By JOHN GORALSKI
Pete Mongillo tucked the game ball to his chest and sat in silence as his fellow captain stared down the team on the bus.
Southington High School football was riding a two-year winning streak when Mongillo took the helm as co-captain in the fall of 1965, but the sting of a preseason loss hung in the air the whole way home. The football he received for his efforts in the four-team scrimmage lay like a lead weight in his lap. Mongillo sat in silence wondering what to do.
“You could have heard a pin drop on that bus,” said former Blue Knight football coach Joe Orsene. “When we got back to the high school, Pete yelled to everyone, ‘Get back in the locker room.’ I was in the office, and I could hear the captains lay into them. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I knew that we were going to have a good team.”
Nobody knows what was said in that locker room, but when the team filed out, Mongillo’s game ball was taped up over the door as a reminder. By midseason, coaches un-taped the ball and started using it for practice. After all, Mongillo had no use for the meaningless individual trophy. He was only worried about protecting the team’s winning streak.
“Sure, I got a football, but we didn’t get the win,” he said. “A win is more important than all of those laurels. It was a reminder, and we had it up there for the first six or seven games.”
For those that knew Mongillo as a teammate, this is just one of many examples of his commitment to his team. Linemen are cut from different cloth. They shun the spotlight, battle in the trenches, and celebrate everyone else’s success. And they do it willingly.
“If I had guys like him every year, I could have coached for another 100 years. I’ll tell you that,” said Orsene. “The best thing I can say about him was that he was a great leader. He knew how to keep everyone else in line, and we were better because of him.”
Mongillo didn’t set out to carry the Knights to a three-year undefeated streak that has yet to be duplicated. He just wanted to play sports.
As a boy, he grew up in pick-up games on his family’s homestead on North Summit Street in the days before it was connected to Mill Street. The fields were his playground, and the neighborhood kids were his teammates. In elementary school, he moved to Meriden Avenue where he competed against a whole new crop of local kids.
He’d change his sports with the seasons, shifting from backyard football contests to baseball games in empty fields. In the winters he’d bundle up, grab a shovel, and clear the ice at local schools for half-court basketball games in mittens and boots.
“We didn’t organize our play times,” he said. “The younger kids learned from the older kids. We’d have to shag the balls. We’d have to carry the bats and balls. We’d play in right field, but we’d play for hours and hours. It was the only game in town.”
By the time he reached junior high school, Mongillo’s neighborhood baseball teams were battling the four local Little League teams…and winning. As an athlete, he was holding his own during intramural basketball games at Lincoln Lewis School and the local YMCA. His stories of pick-up games are littered with names of local sports stars and hall of fame coaches that prepared him for that fateful day, as a sophomore, when Coach Orsene shuffled him into a varsity game.
“I was very fortunate to get in as a sophomore,” he said. “Tommy Taylor—his father owned Taylor’s Market down in Plantsville—got injured in the first game. It was the first play. Coach stuck me in, and that was it. From there, I became a starter. I think I was the only one in our class that got a letter as a sophomore.”
Playing as a sophomore under Orsene was no easy feat. Southington ran an offense built on an off-balanced line, and Mongillo’s position was the linchpin that held it all together. The right side tackle had to open holes and contain the blitz as Southington pounded the ball up the middle. Ball carriers danced behind him, waiting for Mongillo to open up some space, and Southington’s success would hinge on his work as they clawed down the field one play at a time.
“He wasn’t that tall. I’m guessing that you would have to stretch him to 5’10”, and he weighed, maybe, 200 pounds,” said Orsene. “But he was a very intelligent ball player. Pete was quick. I don’t know what else I could say about him. He always did his job, and that was it.”
Few teams could handle Mongillo’s line. Southington overwhelmed Newington, 36-0, on opening day and swept past Bristol Eastern, 20-7, to erase memories of the preseason scrimmage. When Southington upended Pulaski High School, 22-6, newspapers took notice.
Southington out-scored opponents 282-87 on their way to a 9-0 record. Mongillo was one of two Southington players to be named to the 11-man Class A all-state roster. The other was future NFL running back Vinny Clements.
“We ran an unbalanced line, and it was surprising how the other teams couldn’t compensate,” Mongillo said. “We were right-oriented because most of our kids were right handed, and we’d dive, dive, dive. Then, we’d run Vinny on the sweep. We would wear those other teams out by the third quarter.”
That 1965 season was the last undefeated year in Southington’s streak. After Mongillo’s graduation, the Knights went 7-2 the following season. The 33-game undefeated streak (32-0-1) still stands as the longest in school history, and Orsene credits Mongillo for being instrumental in the storied run.
“The next year, Pete was one of only two guys that we lost off the team,” said Orsene. “We even got back our tight end that couldn’t play the year before. We were loaded with ball players, but we missed Pete’s leadership. It probably should have been our best team, but we ended up with two losses. Pete was a good football player, but the best thing about him was his leadership.”
Mongillo shrugs off the accolades. He still seems to be in awe as he talks about his teammates, his coaches, and the opposing players. He lists their names and accomplishments as if he was rifling through a rolodex. When asked about his own abilities, Mongillo doesn’t flinch. In his three seasons at Southington High School and his one year in college, his teams never lost a gridiron game. That’s the only stat that seems to matter.
“I never lost a game. We went three years without losing, but I played with a lot of great ball players,” he said. “We were hard-working, but we had a lot of fun. Everyone was in misery together, but we couldn’t wait for game days. We played some good opponents, and the games were the easy part.”
As the wins piled up, so did the interest from local scouts. Letters began to pile up on Mongillo’s kitchen table. College boosters began to show up on the sidelines. Mongillo started receiving offers from big schools, little schools, state schools, and private schools. At one point, legendary football coach Lou Holtz was standing in his living room, making a pitch for the Southington lineman.
“I started hearing from them during my junior year,” he said. “It was informal. There were a lot of boosters stopping by, and that’s how I got hooked up with Amherst. There was a lawyer up in Hartford that got me involved. They invited me up, and Jim Ostendarp who played for the NY Giants was the coach.”
But winning wasn’t the only thing that mattered, either, and college could wait. Mongillo threw himself into every season at the high school. When he didn’t make the varsity high school basketball team, he became active in the intramural program. When he didn’t make the baseball team, he served as statistician. Not wanting to just sit on the sidelines, he went out for track and contributed in the shot put and discus.
“I lettered, but I wasn’t outstanding,” he said. “My heart still belonged to the baseball field, but I did track because my coaches told me that it was the best thing for me.”
Once again, his contributions went far beyond any stats.
“He didn’t have it in track, as far as a lot of skill,” said former Blue Knight track coach Wayne Nakoneczny. “He wasn’t loud. He wasn’t boisterous or fooling around. He was quiet, but he was a real team guy. And he worked hard.”
After graduation, Mongillo picked right up at Amherst in the fall. He worked his way into the starting lineup of the freshman team, and rose to the level of captain. In the off-season, he continued to throw himself into sports, competing on the Amherst wrestling team in the winter and the rugby team in the spring.
But the grueling pace finally caught up to the Southington big man by the end of his freshman year. His battered body had finally had enough punishment, and doctors informed him that his playing days were over after four arthroscopic procedures to his knees and a litany of other ailments—any one of which would have stopped most players.
“They would drain my knees, and they would fill right back up,” he said. “I ended up with back surgery because of a lumbar disc. I ended up with neck surgery. I dislocated my elbow in wrestling, and I still have bone chips in my elbow. I even had rotator cuff problems, so I couldn’t play baseball any more. The doctors told me that I wasn’t going to be playing organized sports any more. It hurt, but you learn to accept it.”
Unable to play organized sports any more, Mongillo threw himself into coaching. He was a director and coach for Meriden’s t-ball league before returning to his hometown. In the 1980s and early 1990s, he coached in most of Southington’s youth leagues from midget football, to Little League and parks and recreation basketball.
In 1995, he earned a chance to coach at St. Paul Catholic High School in Bristol when the school was trying to build its athletic presence. He coached St. Paul’s junior high school softball and girls volleyball programs for the first two years of their existence before moving up to the high school as an assistant coach for the first years of varsity softball and volleyball.
“I loved to work with the kids. They are the greatest thing in the world,” he said. “We worked the kids hard, and they practiced hard. I coached some excellent kids.”
With his efforts on the field, behind the scenes, and on the sidelines, it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named Mongillo as a member of the Class of 2015. But Mongillo still tries to share that award with his teammates.
“I wouldn’t be getting inducted into this hall of fame if it wasn’t for the players I played with. My name might be there, but I’m representing all my teammates. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, but the rest of the team was really good. That’s why we excelled,” he said. “I feel really honored, and I’m kind of humbled.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 11, Mongillo will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville. To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9640.
To comment on this story or to contact Observer editor John Goralski, email him at email@example.com.