The town where I grew up, Williamsport, Pennsylvania, is known for baseball. Little League was born on one of its empty, grassy lots in the 1930s, and the city of 30,000 plays host, in ever-more-extravagant fashion, to its World Series each August. After years of coverage by ABC and ESPN, the town’s trademark deep green hills, and the cardboard sleds that kids use to slide down them, have become staples of summer in America.
When fall comes, though, Williamsport is happy to shift its sporting attention in the same direction as the rest of the country. In Central PA, like just about everywhere else, football is king. At the pro level, loyalties are divided between the Pittsburgh Steelers, who play four hours to the west; and the Philadelphia Eagles, who play three hours to the southeast. (My unscientific observation was that town kids rooted for the Eagles, and country kids pulled for the Steelers.) At the college level, there are no divisions: We are, as they say, Penn State. But the beating heart of the sport is closer still, in the high school stadiums where entire student bodies, and communities, gather under Friday night lights.
Or at least they gathered there when I went to Williamsport High in the 1980s. Few memories are as vividly sensorial as those conjured by a high school football game. The field at the top of a hill, with its wall of bleachers that looked down on the players, and, in the distance, the town below. The over-bright stadium lights that cast an electric glow for miles, and the sky, with its stars blotted out, even more pitch-black than normal. The muffled, echoing sound of the stadium’s public-address system when announcements were made. The brassy blare and thump of the school band. Cheerleaders in white piled into a quivering pyramid. The dry crackle of peanut shells being snapped. The smell of hot chocolate. The buzz of gossip around the concession stands. The hard wood of the bleachers beneath you, getting colder as the fall and the season wore on.
With all of that happening, the game itself could go unnoticed for long stretches. High school football is, if nothing else, a valuable reminder of just how difficult the sport is to play, and how easy the pros make it look—especially its quarterbacks. The simplest sideline completion felt like it deserved a standing ovation. Still, in those days Williamsport was one of the best teams in a state filled with good, hard-nosed coal-town teams. The star player in my class, running back Gary Brown, would go on to play for Penn State and have two thousand-yard seasons in the NFL. Everything else came to a stop—the band, the buzz of gossip, the crack of peanut shells—when Brown broke loose down the sideline for a touchdown run.
Brown was the star on the field, but the man at the center of the spotlight each Friday was the team’s coach, Tim Montgomery. For 25 years, Montgomery, a PA native and Penn State alum, headed the Williamsport program, and he retired as its winningest coach. Having played safety for the Nittany Lions in the 1960s, Montgomery was football royalty in the area. His nicknames—or at least the ones I heard—included “Rock,” “The Rock,” and “Rockhead.” Can you tell he had a reputation as a tough guy?
He hailed from Kane, PA, a tiny town at the northern edge of the state that was famous for its frozen winters. Legend had it that Larry Csonka, who played for Syracuse at the same time that Montgomery was at Penn State, claimed that no one had ever hit him as hard as Montgomery did.
Montgomery died last month in Florida at age 74. Hearing the news brought back those vivid memories of the famous football coach. But it also brought back memories of Montgomery doing the less-glamorous side of his job: working as a phys ed teacher.
I played tennis in high school, and while our team went undefeated for two straight years, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that we didn’t draw the same kinds of crowds to our weekday-afternoon matches as Montgomery’s team did on Friday nights. It was basically our parents—provided they didn’t have to work in the afternoon. You also might have expect that a football coach in a football town wouldn’t have much respect for tennis players. We didn’t, after all, like to hit each other in the head.
But that wasn’t Montgomery’s way. He had the true athlete’s respect for other athletes, and for sports other than his own. He also had the true coach’s desire to take what he knew from football and translate it to other fields of play. I had Montgomery for volleyball, and he encouraged aggressiveness and decisiveness above all else. He put me on the front line and told me to spike every ball I could, as hard as I could, and not worry about whether it went in or out; we could get to that later. It was the instinct for aggression that he wanted to cultivate first. It also happened to make volleyball more fun.
With that idea in mind, I went back to the tennis court and began playing practice games in which a player would earn two points for every winner he hit. As in volleyball, it made tennis more fun and adventurous, and counteracted my natural baseliner’s aversion to risk. Today, when you see the difference between top junior players, who know how to rally, and top pros, who know how to finish rallies, it seems like a lesson that is still very much worth learning.
Montgomery saw in me not just a pupil, but a potential rival as well. Handball was his game of choice, and he claimed that only one Williamsport student had ever beaten him in his years teaching the sport. When I first came to the high school in 9th grade, he told me he knew I was a good tennis player, and he was looking forward to a handball match with me when I took his class. Never mind that I hadn’t played the sport more than two or three times in my life, or that I wasn’t scheduled to take that class for two more years. He was already gearing up for the battle. To me, the prospect was exciting and somewhat unbelievable. Montgomery’s house was just down the street from my family’s—as houses tend to be in small towns—and I was roughly the same age as his own children; but I was still stunned that the football coach knew who I was.
Two years later, when I made it to his class, Montgomery gave me a pair of goggles and lined up every other other kid in the class behind one of the handball courts so they could watch us play. This was mildly mortifying—I’m not sure I’d ever had that many people watch me do anything, and frankly, the goggles weren’t a great look. But I didn’t have any time to worry about it, because Tim came out pounding the ball, with equal power in both arms. We had a good battle, and I gained a new respect for the gritty, ambidextrous brand of athleticism that handball demands—you can’t rely on racquet-work to make up for lack of footwork or speed. If there’s a sport that could be said to cross tennis and football, it’s handball.
My memories of how our match ended are hazy, which means that I almost certainly lost—I’m pretty sure I’d remember a victory very clearly. But I do remember how much Montgomery enjoyed and welcomed the competition. It was another lesson that a tennis player could take from football: on the gridiron, you had no choice but to love what you did and go at it full blast.
RIP Tim Montgomery. Thanks for making it feel, even as a fellow striver in a very different sport, that I was part of the team.
For more on football's connection to tennis, watch our TenniStory on Jake Elliott, Super Bowl-winning kicker for the Philadelphia Eagles—and tennis junkie to this day.