The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio


October 29, 2012

Ashtabula County HOF Series: Father knew best

Gary Lillvis took his dad’s advice to heart & it took him from Harbor to Ohio State

Most football players aspire to throwing tight spirals for touchdowns or threading their way through defenses on their way to the end zone.

Gary Lillvis just wanted to knock people on their butts as an offensive lineman.

When his father, a former center for Harbor himself, took Lillvis to Mariner high school football games as he was growing up, he focused his attention on one player, and it wasn’t the quarterback or running back.

“Watch No. 74,” the elder Lillvis said.

No. 74 happened to be Craig Myllimaki, an offensive tackle, whose performances inspired Lillvis to yearn for a career as an offensive lineman.

“I gravitated toward football,” Lillvis said. “I didn’t play anything else.

“In high school, I fell in love with weight training. There were no video games at that time and baseball didn’t appeal to me. I was only really interested in football. Bruce, my brother, was a hell of an offensive tackle.”

But Gary idolized his father and naturally started as a center at Columbus Junior High school. At the time, Harbor played only flag football at that level. But he continued to attend high school games and dream his own dreams.

“I would sit on the sidelines and watch that guy,” he said. “I thought it was pretty cool. It became almost like an obsession.”

Gary’s father had worked in construction out of Cleveland and the family had moved often before settling in Ashtabula, four times in five years. After his grandfather died of a heart attack, the family moved to the Harbor — and stayed. Gary and his family still live in Ashtabula.

When he reached Harbor High School, Lillvis became a starter on the freshman team, playing offensive tackle under coach Harry Udell and line coach Dale Chaney. Playing traditional foes Edgewood, Ashtabula, Geneva, Conneaut and Jefferson, the Mariner freshmen went undefeated.

“We didn’t even know what we were doing,”  he said. “These were guys I would play with for four years. When we reached our sophomore year, the scuttlebutt was that only the juniors and seniors would get to play. Coach Jim Orr was going to have a heck of a team and sophomores weren’t going to play.

“Those (sophomores) weren’t about to bust their (butt) in the weight room. But there were two guys who didn’t buy into (not lifting weights). One was Gary Lillvis and the other was Dante Monda. He and I were busting our fannies in the weight room. He and I were the only sophomores to start that year, I on offense and he on defense.”

Orr was ahead of his time in using the weight room to improve his players’ strength, according to Lillvis. This despite the fact that the Harbor equipment was comparatively prehistoric.

“One of our players, Billy Olin, made a lot of the equipment, the benches,” Lillvis said. “We broke about a bench a week. That stuff was old, but it worked.”

Besides, Lillvis had images from an earlier time in his head.

“I wanted to become like Myllimaki.”

Orr set up each player with goals, whether it be bench pressing 300, 400 or 450 pounds. It was a demanding program.

The immediate results were outstanding. When Lillvis was a sophomore, the Mariners went 10-0.

Among Lillvis’s teammates in 1968 were Larry Hummer at quarterback, Curt Siler at running back, Paul Cassaro at wingback, Roger Gowdy at tight end, Bob Millberg at wide receiver, Rick McGriff at center, and Bill Olin at guard. On defense, the Mariners were led by Harry Kaplan at end, Paul Theiss, Jim Candela and Jim Henry.

“That was a pretty good team,” Lillvis said. “The only team we played that wasn’t in the NEC was Wickliffe.”

Of course, much was expected of the 1969 Harbor squad, with many of  the same players returning.

“But too many of our skilled people got fat heads,” Lillvis said of the 1969 team, which finished a disappointing 6-4 in Orr’s last year at Harbor. “That was a nightmarish year. There was a lot of dissension among the seniors.”

Something happened to Lillvis that alleviated the pain of that season, however. Orr called him into the office and showed him a letter from Dave McClain, an assistant coach at Ohio State who did the scouting and recruiting in Northeast Ohio.

“That letter changed my perspective,” Lillvis said. “It said that (Ohio State) was very interested in Gary Lillvis.”

Orr left after Lillvis’s junior year and Jim Smith was brought in as head coach for the 1970 season.

“That was a breath of fresh air,” Lillvis said of Smith, who coached Harbor in the 1970, 1971 and 1972 seasons before leaving for Riverside. “Orr almost drove us crazy. Smith was a welcome change.”

With a wealth of talent returning, Smith led the Mariners to an 8-1-1 record in 1970 with a nearly 50-50 blend of juniors and seniors.

Lillvis played left tackle on both offense and defense. He wound up doing a lot of run blocking.

“As sophomores and juniors, we probably passed and ran 50-50,” Lillvis recalls. “My senior year, we were probably 85-15 run-to-pass.

“Our offensive line was freakish. Jerry Geram, who later went to Penn State, was our wide receiver. Jim Bollman (eventually to become offensive coordinator at Ohio State) was the tight end.”

The rest of the offensive line consisted of Lillvis at left tackle, Jim Pinelli at left guard, Doug Coxe at center, Tim Sedmak at right guard and Dante Monda at right tackle.

“My brother, who went to Miami of Ohio, said we were like a small college team,” Lillvis said. “We knocked the hell out of people.”

In the offensive backfield were stars like Dave Peet at quarterback, Mike Crombie and Paul Riipa at running backs.

“Riipa was like an offensive tackle at running back, bur ran a 4.7 (40),” Lillvis said. “He lost his life on the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

Ken Laveck, who had not played as a sophomore or junior, returned to play wide receiver, and took over the punting job.

Among the defensive standouts were Mark Phelps, Andy Campa and Eric Lillvis (a cousin of Gary’s).

“We had 53 guys on that Harbor team,” Lillvis said. “One backup who didn’t play was Ed Jones, who went on to play four years at Cincinnati and was drafted by the San Diego Chargers. He played for the 1971 team, which went 10-0.”

After graduating in 1971, Lillvis received word that he had been chosen to play in the North-South all-star game, played in Canton’s Fawcett Stadium. It was a huge honor. The only player from this area having played in it before was Wash Lyons, an outstanding running back at Ashtabula who later became coach of the Panthers.

“I got to play with the best kids in the state,” Lillvis said. “A lot of NEC guys could have played in that game. A lot of us went both ways. It was a real reward, playing in front of 26,000 people.”

In August 1971, fresh off an impressive performance in the North-South game, Lillvis headed for Columbus. At that time, rules forbade freshman from playing in varsity football games, but Lillvis was originally assigned to defense butted heads with Tom DeLeone, former Ohio State and Cleveland Browns star, every day. He dislocated a knee, requiring surgery. When he returned, the Buckeye coaches moved him back to offense, as a guard and tackle.

As a sophomore, Lillvis got into games, but not until “mopup time.” He was able to go to the Rose Bowl for four straight years, starting in 1972. During that time Ohio State went 3-0-1 against Michigan, a team that, under Bo Schembechler, had recruited Lillivis.

“In my sophomore year, I had a great spring in practice,” Lillvis said. “I started climbing the ladder. I married a great girl, Jill Conklin, whom I had met in high school at Harbor. I had worked my way almost to starter when I tore the medial collateral in my knee. I was out 13 months. I never got higher than second string after that. They offered me a graduate assistant (coaching) job, but I wanted to play my senior year and fifth year. I got to play offensive guard my senior year. That was pretty awesome. I got to play half the game.”

After graduating in 1976, Gary and Jill Lillvis moved back to Ashtabula, with Gary accepting a job teaching at Edgewood High School. He didn’t care much for teaching and went into sales after a year. He has been in sales ever since, spending some time with Metropolitan Insurance then in other fields like the  hardware industry. He now sells life and health insurance for a company called Cooper Financial Services, owned by Ken Cooper, working primarily out of Parma.

Still living in Ashtabula, Lillvis gets up at 2:30 every morning to begin a 74-mile trip to Bedford Heights to work out in open gym for two  hours, primarily lifting weights, then to his office in Parma.

Lillvis, now 59, and Jill have two sons, Greg, 30, and Aaron 25.  Greg attended Hiram and Case and now works for University Hospitals. Aaron works for a computer software company.

“Both of them were very good players and students at Edgewood,” Gary said.

Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.

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