Football

Catawba Football: Koontz made it in the pros as a 17th-round draft pick

By Mike London, Salisbury Post

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Ed Koontz played both ways for Catawba, so he figured specializing as an outside linebacker in the American Football League would be a breeze. "I was thinking this is gonna be so easy", the affable Koontz said. "But then they started playing the games."

"Everyone was big. Everyone was fast." The level of competition and an uncooperative hamstring explain why Koontz lasted just one season in the AFL, but he did start six games for the Boston Patriots as a rookie in 1968. That was over-achieving for a small-college guy taken in the 17th and final round of the draft.

The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Koontz found his way to Catawba from Littletown, Pa. "In those days, Catawba recruited a lot in Pennsylvania and New Jersey," Koontz said. "There was a little stream going from Pennsylvania down there."

 Koontz developed into a two-way terror for coach Harvey Stratton's Indians, excelling at both center and linebacker. Koontz was co-captain his senior year and blocked for an array of explosive offensive weapons — fullback Tim Morgan, halfback Ike Hill, quarterbacks Ray Hardison and Harry Monokian and end Drew Buie.

But it was a hard-luck, injury-plagued '67 season. After a 3-0-1 start, Catawba let leads evaporate against Appalachian, Elon and Presbyterian and settled for 5-4-1. Koontz managed to lead Catawba to a win in his final home game, batting down passes, piling up tackles and blocking a PAT in a 29-15 victory over Guilford.

Koontz was honorable mention All-America and expected to be drafted by the NFL's Dallas Cowboys. "Dallas was the team that had really showed interest," Koontz said. "Then all of a sudden it was Boston. One of Boston's coaches had seen me play in an all-star game."

In 1968, the AFL and NFL were fighting for talent and holding separate drafts. But the "guaranteed" victory by Joe Namath's AFL Jets over the NFL champions Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III was just down the road and would lead to a merger of the leagues in 1970. That indicates the talent pool Koontz was competing against was on par with the NFL.

"I'm in our locker room, and I looked around and saw veterans like Earthquake Hunt and Houston Antwine, guys I'd been watching on TV for years," Koontz said. Soon, Koontz was on the field with Hunt and Antwine, playing his role in the Patriots' final season at historic Fenway Park.

The next year, the Patriots would move to Boston College's Alumni Stadium. In 1970, they would play home games at Harvard. In 1971, under new ownership, the Patriots relocated to suburban Foxboro and became known as the New England Patriots.

Koontz is still convinced the 1968 Patriots doomed themselves before the season started when they traded veteran quarterback Babe Parilli to the Jets for young QB Mike Taliaferro. With Taliaferro and undrafted free agent Tom Sherman calling signals, the Patriots started 3-3 but finished 4-10. The awful finish cost coach Mike Holovak his job.

Many of Koontz's vivid memories are of clashes with the Jets. He intercepted a pass against New York in an exhibition game. That led to him starting both regular-season contests against them.

"I started three times that year against New York — against Namath," Koontz said. "That was a highlight. Playing linebacker with Nick Buoniconti (a Hall of Famer and one of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins) was also a highlight. It was tremendous playing with Nick before he moved on to Miami."

Koontz was starting until he hurt a hamstring. "That's at least a 10-day injury," Koontz said. "That means two games." The next season was spent with the minor-league Pottstown (Pa.) Firebirds.

In 1970, he was close to being reunited with Buie with the Oakland Raiders, but when things didn't work out, Koontz realized it was time to get on with his life. "I went to work for Budweiser, and I'm still there," Koontz said with a grin. "It's safe work. The only slow times are when things are just OK. When things are really good or really bad, we're gonna do pretty well."

Koontz, who became a member of the Catawba Hall of Famer in 1983, now resides in Florida. He was overwhelmed to see old comrades Hill and Buie at homecoming. He was equally thrilled to see Bucky Catawba Claw Pope, who was also part of that 1960s Pennsylvania pipeline.

"My dorm was new when I was here, and now I see they're tearing it down," Koontz said philosophically. "A lot has changed, but Catawba is still a great place."

This is the second of five stories on professional football players from Catawba who were invited back to this year's Homecoming.

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