With a football in his hands he transformed into the great ad-libber. He drove opponents mad with his improvisations.
He didn’t look like the prototypical quarterback but played like one. He didn’t have a great arm, but his heart and mind more than compensated. Teammates believed more in themselves when he was on the field. His wink during sideline conferences calmed his emotional head coach.
He was the passer who morphed into the runner and back again. With all the chips on the table, he led his high school team on a 70-yard scoring drive that won the big game.
His team didn’t lose and when the season ended, they all touched the Gold Ball they most deservedly earned.
I’m not describing Peter Gwilym, the Cheverus senior. I’m reminding you of Jason O’Tash, the Massabesic High quarterback 10 years ago.
The winner of this season’s Fitzpatrick Award will be announced at next Sunday’s dinner. Gwilym is one of the invited guests. So is Jamie Ross of Deering and Cam Kaubris of Mountain Valley. The play and leadership of each was the talk of Maine high school football fans.
Ten years ago, another threesome did the same in remarkably similar ways. You admired how O’Tash got the job done while oohing and ahhing at Portland High quarterback Quinton Porter and his strong arm.
Running back Justin Cummings of Stearns wasn’t an afterthought. Not with a career rushing total just shy of 6,000 yards. He scored 96 touchdowns at Stearns. During his speech at the Fitzpatrick banquet, Cummings mentioned in passing he kept squirrel tails for good luck in his locker, to the surprised laughter of the dinner crowd.
Kaubris is a quarterback, but like Cummings he is the pride of a paper-mill town fighting to hold onto hope in the face of job losses in the mills and the exodus of families.
O’Tash and Porter were the Gwilym and Ross of their day. Two winning quarterbacks with very different styles and body types. O’Tash and Gwilym toasted success; Porter and Ross came to grips with the heartbreak of playoff defeats.
O’Tash and Gwilym were appreciated for what they accomplished as high school seniors. Porter and Ross also represented potential and future achievements on the football field.
O’Tash led Massabesic on a 70-yard drive for the winning touchdown against Bangor in the 2000 Class A title game. Gwilym led Cheverus on a 70-yard drive for the winning touchdown against Deering in the unforgettable Western Maine championship game.
O’Tash and Gwilym were both adept as option-style quarterbacks. Their senior year statistics, while not true matches, are very similar. Ross was also a strong runner, something Porter showed more when he reached the Canadian Football League two years ago.
When O’Tash heard his name announced as the 2000 Fitzpatrick winner, he also heard the roar from the dinner crowd. More than 60 family, friends and teammates filled the banquet room with noise not heard before. Frankly, the display was at odds with O’Tash’s quiet demeanor.
“He’s pretty quiet but he’ll put a finger in a teammate’s chest if needed,” Massabesic Coach John Morin said that night, and again 10 years later. “Jason figured out how his piece fit into the puzzle. Then he helped the others see how their pieces fit the puzzle.”
O’Tash was a tough interview 10 years ago. He wouldn’t separate himself out from the team. He was the master of understatement, not easily found in 18-year-olds.
“They made a little noise,” said O’Tash the other day of the dozens who cheered the mention of his name. Ten years after, he was still understating and talking about the group rather than the individual. “Winning the (Fitzpatrick) meant a lot and each ot them helped me.”
He spoke from the health and fitness club he runs in Connecticut. He had several college options after Massabesic and chose Springfield and basketball, his real passion. He became captain of the basketball team in his junior and senior seasons. He came off the bench a lot, but never slipped out of that role of quiet leadership.
Springfield went deeper into the NCAA basketball playoffs than it had before O’Tash arrived. Playing competitive football became part of his past.
He did return this summer for the 10-year reunion of the championship football team. It was a bittersweet weekend. Joey Olszewski, the team’s running back, had passed after a weeks-long fight with pneumonia and its complications earlier in the summer.
Still, O’Tash and his teammates and their coach found moments to share digs and laughter. Morin thought it was 2000 and he was back in their locker room.
For the first time in years, I received a ballot for the Fitzpatrick Award. But like many autumns, my assignments take me away from the high school fields too often. I didn’t vote. I have no horse in this race.
Just an appreciation and admiration for the field, much as I did 10 years ago.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: