Follow the Lleader; Joe Llodra went from the O-line to the sideline

by John Goralski

Sports Writer

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.”

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