Archdeacon: The Groundhog with a grip

TROTWOOD — We were sitting in the basement of his Trotwood home the other morning and — except for the incessant trumpeting of Stephen A. Smith coming from the nearby big screen TV — it felt like we were in a museum. The wood-paneled walls were covered with photos, plaques, posters, and framed newspaper articles.

In the early afternoon Tom Montgomery would head over to the Greater Dayton Rec Center at Roosevelt Commons — “the old folks center,” he called it — to play pinocle, whist or maybe dominoes and jaw with the regulars.

But for these two hours, the fabled high school coach — who lifted teams at Roosevelt, Roth and especially Dunbar to some of their greatest glories and just two weeks ago was enshrined in his seventh athletic hall of fame — would talk about some of his memorable wins and one terrible loss.

Still a solid, squat, steadfast presence at 81, he was sometimes tearful, sometimes profane — “I might use some language you can’t print,” he said with a shrug — and always engaging.

“I never lost an arm-wrestling match till I got into college,” he said with a grin as he balled his right hand into a fist so his forearm muscles showed. “I was a strong little kid.”

To help make his point, he walked over to the wall, which, along with his athletic achievement, highlighted some family history.

There was a photo of his great grandfather — who was sold as a slave — and a snapshot of his mom, who was just 13 when she gave birth to his late brother Whitt, and 17 when she had him.

But the photo he took down showed a woman in a simple white dress standing next to a seated man with high cheekbones. Her left hand was on his shoulder.

“This is Mama Mary,” he said quietly. “She’s my all-time girl. God, I loved that woman.”

She was his grandmother and he lived with her and his grandfather, Tom Montgomery — who he said was part “Black Creek Indian” — from the time he was six years old until ninth grade.

She had a strong work ethic — she sewed the burlap bags that held picked cotton — and she imparted the lessons that built the foundation of his life.

“From the time I was born, she called me her ‘Little Black Baby,’” he said.

They lived in the country, some 3 ½ miles from the North Alabama town of Tuscumbia, in the foothills of Appalachian Mountains.

They had no indoor plumbing and no electricity, which meant no running water, an outhouse and no TV, refrigerator, telephone or light switch on the wall.

As a kid, Montgomery picked cotton to help pay for his school clothes. Every day he gathered and chopped wood for the cook stove and fireplace and each morning he walked two miles to get water from a mountain spring.

“Oh man, you want to talk about some good tastin’ water!” he said with grinning remembrance.

“And by carrying them buckets, I had a damned good grip for a little boy.”

And yet he didn’t have a firm grasp on the outside world.

When he entered the first grade, he admitted he didn’t know how to count: “I was an empty vessel.”

While that would eventually change — he’d end up a lifelong educator — he said one of the first things that was filled was his imagination:

“In elementary school we’d go down the hill to head home and we’d pass the high school, where all these big ol’ dammed giants would come tromping out in their football gear. You’d hear that ‘clunk…clunk…clunk’ of their cleats on the concrete. That sound went through me. It was like they were gladiators.”

By the time he got to ninth grade, Mama Mary insisted he move into town to live with his mom, who had returned from Arkansas, where she’d left a cheating man.

“I wanted to stay with Mama Mary,” Montgomery said, his eyes filling with tears. “But she said they didn’t want me walkin’ along the road no more. She was afraid some of those (people) out there would kill me like they did another boy.”

As a sophomore football player at Trenholm High — an all-back school during the segregated times of the late 1950s in Alabama — Montgomery was switched from running back to quarterback by Wildcats head coach, Charles “Foots” Mahoney, who’d played at Central State.

“I said, ‘Coach, I don’t want to play quarterback. I want to stay a running back,’” Montgomery said. ‘He said ‘No’ and said he’d explain when I graduated.

“Before our last game I begged Mama, ‘Please come see me play just once!’

“She did, but on one play, the other team ran me out of bounds. I was laying there and three of ‘em stepped on my head. I grabbed the last one and kicked the (crap) out of him.

“Next thing I know, here comes Mama out of the stands. She always carried that little purse and she’d pulled out her little knife. She said, ‘Ooooh they got my Little Black Baby!’ She was planning to cut somebody till the cops turned her around.”

In Montgomery’s four years with the team, Trenholm lost just four games.

When he graduated, he said he reminded Mahoney: “OK Coach, you promised! Why did I play quarterback?’

“And he said ‘Well, you wasn’t the best athlete on the field, but you had the biggest damned mouth and I saw how all the kids listened to you. They liked you.

“‘I knew you would be a leader.”'

From Alabama to Dayton

Montgomery got a scholarship to Alabama A&M and, although he was just 5-foot-8, he became the starting quarterback by the fourth game of his freshman season.

The Bulldogs won the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title his junior year in 1962 and the following season he picked up the nickname that came with him to Dayton.

“I ran the ball a lot as a quarterback and that year we had a junior college transfer come in and he threw a lot,” Montgomery said. “We shared the position and we had a PE teacher who took to calling me Groundhog. And Henry, with his passing, she called him The Rifleman.”

Together, the Groundhog and The Rifleman led A&M to an undefeated season.

After spending seven years as an assistant coach in Anniston, Alabama, Montgomery was brought to Dayton by Tom Webb, the onetime Alabama A&M star player and coach, who’d come to Dayton in 1964 and became principal at Roosevelt.

Montgomery arrived here in 1971 with Grant Clark, who also became a respected Dayton Public Schools coach.

“The first time we drove up here, we went looking for a place to stay,” Montgomery said. “We drove up Stewart Street and saw some places and said, ‘Man, those are some nice apartments!’

“The guy helping us said, ‘Naah, you don’t want to live there. Those are low-income projects.’

“I said, ‘(Crap) that’s better than anything we left in Alabama!

“I loved Dayton right off.”

He was the head football and wrestling coach at Roosevelt for five years and led the Teddies to the City League football crown in 1972 and the wrestling title in 1975, the same year the students voted him Teacher of the Year.

When Roosevelt closed, he moved to Roth, where he first was an assistant and became head football coach in 1977.

His teams won City League titles in 1978, 1980 and 1981 and twice made the state playoffs.

From 1982 to 1998, he really made his mark at Dunbar, where his football teams won 11 City League championships and made four trips to the state playoffs.

His girls basketball teams won nine City League crowns and were the Ohio Division II state champions in 1991.

A few years later, Montgomery and I talked about the difference coaching at an urban school like Dunbar and suburban schools.

“When I hear people say, ‘Yeah, but he’s got the horses so all he has to do is open the gates,’ that just burns the hair off my rear end,” he said. “That’s a slap in the face — a racist thing — like we don’t do any coaching.

“We not only coach, but a lot of time we’re the closest thing some of these kids have to a daddy.”

Over the years, he mentored some of greatest football talents to come out of this city, including Keith Byars and Larry Lee at Roth, both who went on to longtime NFL careers, and, at Dunbar, Mike McCray (the Ohio State captain) and “Big Daddy” Dan Wilkinson (the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft.)

He said when the Dunbar girls won their state basketball title, 13 of the 15 players were on the honor roll.

One of his favorite football teams was the 1974 Roosevelt Teddies. He said they told him they didn’t want to be considered for any All-City honors or have a team MVP chosen. They told him they didn’t want anyone to feel slighted. Staying one big family was the memory they wanted to keep.

As for memorable games, nothing topped the 1986 state playoff game at Centerville. The heavily-favored Elks — led by quarterback Kirk Herbstreit — were 10-0, ranked No. 1 in the state and No. 4 in the nation.

“Before the game, a local sportscaster came over to our school and said, ‘Tom, how you like playing in the mud?’” Montgomery recalled.

“I said, ‘What are you talking about? It hasn’t rained in days. And he said, ‘Yeah, but (Centerville) left the sprinklers on all night!’

“Well, we’d played nine games on Astroturf and we had rubber-soled shoes. I said to Mr. Webb (Dunbar’s principal): ‘Boss Man, I think we’re gonna need cleats.’

“He told me to go get 44 pairs and, before the game, we were on the field stretching when one of Centerville’s assistants came by and saw us wearing those new white cleats.

“He said, ‘Oh dammit!’ and just walked away.”

Dunbar won, 19-14.

“It was the shot heard ‘round the world,” Montgomery said.

Coaching away the pain

In the summer of 1990, Montgomery’s younger son, Steve — a former Meadowdale High football standout who was a senior at Alabama A&M — was shot and killed by a woman outside of a reputed drug house on Sundale Avenue in West Dayton.

Montgomery said the woman, a former Jefferson High basketball player, had assumed Steve was taking her drugs without paying and shot him in the back as he walked away.

He didn’t have the drugs and Montgomery said the woman was sent to prison.

Montgomery had faced tragedy before. His older brother Whitt was just 30 when, after repeated squabbles with his wife, she shot and killed him.

But this had come out of the blue and it left Montgomery, his first wife Elvira and their oldest son Tom, whose Army deployments would take him to Desert Storm and Bosnia, reeling.

I remember sitting with Montgomery in the basement of the Gard Avenue Church of Christ that August day following Steve’s funeral service upstairs. Church ladies were serving up fried chicken, cornbread and collard greens, but Montgomery wasn’t hungry.

“I’m empty right now,” he whispered. “I don’t know what to do today or tomorrow.”

A week later Dunbar began its preseason football camp and Montgomery was there. He immersed himself in coaching — it was an escape, a tonic, a way to try and help other young men avoid such fatal circumstance — and he led the Wolverines to the state playoffs.

He followed that up by leading Dunbar girls to the state crown.

A big display on one of his basement walls is dedicated to that team.

By the end of that season, you could hear him on the sidelines again.

“Back in the seventh grade, I remember my teacher standing at the chalkboard and, without even turning around, she said ,’Tom Montgomery, shut your mouth back there!’ I wondered ‘How…?’ And she said ‘Your voice carries.’”

That aided him as a coach: “I never carried a whistle. They heard me. And if I really needed their attention, I could whistle myself.”

He put two fingers up to his lips and tried the other day, but nothing happened.

“Ain’t got no teeth now,” he said laughing.

Then again, he doesn’t need to whistle. While his wife Caroline still works as a nurse, he’s long retired, though certainly not forgotten.

He’s been inducted into several Ohio coaches halls of fame, and April 28th he returned to the Ritz Theatre in Sheffield, Alabama, to be enshrined in the Colbert County Sports Hall of Fame.

That trip back spurred another memory:

“When I got my first Cadillac — it was baby blue — I drove to Alabama and backed it right up to the door of Mama Mary’s house. Then I drove to each place I used to walk to so I could measure distances. It was 3 ½ miles to school and twice that when we went across the (Tennessee) River to Sears in Florence.

“All that walkin’ had to help my athletic ability. Ain’t no doubt in my mind — even with everything that happened — I’ve been blessed.

“Not bad for the Little Black Baby left on the side of the mountain with his grandparents. It turned out OK.”

It gave him his grip.

On a water bucket…and life.

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