The decals were donated by the taxidermist in town who made ends meet by expanding his business into a print shop and archery range. S&S Taxidermy Archery Pro Shop is what happens when family-owned businesses survive in tiny towns that refused to believe bigger was better.
Springville’s elegance is invisible when looking out the window at 35 mph while driving through the old section of Route 219 toward prettier, trendier Ellicottville. It cannot be found in aging buildings that have stood for generations. The charm of the village in Concord comes from the mentality of its people.
They would be the first to say Springville isn’t the best place, but it’s their place. It’s their slice of small-town America, their little secret, in a way that Norman Rockwell would illustrate if he took a bus to Mayberry.
Brian Steadman, the second “S” in S&S, figured donating the decals was the least he could do. He knew Patti Willibey since they were kids. She lived across the street from his mother, and they rode the bus together as schoolchildren. Everyone knew Jim Oatman from the funeral home. Anna Conklin was one of his closest friends.
All three died of cancer within five months.
All three had sons playing football for Springville Griffith Institute.
“You know how people say only the good die young?” Steadman said. “They were three perfect examples.”
Using the letters in their last names to form a “G,” Steadman printed up the decals and gave them to the football team to place on their helmets. “One Team” is written across the top of the sticker. “One Mission” is written across the bottom. The Griffins’ journey to hell and back continues Saturday afternoon in Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Springville (5-4), with a village behind it, will play Alden (9-0) at 4 p.m. for the Section VI championship in Class B.
For senior tackle Justin Willibey, junior lineman J.P. Oatman and junior running back Tyler Conklin, the number of people filing into the stadium for Springville’s biggest game in years means little when standing alongside three who will not.
“It’s amazing that the team has gotten this far,” Willibey said. “We’re on a roll. We’re playing together. We’re playing as one team. We’re playing as a fist. It’s a brotherhood, but the fact there’s people in the team’s family that can’t be there makes it bittersweet. We all want them there. We know they’re watching us.”
Their mission goes beyond the three parents who passed away since last season and includes two others on the team who lost grandparents and two more who lost aunts. In a small way, Springville’s football team has conducted a clinic that shows what can happen when a team comes together, keeps working, keeps plugging, keeps believing.
The matchup should not be minimized as a high school championship game. Years from now, the kids from Springville will realize it was something far greater. The season has been a life lesson in courage and overcoming personal grief, how joining hands for a common cause can unite a team and arouse its community.
Springville players figured out that working with one another wasn’t enough. The trick was working for one another. Not until everyone understood the difference did they proceed toward their goal. See, that’s when a team, any group on any level, becomes dangerous. And that’s what Springville did after starting 0-4.
No matter the score against Alden this afternoon, the Griffins can’t lose.
Why? Because they’ve already won.
“Someone said, ‘Boy, your kids have been through a lot,’ ” Springville coach John Sopko said. “It was a football game. It’s not losing a parent. It wasn’t said, but the kids understand there were greater challenges and far-bigger issues. They had role models right there. It wasn’t a lesson you get out of a textbook.”
Funny, but parents are expected to teach kids the most important lessons in life. Often, particularly in difficult times, kids end up teaching their parents more about their remarkable resiliency. It has come to define Springville this season. Sopko improved the culture of the program, but his players changed the results.
Really, when you hear about the parents who passed away, it’s no surprise.
Patti Willibey was all about kids. She worked in pediatrics and was a substitute teacher when she wasn’t talking about her sons. She knew little about football but poured herself into the sport when her boys started playing. Their teammates were extensions of her family, and the entire community mourned her death.
She was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer April 6, her 41st birthday. She died May 31, the day before she and her husband, Jim, would have celebrated their 20th anniversary. Jim stayed at her side until she died. Justin and his older brother, Brandon, visited her in the hospital every day. He will never forget his last words to his mother.
“I love you,” he told her before she died. “I’m proud of you.”
Justin dedicated the season to his mother, who never missed a game. He thought about her during every workout over the summer and every practice during the season. He ended up starting at left tackle, an ideal fit for a kid who felt his calling in life was protecting others. He plans to become a state trooper.
Patti would be proud of him, too.
And he didn’t forget when J.P. Oatman’s father passed away on Sept. 6 after a long battle with cancer. Jim Oatman owned a funeral home. He was the man offering his shoulder and handing out tissues when others were hurting the most. Justin was there for J.P., the way his father and the rest of Springville were there for his mother.
Anna Conklin battled a brain tumor for more than a decade before the treatment took its toll on her lungs. She was a quiet woman who for years attended her son’s sports events with an oxygen tank in tow. By the time she died last month, Springville had plenty of practice in attending wakes and funerals.
The football players wore their usual attire — shirt, tie and jerseys — while attending services for her. Three boys who had the support of their teammates were part of a fraternity whose members quietly leaned on one another. After all, they were the only players who truly understood the profound sadness that comes with the death of a parent.
“I wanted to be there and support them as much as they supported me,” Willibey said. “If they needed anyone to talk to, or any advice, I would be there for them in a heartbeat. They’re my teammates. I tried my best, and I still do, to make sure they know I’m here for them and take their mind off of it, like they do for me.
“It’s an unspoken way of feeling closer. We’re definitely connected through it, but most of the time we’d rather not talk about it. We know when to talk about it. We know when it’s one of those days that we just want to take our minds off of it.”
And that’s what football provided. On the field, they kept playing.
Springville lost its first four games, but the players never lost hope. It lost one game on a Hail Mary pass, another in overtime. Sopko, in his third season at Springville after 28 years coaching at all levels, saw signs of a turnaround. Their chemistry was right. Rather than pack up another difficult season, they started playing for one another.
“You’re 0-4, in many instances, your season is over because your team has already started to point fingers and disintegrate,” Sopko said. “It was something I didn’t even have to address because our kids never did it. ... The hatchling didn’t hatch yet. We needed to sit on the egg for another week.”
The Griffins knocked off Pioneer, their unbeaten rival, in Week Five. They rolled over Dunkirk and Olean and avenged an earlier loss to Eden. Last week, they beat Cheektowaga in the Class B semifinals and now have Alden in their way. In a separate story line, Sopko left Alden four years ago to restore Springville’s program.
The team’s success has energized the region the way high school football does in small, proud towns. It was the norm years ago, when Springville seemed like a distant cousin of Nebraska with its team of strong farm boys and quiet, unbreakable work ethic. The football program lost its way for a while, as many inevitably do. Now, it’s back.
Indeed, it has been a special season.
Everybody in the village is pulling for the Griffins because everybody in the village knows the story. That’s how small towns operate, for better or worse, but they stand together through the most difficult times. Springville rallied around its players. The players rallied for its people. And with them came a lesson.
It takes a village to raise a child.
It takes a family to raise a trophy.
A reminder is stuck to the back of their helmets.