By John Goralski
Tom Kirkland centered himself over the football in 1954 like a con artist with a handful of gullible tourists. Now you see it. Now you don’t. Kirkland’s snap would disappear into a swirl of Southington players.
The offensive line charged forward. The quarterback swept out to the flanks behind an all-state guard, while a pair of banzai running backs charged into the center of the defense. Receivers swept to all corners of the field waiting for their all-state passer to unleash his cannon.
Running plays and passing plays looked the same. Every player seemed to be carrying the football as he charged into the defense, and by the time that the defense figured things out…the official was already signaling the score.
This was the way that Coach Jay Fontana envisioned the single wing offense when he brought it to the Southington High School gridiron, but this was the team that perfected it. They could run. They could pass. They kick and play defense. Maybe that was the real reason why the storied coach decided to retire at the end of the 1954 season. Fontana knew that it couldn’t be done any better.
“There was deception to it, and with the quality of guys that we had, if the outside wasn’t working the inside would open up,” said Ray Thorpe, one of three all-state athletes in Southington’s arsenal. “We had options because we had the ability to run and throw. If the block was in front of you, you’d take off and run. If the offensive line would break down, we had Jerry Clements out there so we were able to throw the ball.”
Teams never knew what hit them.
“The caliber of players on that team was just outstanding,” said Andy Meade, the team’s junior quarterback. “As far as I’m concerned, there wasn’t a weak link anywhere. We had tremendous running backs. Ray Thorpe did a tremendous job passing. Jerry Clements and our ends were outstanding pass catchers. It was just a combination of all the guys with Jay Fontana, Walt Lozoski, and the rest of our coaching staff. They were determined. They worked us hard, and it paid off.”
Nowadays, Southington High School is always in the conversation amongst the larger schools in the state, but the town looked much differently in the mid-1950s when the Knights were scrambling through programs two and three times their size. Southington was a small blue-collar community with big lineman and a precision attack. Even the city school coaches screened their calls when they filled out their calendars. Nobody wanted to add the “Fontanamen” to their schedule.
“One of Fontana’s motivations for retiring was because he had such a hard time finding teams to play us because we had such a find tradition,” said Thorpe. “We had to play up, but we didn’t pay that much attention to it at the time. We just went about and did our jobs. I can remember going out to warm up, and he didn’t want us even looking at the other team because they always had more guys. And some of them were bigger than us.”
Southington set out to fight for the little guys with a schedule that included a pair of Class A schools, a list of perennial powers, and two open dates. At early practices the coach barely had enough players to field both an offense and a defense, and he used it as motivation with the press. With fewer than two dozen players at early practices, the coach warned reporters that the program was in jeopardy.
He even argued that the team might have to abandon a varsity schedule and adopt an intramural schedule if things didn’t change quickly.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he told reporters at the Southington News in early September. “The boys we have are good, and I’m not worried about our first team. But I want depth—got to have it. We’ve got to have it to carry us through a season.”
On opening day the joke was finally revealed, and Southington steamrolled East Haven, 32-13. Thorpe went 8-for-11 with a pair of touchdown passes. Joe “Bronco” Palmieri and Thorpe rushed in for scores. Clements caught a pair of touchdown passes. Walt Zakrewski returned an interception for a score, and Meade completed a pair of extra-point conversions. As it turned out, Southington was just getting started.
“We had a passing attack and a real running game with Corky Cassella and [Mel] Terry,” said Thorpe. “We had great runners like Bronco Palmieri. We had a tremendous passing game, running game, and defense. We had guys like Joe Llodra on the line. We had Clements and other guys that just dominated.”
Each week, the team found different ways to score.
Cassella scored twice in week two and added a pair of extra point conversions as Southington cruised past Woodrow Wilson, 47-7. Six different players scored and another four scores were called back by penalties as Southington began a four-game home stand that carried them past Darien and Milford Prep. It culminated in Southington’s first Class A opponent, a 40-7 win over Torrington in late October that pushed Southington into the second spot in the state rankings.
“It was talked about all over the place,” said Meade. “I look back on it now, and it was such a good experience. Every game that we played, the place was sold out. Everywhere we went, we had a big following. Even when we went out of town, everybody came with us.”
The wins kept coming. Palmieri kick-started November with three scores in a 32-6 win over Staples. Thorpe ran into the end zone twice in the following game, passed for two more, and scored a 105-yard interception return and six extra points during a 60-12 rout against Plainville.
Then came Thanksgiving Day, and Southington rushed for 156 yards and passed for 106 on their way to a 46-0 shutout that ended the holiday rivalry with Meriden.
“They came over with a big team. When we got down to the football field, they were already warming up. They stretched from the 50 yard line to the end zone. They must have had over 70 players on the team, and we had maybe 30,” said Meade. “The place was just jammed with people, and we rolled right over them.”
The Thanksgiving game highlighted Southington’s defense and special teams as the locals scored on a blocked kick, a kickoff return, and an interception.
“One area that didn’t get enough notoriety was our defense and special teams,” said Thorpe. “I don’t know the actual numbers, but I’d say that one thing that allowed us to score as many points as we did was that our defense was so effective.”
This team was as close to perfect as any in town history. With 10 different players scoring touchdowns and five players combining for 28 extra points, it was probably Southington’s deepest group of skilled players. The team was able to survive an early injury to Cassella and a pair of serious injuries to Terry and Zakrewski to finish with 31 rushing touchdowns, 11 passing touchdowns, and six interceptions returned for scores.
In the final state poll, Southington received five first place votes but finished second to Notre Dame-West Haven. Jerry Clements (end), Joe Llodra (guard), and Ray Thorpe (back) accounted for one quarter of the all-state roster. The perfect 8-0 record was the fourth in Fontana’s career, but it might have been the best.
That has sparked a debate that has spanned the last six decades. What is the best football team in Southington’s storied history? Most historians say that it comes down to the 1949 and 1954 teams. Fontana never said publically which team was better, but it has been a favorite topic amongst players for either team.
“There’s always been a debate about which team was better. Was it the ‘49 team or the ‘54 team? That debate will go on forever,” said Cassella. “I’ve always thought that we could have beaten them, but if you ask the players on the 49 team they’d say that they would have won. I think that the true winner in that debate is Southington High School.”
Now, both teams will be recognized by the Southington Sports Hall of Fame. On Thursday, Nov. 8, the 1954 team will be inducted in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf Club in Plantsville. For tickets, contact Jim Verderame, (860) 628-7335.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@southington observer.com.