Blitzing Bobby; Rob Thomson was hard to stop in high school, college, and coaching

By John Goralski

Sports Writer

It’s hard to believe, but the Blue Knights had gone almost a full decade without back-to-back winning seasons when coaches welcomed the sophomore class in 1983. That didn’t escape the notice of coaches as they surveyed  prospects during a preseason drill.

Suddenly, a deafening crash echoed across the field, and former assistant coach Brian Stranieri still remembers his shock to see Rob Thomson hovering over a fallen teammate.

“We were doing a defensive drill, and here was this skinny young man sneaking into the line to make hits,” said Stranieri. “A few minutes later, he gets a hit again. A few minutes later, he did it again. That’s when I started thinking, how does a skinny kid like that keep getting to the line?”

Southington was in transition when Thomson arrived at the high school in the mid 1980s. Memories of the storied teams of the 40s and the 50s were beginning to fade, and the small, blue collar town was expanding by leaps and bounds. Practice fields were disappearing with housing developments taking their place.

Thomson wasn’t about to go quietly.

“Rob had a drive right from that first day in preseason camp. He was the consummate student-athlete. He was great at academics, a great athlete, and a great human being,” said Stranieri. “When I look back at the student-athletes we’ve had over the last 30 years at Southington High School, Rob Thomson is one of the best.”

That doesn’t come as a surprise to his teammates. Few players have matched Thomson’s success at any level, and success seemed to follow him right from the start. His midget teams won at Memorial Park. He led a string of hard-hitting squads at DePaolo Junior High School as the quarterback and the one leading the blitz. Other players switched sports with the changing of the season, but Thomson’s focus never strayed far from the gridiron.

“I think it was a lot different than it is today. We just seemed to play the three main sports—football, basketball, and baseball,” he said. “When I got older there was track, but my focus was always football. The other sports were really just something to do in the off-season to help me train. Football was always my primary sport.”

It didn’t take long for the lanky sophomore to earn his spot in the starting lineup, and by the end of his sophomore season Thomson was already an important part of an emerging defensive unit. The team struggled to a 3-6-1 record, but Thomson knew that they’d already turned the corner.

“It was almost all seniors on offense and all underclassmen on defense. I was a sophomore, but we had a lot of juniors on that defensive group,” he said. “That really set the stage for our defense in my junior year. We all sort of went both ways that year, and we had a very, very dominant defense.”

It didn’t take long for the press to start making comparisons to Southington’s storied teams of the past. The Knights opened the season with shutouts over Rockville, Bulkeley, Fermi, Newington, and Bristol Eastern. No previous team had been able to collect three straight shutouts at the start of a season, but Thomson’s defense started with five. With a 27-6 win over Maloney in week six, Southington moved into the No. 1 ranking in the state polls.

Once again, Thomson was the starting quarterback. Once again, he was the one leading the defensive blitz.

“We were very aggressive, and we blitzed a lot. We put a lot of pressure on teams. We had a pretty good secondary, so we were able to man-up teams to send the pressure,” he said. “We had good speed, and guys just flew around to the football. It was fun. We created a lot of turnovers and sacks, and we weren’t on the field too long, either.”

Then, just as fast as it started, it all came crashing to a halt. In a match-up against Bristol Central, Thomson was twisted up on an offensive play. He ran up the middle on a quarterback sneak, fell back on his hand, and left the game with a dislocated and fractured wrist. At the time, Thomson accounted for 50 percent of the team’s offense, and the Knights never recovered from the loss.

Southington held on for the win against Bristol. They overwhelmed a pair of lesser opponents to finish the season with a perfect 10-0 record, but they were outlasted by Glastonbury in the state championship game.

“You never know what the outcome would be, but I’ve often wondered if we would have won if Rob Thomson was able to play defensive back that day,” said Stranieri. “He was always in on the tackle. If anybody got past our front seven, I was always confident that Rob would make the play. I think we could have won.”

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