EVERETT — Thirteen-year-old John Montelus looked into the mirror and saw someone who was lost. His grades were the type that tempt kids to intercept the mail when the report card comes home. He was immature. He was the only child of a single parent growing up in Everett. And because of his weight, he was not allowed to play football.
Mike Milo, an assistant since coach John DiBiaso took over the Everett High football program in 1992, looked at the 13-year-old Montelus and saw a lot of the same things Montelus saw in himself. But Milo, in the most caring way possible, was shallow.
He ignored the goofiness. He ignored the troubling childhood. And what he saw was a 6-foot-2-inch, 175-pound Gumby-like frame on a kid who lived off cheeseburgers, yet still had a lot more growing to do.
"Coach Milo said I was going to be good," Montelus said. "He promised me. Said I was going to be real good, get a scholarship and everything. He said, 'If you really push yourself, you can be like this, or be like that.'
"Look at me now."
In three years as an offensive tackle for Everett, Montelus, who just turned 17, has never allowed a sack, according team coaches. He is projected as a guard in college and Rivals.com rates him as the No. 1 prospect at the position in the country. He has protected the most prolific quarterback in Massachusetts high school history (Jonathan DiBiaso). And he has collected stacks of scholarship offers from some of the best Division 1 college programs.
He finally settled on No. 1-ranked Notre Dame.
"Basically," Montelus said, "there are things you never thought you were going to be."
Fitting the mold
John DiBiaso makes a habit of going to the middle school each year and give his usual speech. He looks for kids he could envision suiting up in a Super Bowl at Gillette Stadium. These potential athletes are reminded of the Everett football tradition as they consider their options before high school. He emphasizes that the football team needs these kids.
And then there are the kids who need football.
Montelus, who had been raised by his mother, Eldrige Fabre, fit the mold of the latter.
"I met one of John's teachers," DiBiaso said. "They brought me up to him and said, 'Here's a kid that could use playing football. It would be good for him.'
"I talked to him. That fall he showed up. The rest was history."
Montelus and his mother don't have much of a family, but they have always stuck together. Milo said Montelus's father now lives in Canada and John visits him infrequently.
"The difference in this story from the Michael Oher story is the mother abandoned [Oher]," DiBiaso said. "John's mother has been there for him. She's the most important person in his life."
Because of his self-described "childhood chunkiness," Montelus was not allowed to play football, with his weight well over the limit that Pop Warner leagues have for safety reasons.
Montelus lost weight before high school and was sent to the freshman team and told to be an offensive lineman. He went to some practices, but didn't play much.
"My freshman year I didn't listen to nothing," he said.
"We used to push him around on that team," said Everett senior Gilly DeSouza.
But Milo had been around long enough to know talent was being wasted. So he made the call to the only person that could help.
"I called his mother up," Milo said. He recounts the conversation:
"He's got to eat more," Milo told her.
"Why does he got to eat more?"
"You want him to go to college for free?"
"Well then," Milo said. "He's got to eat more."
By the time his sophomore season came around, Montelus had become a regular at the gym and a stranger at McDonald's. He was eating nothing but his mom's groceries (protein, protein, protein) and following Milo's workout orders. Montelus asked his mother if she needed him to get a job in the offseason, but she assured him she would take care of the bills.
Montelus was instantly transformed.
He pushed his weight up to about 255 — an 80-pound gain in less than 12 months — and won the starting left tackle job in the fall. "Big John" finally earned his nickname.
"We do a lot of work in the offseason," Milo said. "So we sat down with him and let him know what he could be if he wants to be something. You can't teach height. That's all they look for now. I've had guys that can drive people 50 yards off the ball but if you're not 6-5 now they don't even look at you."
After his sophomore year, Montelus had four Division 1 scholarship offers.
"I was like, 'I'm going to try to go even harder my junior year and get more,' " he said.
Every year college coaches — from Boston College to Syracuse to Penn State and down the East Coast, even Virginia and North Carolina State — roll through Everett during the offseason and take a look at DiBiaso's finest.
Before they could even get there, Montelus had become well-known in football circles.
He had posted a highlight video on YouTube and the Facebook friend requests kept coming. In the new age of recruiting, Facebook not only replaced the phone, it made it look as useful as a telegraph machine.
And the word on Montelus was widespread and unanimous.
"They couldn't believe he was as advanced as he is at his young age," DiBiaso said.
Call of the Irish
Montelus had just landed at Logan Airport in the middle of rush hour traffic last April. He had spent the day in Florida as the Gators' coaching staff tried to get a verbal commitment out of him. He was about ready to do it.
Milo picked up Montelus at about 5 p.m. and they drove to South Bend, Ind., where Montelus would give a courtesy visit to Notre Dame.
They had been driving Milo's Jeep Wrangler all over the country (spending money out of Milo's pocket). They drove through 6 inches of snow on the way to West Virginia. They made it to South Bend in 14 hours, just in time for a 9 a.m. meeting with Brian Kelly.
By the time Montelus left, his mind was changed. He committed to the Fighting Irish.
"A lot of kids were talking, 'You had all these offers, you could have went to a power ranked school,' " Montelus said. "I was like you're right, but I went to Notre Dame and everything just changed. I knew they were going to do a good job anyways. Now, after they're No. 1, everyone is like, 'OK, you were right.' "
To get this far, DiBiaso likes to remind, everything has to fall into just the right place.
Montelus stayed healthy, played on great teams, and had an assistant coach see greatness when the player saw uncertainty.
But Montelus also committed to the process. These rewards have been earned.
"John has done it all himself," DiBiaso said. "He hasn't had people to drive him around town or buy him things when he needed or wanted something.
"Now, I don't want to put pressure on him. But the potential is there to be very easily playing on Sundays. There are a lot of variables that go into it. I'm optimistic all those things will fall into place."
The dominoes have been falling for four years. Montelus thought he'd be nothing. Maybe attending a state college, just working to get by.
But enough with those predictions.
"You never know," he said. "I could be anything."