by John Goralski
Defenders knew that Southington would come out throwing in the mid-1950s, but nobody could stop them. Opponents knew that Southington’s runners would be circling around the off-balanced line, but no one could contain them. Southington’s opponents knew who they had to reach to stop the single-wing offense. The question was, how to do it?
Joe Llodra was always in the way. He led the rush as the pulling guard and rolled over defenseman as running backs sprinted into the open field. He battered back blitzes to free up the pass, but his name never graced a headline.
Llodra was Southington’s secret weapon.
“If he didn’t make a play, any run to the outside was not going to be successful,” said former Southington High School standout Ray Thorpe. “That pulling guard position was probably the most significant position in the single wing, especially with our unbalanced line. We always favored running to the right.”
Joe Llodra was the key to everything that happened on the field. An all-state guard on offense and defense, Llodra was the unsung hero on every single play. Southington went undefeated in 1954, and Llodra was the reason. His teammates knew it. The fans knew it, and by the end of each game the losing team would know it.
“Joe was a real leader,” said Andy Meade, the quarterback on Southington’s 1954 team. “Whether it was practice, a game, or whatever, he would just play his heart out. He was very vocal to stir the team on. It was constant. He played hard in practice and the game. He was just dominant.”
Llodra said that he fell in love with the game of football long before he arrived at the high school. He remembers scrambling through a make-shift game with his childhood friends using a potato for a ball. He dreamed of playing at the high school, and he still remembers fighting for the right to play at his very first high school practice.
“Every day Jay Fontana would open a bag and dumped a bunch of helmets out on the ground, and all the freshmen went in and started fighting for them,” he said. “There weren’t enough helmets for the freshmen, so if you got a helmet you got to play at practice that day. At the end of the day, you put it back in the bag. There was a message there. If you wanted to play, you had to be hungry.”
Llodra rarely missed a practice. By mid-season, he had worked his way into the starting lineup as a special team player. At the end of his freshman season, he had already earned his first varsity letter.
“To my knowledge, he was the only four-year letter guy at the time. He won a starting spot as a freshman, and I think that speaks volumes about him,” said Thorpe. “He was a pretty big guy, but he had a great understanding of the fundamentals. He was a tough player, and he was strong. Then, he was a smart player and a good leader.”
Llodra didn’t care what he had to do. He just wanted to play. As a sophomore he served as quarterback, a blocking position in the single wing offense. As a junior, he moved up to center because he could spiral the ball better than any blocker in the shotgun-style offense, but it was his senior season as captain and pulling guard that drew scouts to the small, blue-collar community.
At 5 foot, 10 inches and approaching 200 pounds, Llodra was the perfect size and speed for most college programs. An assistant coach from Boston University showed interest. He was contacted by alumni from Brown and Holy Cross. Llodra had never considered going to college, so the upperclassmen threw himself into freshman classes just to catch up. He attended morning and afternoon classes during Southington’s split sessions, and earned himself a scholarship to Fordham University in New York.
“Rose Hill is a neat looking campus in the middle of the Bronx. You’d never know that you were in a borough of the city, and I said that this was where I wanted to go,” he said. “Shortly after that, they dropped football. Where the heck was I supposed to go? I decided to go to UConn.”
It was a decision that changed Llodra’s life. As a sophomore, he battled his way into the starting lineup as UConn rallied for three undefeated seasons in the old Yankee Conference. Once again, Llodra blocked for the skill players. Once again, he rose past them to be named captain. Along the way, he continued to study the game of football from his perspective on the offensive line. When his playing time came to an end, Llodra wasn’t ready to walk away.
“I liked football. I loved sports, so I thought I’d become a teacher and a coach,” he said. “I thought that coaching would be a neat thing to do. It was something I liked to do. I always figured that I should do what I loved and love what I do. And I did.”
In 1960, Llodra was named as the freshman line coach at UConn under former head coach Bob Engels. Over the next five years, he coached at Southington High School, Greenwich High School, and eventually moved to Massachusetts when a head football coaching position opened up at Adams High School, but Llodra began to stretch his skills beyond the gridiron. At Greenwich, he coached the baseball team to their first and only state title. In the winters, he coached their freshman basketball team.
It didn’t matter what sports he embraced, Llodra had a knack for coaching. “It’s how you relate to people,” he said. “Whether it’s coaching or being an athletic director, if people you are working with know that you’re sincere and really care about them, you are going to have some success. IF you’re a phony baloney, people will see that.”
By the mid-1960s, Massachusetts lured the Southington native across the border. He served as head football coach at Adams High School for one season. He served as the coach at Drury High School in North Adams the following year. Soon, college coaches came calling again, and Llodra left the high school ranks to try his hand at college football.
“I really wanted to be a college coach. That way, I could spend all of my time on football. That was my love. It was the other woman in my life, but once I got up there I hated it,” he said. “You couldn’t have warm feelings for a kid that couldn’t help you to win because, if you didn’t win, you’d get fired. In my third year, I knew that something was wrong. I mean, I love football, but I hated that job. I was so unhappy that I decided to go back to high school.”
Once again, he packed up his family and returned to Massachusetts. In 1970, he was hired as the varsity coach at Chicopee Comprehensive High School, and he served with the Chicopee school system through his retirement in December 2000.
Boston Red Sox sports writer Ron Chimelis was a student at Chicopee Comp in 1970. “He came in with a tough, no-nonsense, but fair reputation that under the circumstances was very well received,” he said. “Llodra built a winning attitude at Comp and encouraged quality athletes to play the sport. In the early 1970s, he reached one high school Super Bowl and nearly another, and also defeated Chicopee High twice after Comp had lost to its cross town rival seven years in a row,”
Once again, Llodra stretched his coaching skills beyond the football field. When school officials threatened to disband the floundering swimming program, Llodra stepped in to save it.
“They were going under water. I think we only had something like three swimmers, but we knew that once you lost a program you’d never get it back,” he said. “I had them work hard, and we kept attracting other kids. We even won the division a couple of times—both the boys and the girls, and that was neat. It’s really all about the kids. They keep you young. You develop relationships, and that’s the best part about it.”
Llodra spent six years as the swimming coach at Chicopee Comp. He spent six years with the girls track team and 10 years with the football team. His reputation as a jack-of-all-trades helped open the door for Llodra’s next career—administration.
Llodra moved across town to serve as faculty manager at Chicopee High School from 1990 to 1995 and rose up to the level of athletic director for both Chicopee programs in 1995.
“The interesting part of Joe is how he changed with the times,” said Chimelis. “As years passed, he became more accepting of a different philosophy among his kids—hair length is one example that comes to mind—yet without sacrificing the values of hard work and the expectation of commitment. From an ‘old school’’ coach, he became a respected modern coach, not an easy transition to make.”
It’s no surprise that the selection committee chose Llodra for induction into the Southington’s Sports Hall of Fame.
“Once you’re a Blue Knight, you’re always a Blue Knight,” said Llodra. “It feels very good to be inducted into the hall of fame, but I’m really honored that they’re inducting the 1954 football team. That was certainly a special year in all of our lives.”
On Thursday, Nov. 8, he will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf. Llodra will be inducted for his own contributions and as a member of the 1954 football team. For tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335.
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