All in the family; John Fontana’s legacy goes well beyond the wins

By John Goralski

Sports Writer

John Fontana voice caught in his throat as he began to talk about his first heart surgery and the overwhelming helplessness he felt as he scanned through channels on his tv. But a loud knocking at his front door drew his attention, and he craned his neck to see who was coming to visit.

Carl Pavano stepped into the room.

Just a few hours earlier the former Blue Knight was pitching on a Florida mound, yet here he was in the living room of his high school coach. Fontana’s eyes welled up as he recalled that day.

“His mother told him that I was sick, so he flew up,” Fontana said. “He stayed with me for two and a half hours, and we talked baseball. Then, he had to hurry back to the airport for a 5:00 flight. People can talk about Pavano all they want. He was great to me.”

He’s gruff. He’s opinionated, and he’s stern. He’s been criticized, battled, and revered. Critics have charged that the former Blue Knight was only concerned about winning, but his players tell a different story. Record books are filled with his many accomplishments on the field, but it’s the ones that happened behind closed doors that Fontana cherishes the most.

When asked about his legacy, Fontana shrugged off his winning record. He waved off his state titles, honors, and designations. Fontana pointed to a small array of photographs that line the wall of his basement of former players dressed in college uniforms. Others are draped in major league attire. Not a single one of them is wearing the familiar blue and white Southington dress.

It’s what they did after graduation that Fontana is most proud about. In his 41-year career, Fontana secured scholarships for 192 Southington players. In 1991, he watched seven former Knights competing in college world series games. Former players like Rob Dibble and Carl Pavano have become household names, but Fontana points out that 17 of his Knights went on to compete in the professional ranks with four advancing to the major league level.

“That lets me know that we did something right,” he said. “I know that there are people out there that think that I would have done anything for a win, but I hope that there are people that will remember me as a guy that cared about my kids—all of them. Did I have some guys that were upset with me? Yeah, but I hope the majority of them think that I was there to make them better as men. We tried to stress the right things to do, and that was more important than the victories.”

Mike Lantiere worked as an unpaid assistant to Fontana for almost half his career, and he said that Southington’s success at the next level was no surprise. Nobody worked harder to promote their kids. Fontana spent every spring stuffing almost 300 Blue Knight programs into envelopes to distribute to colleges across the nation. Each spring, he orchestrated trips to Florida Southern University to showcase Southington’s young talent.

“He did it all just so the kids had a chance to play in other areas. I think it helped give our kids the perspective of looking at other schools. They didn’t only have to go to school in Connecticut. They could go down South or somewhere else,” said Lantiere. “We used to draw coaches from colleges in the area like Florida Southern, Tampa, and others. They’d come to watch us practice and talk about some of his players. Even some professional scouts would come out to see people like Carl Pavano and Rob Dibble. He gave the kids a great opportunity to show what they had. Immeasurable good was done, and it was all for the kids.”

Behind the scenes he’d work his magic, and it didn’t matter if it was his player or not. Coaches would call for help. Parents would seek him out, and opponents would call him up between seasons.

“People didn’t know that he spent just as much time with kids that weren’t his players, particularly with girls softball,” said Lantiere. “All you had to do was go to him and ask for help. He had contacts everywhere. He even helped my daughter to get into college to play softball. If you were an athlete, he knew somebody that you could talk to. I don’t care what your sport was, he could find somebody to take a look at you. Then, you had to prove yourself, but that’s okay.”

“John has connections all over the country. He knows everybody. I mean everybody,” said Jim Senich, former sports writer and editor at The Southington Observer. “He could call any school, and they’d listen to him. He had connections with major league scouts. He knows every reporter from around the state. He knows their home phone numbers. He knows their extensions, and he’s always on good terms. Everybody knew about Southington. In New London, they knew about Southington. In Greenwich, they knew about Southington. He was an expert, and he’s still going today like nuts.”

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