By John Goralski
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.”
Southington wasn’t able to get back to that level the following year, but the 6-5 record in Thomson’s senior season finally broke the Blue Knight drought with its first back-to-back winning season in 10 years and ushered in a new era of winning that has continued through the present. With success came the scouts, and it didn’t take long for Thomson to rise to the top.
The 6-foot-3 senior announced his decision to play for Syracuse University in a year that saw only three other Connecticut players recruited to a division one program.
“It’s a really tiring process. You want to talk to all the schools. I even got involved with the Ivy League schools even though they didn’t offer scholarships,” he said. “I really wanted to challenge myself to go to a division one school, and Syracuse had such a phenomenal history of football just like Southington High School did. I really wanted to be a part of that as they tried to rebuild.”
At the time, the Orangemen were at a low spot with nine losing records over the last 15 seasons and just two bowl appearances in 20 years, so Thomson was the perfect fit. Once again, he would be instrumental as a team returned to prominence.
He worked his way into the lineup as a freshman and Syracuse rallied to an 11-0 regular season and a tie against Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. As a sophomore, he worked himself into the lineup as a situational defender. The team rallied to a 10-2 record and beat Louisiana State University in the Hall of Fame Bowl.
Thomson wasn’t a star yet, but he earned a varsity letter in both seasons.
“I played behind an All-American, Markus Paul, but I was able to get enough playing time to letter all four years,” he said. “That doesn’t happen too much up there. I remember subbing in for him in my first two years. I was on all the special teams, and that was pretty exciting.”
Once again, Thomson’s junior season was the breakout year. In 1989, Thomson finished fourth on the team with 80 tackles and his seven interceptions were ranked 10th nationally. Syracuse rallied to an 8-4 record and a one point victory over Georgia in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day. Thomson was named as a UPI All-America Honorable Mention and was a District II Academic All-American.
Suddenly, he was thrust into the spotlight with postgame interviews and magazine covers, but the Southington native took it all in stride. He spent his mornings in class, his afternoons working out in the weight room and the practice field, and his evenings watching films and going to study hall.
“I think that your first couple of years sort of preps you for it. You see the other guys going through it, and you learn from them,” he said. “There is so much game preparation at that level that people don’t really understand it. We were working six days a week in the off-season. During the regular season, you’re working seven days a week.”
It didn’t take long for Thomson to rise to the top. He was the defensive captain as a senior, and he was the one responsible for calling out the checks and formations in a sophisticated defensive scheme. He didn’t match his interception total from his junior season, but he collected 79 tackles to help lead the team to a 7-4 record and another bowl appearance. Thomson graduated as the first Orangeman to compete in four consecutive bowl games.
“With all of our great teams at Syracuse, nobody had ever been to four bowls in consecutive years,” he said. “Back when they had Jim Brown, there weren’t all those smaller bowls. We were the first class to go four consecutive years. We went 3-0-1. We only had that one tie in my sophomore year. We capped it off by beating Arizona, 28-0, in the Aloha Bowl, and that was pretty special.”
With his dominance at Syracuse, it was no surprise that Thomson was recruited to many of the top senior bowl games. He played in the Japan Bowl and was crowned as the Defensive MVP in the East-West Shrine Game. Brett Favre was the offensive MVP.
“It was fun. Every four players shared a rental car for the week, and I shared my car with Brett Favre, Browning Nagle—a guy that played for the Jets—and John Flannery who played in the NFL for a long time,” he said. “It was great. I got to hang out with those guys all week.”
His performance earned him a tryout with the New England Patriots, but he was cut as a free agent at the start of the season. Rather than give up on the sport, Thomson turned to coaching. He led the University of New Haven football team to a pair of undefeated seasons before taking the helm at Bristol Central where he helped develop Tim Washington into a record setting rusher.
Thomson coached Mike Drury during his high school tenure, and that was one reason why Drury recruited his former coach to the sidelines last year when he took over the Blue Knight football program. Now Thomson has come full circle.
“One of the things that makes him such a great coach is that he has the ability to find ways to do things that are intricate but easy for a high school kid to understand,” said Drury. “He came in during the preseason of my junior year, and he installed an offense in something like three days. It was so intricate, and we had a 3,000 yard rusher. All the blocking schemes and everything were put in over just three days, and that was incredible.”
With his ability to lead as a player and a coach, Thomson was an easy choice for the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee. He will be inducted during a ceremony at the Aqua Turf on Thursday, Nov. 8. For tickets, contact Jim Verderame, (860) 628-7335.
“It’s just a great honor to be listed along with all those names,” said Thomson. “Growing up, I always heard about guys like Andy Meade. I played with his kid, and I always heard about what a great player he was. Then, when you look at all those other guys selected, it was such an honor.”
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@southington observer.com.