Going into the 1951 University of Maine football season, head coach Harold Westerman liked the looks of his team. Part of the reason for his confidence was a move he made midway through the previous season.

He had moved Gene Sturgeon, a talented safety from Portland, to quarterback.

“Gene really picked up our team when he moved to quarterback,” said Dick McGee, a teammate, who later became Colby College football coach and athletic director.

“He was a good leader who got the guys going,” he said.

Sturgeon, 84, who lived in Cumberland with his wife, Judy, died last week after a period of declining health.

Sturgeon grew up in Portland and was a three-sport standout at Deering (football, basketball, baseball). After two years in the Navy, he enrolled at UMaine in the fall of 1948.

Sturgeon first played for head coach Dave Nelson at Maine and then Westerman. Nelson and Westerman had arrived at UMaine from the University of Michigan. Sturgeon was a senior on the 1951 Black Bears, who went 6-0-1 to win the Yankee Conference. The lone blemish was a tie with New Hampshire.

Already known as a hard-hitting defensive back, Sturgeon, who weighed 160 pounds, brought that same toughness along with smarts to the offense. Sturgeon was a strong passer, although the Black Bears didn’t throw much in those days, and a runner. Sturgeon passed for two touchdowns that season. Some of Sturgeon’s other teammates, along with McGee, were Woody Carville, Al Card, Bob Wytock, Gerry Hodge, Jack and Jim Butterfield, Harry Richardson, Harry Easton and Ed Bogdanovich

Carville, who lives in Orono, went on to a long career as an assistant football coach and athletic department administrator at Maine.

“I played just one year with Gene,” said Carville. “I had never played football in high school. Westy was my freshman basketball and baseball coach. In watching me play basketball, he thought I would be good in football, probably because of all the fouls I made. So I came to the football team my junior year. I knew Gene played a good game. He was such a good defensive player. He was a good passer, but we didn’t pass much. Gene would carry the ball on bootlegs and sweeps.”

Carville remembers a play during the 1951 season Sturgeon made against University of Rhode Island star running back Pat Abbruzzi.

“Abbruzzi broke through on a run into the secondary,” said Carville. “As the safety, Gene was the last one who had a chance to stop him. All I can say is that Gene made the play.”

Abbruzzi was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1954, but decided to play for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League where he had a fine career.

Sturgeon also played baseball at Maine and had a tryout with the Boston Braves. He played in the Portland Twilight League and also in a semipro league in Canada.

Sturgeon earned his masters’ degree from Maine in 1953 and went to work for Travelers Insurance in Portland before being transferred to Cleveland. Soon after, Sturgeon accepted a position as director of external affairs for Northeast Utilities in Berlin, Conn. He was involved in construction of nuclear power plants and was a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., for more than 20 years.

One time he needed to talk to then-U.S. Rep. Gerald Ford regarding pending legislation

“Gene was wondering how he might get in to see Ford,” said friend Alden White of Buxton. “He called Nelson, his former coach at Maine, who knew Ford from having been at Michigan. He got that meeting with Ford, a former Michigan standout. Gene told me for the first 30 to 40 minutes they talked football.”

Sturgeon was a well-respected New England Division I college basketball coach for more than 25 years. He was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame in 2005 and the New England Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. He retired in 1981 and moved back to Maine and lived on Little Sebago. The Sturgeons, who raised three children, moved to Cumberland in 2006.

A memorial service will be held for Sturgeon on May 18 at Lindquist Funeral Home in Yarmouth. 

Staff Writer Tom Chard can be contacted at 791-6419 or at:

tchard@pressherald.com

Twitter: TomChardPPH