By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He was a first-team All-American and a two-time All-ACC selection at the University of Virginia. Even so, Noel LaMontagne says, when he reflects on his football career, he recalls most vividly the plays he’d like to have back, the games he wishes he could replay.
“You remember the mistakes. You don’t remember this big, huge pancake block,” LaMontagne, 34, said Thursday by phone from Los Angeles, where he’s an agent for Eastern Athletic Services, which represents about 30 NFL players.
“Obviously the victory over Virginia Tech in ’98 was something that was extremely special, but as an offensive lineman I always tended to go back to the negatives, because you always want to find what you have to improve upon. It served me really well in life and in my career, but I guess I’d have to let somebody else tell me that I was a good football player.”
At Virginia, where he played for head coach George Welsh, LaMontagne was more than good. He was a three-year starter who became the first UVa offensive lineman since Ray Roberts (1989 and ’90) to be named to the All-ACC first team in consecutive seasons.
As a junior in 1998, LaMontagne started at left guard on a line that also included right tackle Robert Hunt, another first-team All-ACC performer; center John St. Clair, who made the all-conference second team; and right guard Fady Chamoun, who was honorable-mention All-ACC.
As a senior, LaMontagne started at left guard and, for the final four regular-season games, at left tackle. He and St. Clair, who joined LaMontagne on the all-conference first team that season, helped tailback Thomas Jones rush for 1,798 yards, still an ACC record.
“The talent in that line was unbelievable,” St. Clair said Thursday.
His alma mater recognized St. Clair’s contributions last weekend, retiring his jersey at halftime of Virginia’s win over Georgia Tech at Scott Stadium. Now it’s LaMontagne’s turn to step into the spotlight.
At Scott Stadium, UVa (1-1, 4-2) hosts NC State (0-2, 3-3) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in an ACC game that ESPNU will televise. At halftime, LaMontagne, who wore No. 77, will become the 19th former Cavalier to have his jersey retired.
That Tom O’Brien will be at Scott Stadium during the ceremony is only fitting. In 1995 and ’96, LaMontagne’s first two seasons at UVa, O’Brien was his position coach. Now, of course, O’Brien is the Wolfpack’s head coach.
“When [UVa] asked me which games I thought might work, I looked at them and NC State kind of popped out in my mind,” LaMontagne said, “mainly because of Coach O’Brien being on the other sideline. Obie laid the base.”
LaMontagne grew up in Coopersburg, Pa., near Bethlehem. Assistant coach Tom Sherman led the Cavaliers’ pursuit of LaMontagne, a four-year starter on the varsity at Southern Lehigh High School. At UVa, however, LaMontagne worked most closely with O’Brien and Danny Wilmer, assistants who helped ease his transition from high school to college football.
“I came out of a small school in Pennsylvania,” LaMontagne said, “and you had everybody saying, ‘You know what? You’ll get up there with the big boys and you won’t be able to play.’ And then you get to Virginia, and you go from being an all-state guy in Pennsylvania to just being another guy on the roster. And then you have to climb your way into just getting reps, and then you have to climb your way into the starting lineup, and then you have to develop a reputation in the league and then in the country.”
His final game ended disastrously for both LaMontagne and UVa. In the Micronpc.com Bowl, a game in which Illinois blew out Virginia 63-21, the 6-5 LaMontagne blew out his left knee. He was not chosen in the 2000 NFL draft but made the Cleveland Browns as a free agent.
His pro career, however, proved short-lived. After opening the season on Cleveland’s injured reserve, LaMontagne played in two games in 2000 — the first a 44-7 loss to a Baltimore team that included his former UVa teammate Anthony Poindexter. In 2001, however, he re-injured his left knee, and two operations followed.
“The doctor looked at everything,” LaMontagne recalled, “and he was like, ‘Listen, you can come back and play maybe a year if you can get through training camp, which I doubt you’ll [be able to]. And at that point, you’re talking about getting a knee replacement when you’re 30, 35. If you don’t play, maybe you can make it till you’re 50 or 60.’ “
LaMontagne opted to retire.
“Injuries are always part of the game,” he said, “but the timing [of the initial injury] could have been better, for me at least. But I still got the opportunity to go up there and play. It was a short career, maybe not exactly the way I would have wanted it, but when I was a little kid, my dream specifically was to play in the NFL. It wasn’t to go to the Hall of Fame, it wasn’t to play 15 years. My dream was specifically to play in the NFL, and I got to play in the NFL.”
With his football career over, LaMontagne, who had earned a bachelor’s in sociology from UVa in May 1999, explored other employment opportunities. He was about to accept a position with the Virginia Student Aid Foundation (now the Virginia Athletics Foundation) when Eastern Athletic Services, which had represented him during his NFL career, asked LaMontagne if he would be interested in joining the company.
“I talked to the guys at Virginia, and they said, ‘This is something that’s going to be here for you. Why don’t you try something different and see how you like it, and we’ll let the future play out the way it’s going to play out,’ ” LaMontagne recalled.
“That was nine years ago now. I haven’t regretted it one bit. To a certain degree I still get to be around Virginia football, and I have time to be able to support the program, but just from a different perspective, really more of a fan perspective, without actually being involved in the VAF and the fund-raising and all the incredible things that that organization does.”
LaMontagne split time between EAS’ offices in Maryland and California until moving to the Los Angeles area about a year ago. USC hosted Virginia early last season, but LaMontagne was “still in Baltimore at that time, and I wasn’t able to make the game,” he said. “Hopefully it’ll turn out a little bit differently” when UVa visits UCLA in 2015.
Among those joining LaMontagne in Charlottesville this weekend will be his parents, Gerald and Susan; his fiancée, Patricia Karamouzis; his former teammate Chamoun, and his friend (and former NFL teammate) Shaun O’Hara.
LaMontagne and Karamouzis are to be married in Greece, her native country, in June 2012. “We’re hoping to bring as many people as we can with us,” LaMontagne said. “We figure if we can give everybody a reason to go to Greece once in their lives, we might as well selfishly have them do it for us.”
UVa fans who haven’t seen LaMontagne since his playing days may not recognize him Saturday. He weighed 325 pounds in his final game with the Browns. After retiring, he cranked up his cardiovascular workouts, and “the next thing I knew I was 215, 220 pounds,” LaMontagne said.
“I’m about 230 now. I realized I was starting to look like a Christian Bale character in some obscure movie where he had to lose a ridiculous amount of weight. I was able to put a little bit of the weight back on, so I have enough to kind of keep my joints from falling apart.”
Of all the teams on which LaMontagne played, the 1998 Cavaliers were the most memorable. Virginia finished 9-3 in a season that included the greatest comeback in school history, the rally that stunned the Hokies in Blacksburg.
One of UVa’s losses that year, to Georgia Tech, was by three points. Its final loss, to Georgia in the Peach Bowl, was by two points. The Cavaliers’ standouts that season included LaMontagne, St. Clair, Hunt, Chamoun, Jones, Poindexter, defensive end Patrick Kerney, linebacker Wali Rainer and quarterback Aaron Brooks.
“You look at what Aaron was able to accomplish, and Thomas, and it makes you proud,” LaMontagne said. “Just to be a small piece in what we were able to do as a [line] and then what we were able to do as an offense, and then what we were able to do on one of the best teams to come through Virginia, if not the best, I think it’s just a special thing.”
Saturday promises to be special for LaMontagne, too, and Mother Nature appears ready to do her part. The forecast: sunny, with a high around 60 degrees.
“You can’t really beat a day in Charlottesville — or a couple days in Charlottesville,” LaMontagne said. “So when the weather’s on your side too, it just makes it that much better.”