By JOHN GORALSKI
Cheshire’s linemen pulled to their right, and Southington’s defense shifted to meet them, but that was exactly what the Rams wanted. In the fall of 1961 the “belly trap” was the nuclear option in Cheshire’s arsenal, and Southington’s defense couldn’t help but take the bait.
Southington’s linebackers took the quarterback’s cue as he circled to the outside of the offensive line. Southington’s secondary zeroed in on the fullback as he seemed to carry the football into the fray.
So the halfback must have been smiling like a Cheshire cat when he broke against the grain…until he saw Gerry LaMontagne waiting patiently like a concrete barrier on a one-lane country road.
“I’m going to tell you, from the center to the end, they didn’t make a yard. Not with Gerry there,” said former Southington High School football coach Joe Orsene. “He just hit…and slid. He didn’t get trapped once, and he stopped that whole side. He just played an amazing game.”
That’s what coaches had come to expect from their all-star tackle. LaMontagne battled in the trenches like a chess master in a kindergarten competition. He was never fooled, and the 6-foot-2, 235 pound lineman saw you coming from a mile away.
It looked easy, but it came from an almost superhuman work ethic and discipline.
“I don’t think you can be successful in football unless you work really hard. In any sport that’s true,” said LaMontagne. “You won’t get good at it unless you work really hard, and I always tried to do the best I could.”
LaMontagne wasn’t bred to be a football star. He didn’t compete in youth sports, and he didn’t grow up playing on Southington fields. He moved to town as a seventh grader, and he showed up for tryouts the following fall.
“I was a pretty good sized guy, and they needed players,” he said. “I gave it a shot, and I took to it. I enjoyed playing, so I just stayed with it.”
Even when a bone chip sidelined him for a year, it didn’t stop his resolve. By his sophomore season, LaMontagne had earned a spot in the varsity lineup, and he was just warming up.
His success wasn’t limited to the gridiron, either. When baseball tryouts didn’t work out for him in the spring, coaches urged him to go out for track and field. As soon as he picked up the shot put, LaMontagne was the man to beat. And he soon became a consistent scorer in discus and javelin.
Once again, he made it look easy. Once again, it was a result of hard work between competitions.
“Often times, we would be the last people off the field,” he said. “Everyone had gone home, but we were still out there, throwing the shot put.”
Even between seasons, LaMontagne worked on his craft. He found a stone that was just a little bigger than the shot put, and he made a circle just off his driveway. There, he would practice and practice, bothering nobody…except his family dog.
“All summer long, I was out there throwing the rock because I didn’t have a shot put,” he said with a laugh. “One time, I went to get the rock because it flew over the dog house, and there was my dog shaking like a leaf. It didn’t dawn on me, but I was throwing it in his direction the whole time.”
The dog was never injured, and the hard work paid off. As a junior, LaMontagne set the school record in the shot put. As a senior, he broke the record again. LaMontagne medaled at the state championship meet, and he qualified for the 1962 New England championship in Maine.
“That’s the best thing about sports,” he said. “It teaches you to respect your opponent for what he can do versus what he looks like or what he says. It teaches you that, if you’re going to succeed, you have to really work for it.”
It was the same thinking that set LaMontagne apart on the gridiron, and it’s there that he had the most success. Led by his blocking and defense, Southington scrambled for 8-1 records during his junior and senior seasons.
Southington earned the CIAC Merit Award in 1960 and 1961, which was the first time that Southington’s football team captured back-to-back state titles.
A 44-6 win over Plainville in LaMontagne’s final Thanksgiving game kicked off Southington’s 33-game undefeated streak that still stands as the program’s longest stretch without a loss. LaMontagne was at the center of the meteoric rise, so it wasn’t surprising when the CIAC named him to the 1961 all-state roster, which opened the floodgates for college scouts.
“Quite frankly, it surprised me. I didn’t expect it,” he said. “Being named all-state was a shocker for me. I think that’s what probably generated a lot of those calls and a lot of that interest.”
Air Force scouts pestered LaMontagne so badly that Orsene said he had to step in to stop them. LaMontagne was recruited by Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Brown. Everyone seemed to want a shot at Southington’s all-star tackle.
Orsene still loves to tell the story about an Ivy League recruiter that scoffed at LaMontagne’s grades during a visit to the high school.
“Gerry was a bright fellow, obviously, but the Ivy League is tough to get into,” Orsene said. “He looked at his scores, and he said that he didn’t think he had the grades to make it.”
Orsene didn’t argue. He just asked if the scout would like to see some game films since he had already made the long trip to Southington.
“I pulled out the Cheshire game,” said the coach. “Suddenly, he goes, ‘Joe, I think he may be smart enough to get in.’ Gerry was that good.”
With his pick of the litter in the Ivy League, LaMontagne began a tour of the northeast. It was love at first sight when he showed up at Dartmouth.
LaMontagne hit the ground running. On opening day, he was in the starting lineup on the freshman team, but he was just getting started. He took advantage of the challenge system, taking on varsity players for a chance to take their position.
It didn’t take long before LaMontagne began appearing on the varsity field.
“In his freshman year, they were undefeated under (Bob) Blackman,” Orsene said. “I think it was during the Yale game. They were undefeated and in a goal-line stance. Gerry, from what I understood, was on the tackle that won the game.”
By the start of his sophomore season, LaMontagne was a big part of the varsity game plan and a big key to every opponent’s scouting report. By his junior season, LaMontagne was a crucial player on both sides of the ball, but in one terrible moment it all came to a crushing end.
“I relive this play in my mind so many times because it affected me later on in life,” he said. “I was pulling down the line, and the guy who was playing across from me came cutting in front of me to cut the play off. He landed on my foot and pinned it to the ground.”
LaMontagne never fully recovered from the fractured leg and neither did Dartmouth. During his college career, Dartmouth was king of the Ivy League, winning conference titles in 1962, 1963, and 1965.
What happened to Dartmouth’s dynasty in 1964? Why didn’t they win another Ivy League title? Why was there a one-year gap between undefeated seasons? Well, for one thing, LaMontagne was injured.
“The assistant coach told me that when they lost Gerry, they lost the team,” said Orsene. “They had a good team, but when Gerry went down that was it.”
That’s why it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named LaMontagne as a member of the Class of 2017. On Wednesday, Nov. 8, he will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
“I always thought of myself as a decent athlete, but this was a surprise,” he said. “I always worked hard and never took anything for granted, but I’ve known so many really, really good athletes in my lifetime. This really came as a surprise to me.”
It was no surprise to Southington sports fans.
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9460, ext. 104.
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.