an aluminum rocker hurdle. He developed it in 1949, patenting it three years later.
Driscoll is carrying on his uncle’s legacy as president at AAE, a preferred vendor for the Penn Relays, which will be held April 28-30. Around the office and the plant, Driscoll is known simply as “Mr. D” or “dad.” Seven offspring or their spouses currently work at AAE. A framed family photo hangs amid Penn Relays memorabilia, including the Steinbrenner Family Heritage Award. Bestowed on the Driscolls in 2011, it recognizes multigenerational families for their support and dedication to the event.
Hosted annually by the University of Pennsylvania and now in their 122nd year, the Penn Relays are the largest and longest-running track-and-field carnival in the world. AAE has and exclusive, long-term contract to supply all of the event’s equipment. “Every competitor we have would love to have the Penn Relays,” says Driscoll, a longtime Devon resident.
In the 1950s, Penn became one of the earliest investors in Marzucco’s hurdle. At the time, Marzucco was a graduate assistant there, earning his teaching certificate after scrapping the idea of becoming an engineer or an actuary. He later moved to Penn Valley and became a coach and teacher at Lower Merion High School. He passed away in Gladwyne in 1991.
Marzucco’s coaching career began at Cheltenham High School, where his track team won a state championship. He exceeded that success at Lower Merion, winning six state track-team titles—five of them between 1945-57.
Today, AAE is still a family-held company that employs 50 people. It exhibits at 25 shows annually, and it represents and manufactures some 400 pieces of athletic equipment from its 74,000-square-foot office and plant. Driscoll describes it as a small company—“a player in his industry” that focuses on quality, not quantity. “We don’t ever want to sell junk,” he says. “Though we could make a lot more money if we did.”
As for the hurdle, everything but bending and coloring is done on-site, and the product is manufactured entirely in the U.S. “When my uncle began, he was working out of his basement,” says Driscoll. “He saw plenty, but he never saw all this. He would’ve loved it.”
His uncle sold his first 1,000 hurdles at Lower Merion track meets and to acquaintances in the sport. “He’d grab a coach before hopping on the bus and say he had something to show them in the trunk of his car,” says Driscoll. “They’d see it, and it precipitated sales.”
Now 72, Driscoll joined the company in 1964. His mother died of cancer just as he was headed to Marietta College in Ohio to play baseball and football. It wasn’t long before the Marzuccos—who were childless—took him under their wing. He attended Saint Joseph’s University, living with them and paying his first year’s tuition—$300 a semester.
By then, Marzucco had moved the company out of his basement and into six two-car garages in Ardmore. But he wouldn’t let his nephew start working until he maintained a 2.75 GPA. Driscoll’s GPA soared to 3.5. Whenever he didn’t have class, Driscoll walked or hitchhiked to Ardmore, where he began his career typing orders or prepping them for pickup. When the Royersford location opened in 2004, it was 33,000 square feet—a far cry from the early days in the basement.
John Marzucco’s self-adjusting hurdle may be the most copied piece of athletic equipment in history. It was initially built with an elaborate series of weights and pulleys. Patents last 17 years, and his expired in 1969. “Even before that, people were copying the product,” says Driscoll. “It depends how you want to spend your time and money—in court or developing new product. A patent is only worth as much as you want to spend defending it.”
The need for innovation rings true at AAE, which caters to track and field, football, soccer, field hockey, lacrosse, baseball, softball and rugby. It has supplied 7,200 schools, and it introduced the first rollaway football goal posts decades ago.
No sport, however, requires as much equipment as track and field—and there’s no track-and-field event quite like the Penn Relays. For starters, it uses 120 hurdles, 30 starting blocks, and 100 batons from AAE. During the festival, six AAE representatives serve as technical consultants, making sure the equipment works properly at all times.
“The key is that AAE is local, and they’re responsive,” says Penn Relays director Dave Johnson. “This is an event that’s of prime importance to them. It’s been an easy, comfortable working relationship. AAE supplies lots of Penn’s field equipment for a variety of sports.”
That’s also the case at Villanova University, which has relied on AAE for a decade or so. “It’s like going to a mechanic,” says Mick Keelan, associate athletic director of facilities and operations. “Once you get a guy you can trust, you want to use him. They’re a big business, but you get personal attention—and that’s phenomenal. They supply it all, even officials’ flags and staging for the top finishers.”
Villanova does between $100,000 and $500,000 a year in business with AAE, including a busy recent year when the university redid its soccer complex. It also helps that Villanova often hosts the Big East Track & Field Championships.
AAE has also pioneered revenue-enhancing equipment for the relays—sometimes gratis. Its triangular, electromagnetic digital indicator boards display the performances of individual athletes in events like the triple jump and the long jump, keeping the audience informed.
Though Driscoll was a marketing major, he shares his uncle’s mechanical aptitude. He loves product development and design. “Nothing existing on this earth is perfect, but you should strive for perfection,” he says.