When ranking the top athletic families in Western New York, the Gronkowskis would have to top the list. Five boys, all of them Division I scholarship athletes, three of them landing in the NFL. Pretty hard to beat that.
Next in line? It just might be the Regans of Williamsville, a clan that made its mark on the basketball court with one exception. And a notable one at that.
“Best athlete in my family?” responds Will Regan. “Me, of course.”
A sly smile comes to his lips. Regan, a sophomore forward at the University at Buffalo, was a two-time Buffalo News Player of the Year while at The Nichols School. He was the New York State Class A Player of the Year as a high school senior. He played one season at Virginia before he transferred back home. And at one point this year he led the nation’s Division I players in three-point shooting percentage.
While those credentials might make the question seem inane – Who’s the best athlete in your family? – in the case of the Regans it’s an apt inquiry.
Kelly, 26, the oldest of Barb and Larry’s four children, was Buffalo News girls basketball Player of the Year in 2005 and earned second-team all-Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference during a 1,000-plus point career at Manhattan College.
Jim, 23, the elder of the two boys, threw down a career-high 31 points for Daemen last month and, like Kelly, has topped the 1,000-point mark for his career.
Will can make the argument that, with almost 2½ seasons of eligibility remaining, he at least belongs in the same company with those two. But then we have Emily, 24, who was determined to give up sports after high school and enjoy a relatively care-free existence while pursuing her degree at Michigan State.
“My plan when I went to school was to have fun and enjoy the big-time atmosphere and go to football games and just enjoy being at a big school,” Emily said.
And that plan held firm all the way up until freshman orientation. Mom bopped around all the informational tables set up by various on-campus organizations looking for some activity to occupy a girl who had lived her young life in perpetual motion. Rowing? Hmmm. The sisters had spent that one summer camp with the West Side Rowing Club.
“Hey, look,” Barb said to Emily. “They came in sixth at nationals last year. They’re pretty competitive. You should join. It would be a good way to meet people.”
“I wasn’t having it,” Emily said “I just wanted to have fun when I went to college. What I pictured being the typical college experience is what I wanted to have. And when I got to college my roommate was like 5 feet tall and her mom and my mom ganged up on us and were like, ‘You guys should do it together.’
“Eventually we kind of caved and tried out together and seven years later, here I am.”
Emily’s 6-foot-2 and, like in basketball, height in rowing has its advantages. Talk about making a splash. Halfway through her freshman season she was elevated from walk-on to scholarship athlete. As a senior she was named Big Ten rowing Athlete of the Year and a first-team All-America. From there, she won gold in the eight at the 2010 Under-23 World Championships in Belarus. That was followed in 2011 by a gold in the four at the 2011 World Championships in Slovenia. She currently trains in Princeton, N.J., with USA Rowing under the guidance of Buffalo native Tom Terhaar. Her mission is to row and win gold at the 2016 Summer Olympics; she was among the final cuts for the London Games.
“I was in contention for the team last year and unfortunately it didn’t really work out but that’s my ultimate goal is to make the Olympic team and win the gold medal in Rio,” she said.
Four children separated by five years, all with a passion to compete. Maybe it comes from their father, Larry, who played high school basketball at Amherst under the legendary Bob Hettler and continued his playing career at St. Lawrence. Maybe some of it comes from their mother, Barb, who was never an athlete in the official sense but possessed all the attributes.
“I guess I have to give a lot of that to my parents and just the work ethic they instilled upon us, the attitude to persevere in tough times and just keep going,” said Kelly, who’s employed by Barclays in Manhattan. “I think they really paved the way in just kind of shaping our mentality and helping us get there, my dad with the competitive fire and my mom able to calm us down and be that reassuring one on the side.”
Sibling rivalries thrived. Sibling challenges persisted.
“Obviously it was really competitive,” Jim said. “Anything we did would turn into a contest. We’ll be sitting at the dinner and say we’ll be talking about grades and my parents would ask me a question about a grade and my brother would say something like how he got a better grade. Any little thing will turn into a competition. Who eats the most – anything.”
Kelly and Emily were at basketball camp in the Adirondacks one year, same game, different teams, when the simmering competitiveness boiled over. They were jostling in transition when Emily hauled off and punched Kelly dead in the gut.
“Emily!” shouted Barb from the sidelines.
“Yeah, that happened,” Emily says with a laugh. “That would be part of the reason I didn’t pursue basketball like the rest of my family. I was just way too competitive.”
Emily could be supportive as well. Like the time around the third grade when she mastered the art of dunking off the hood of the car. Who doesn’t conquer a mountain and encourage others to do the same? Next thing you knew Jim leapt off the car, made awkward contact with the rim and landed with a thud. Arm fracture.
“Of course it was one of the nights where my mom went away so my dad was watching us,” Jim said. “I think it was during a Bills game or something so he was inside watching the Bills game while I’m outside messing around.”
“That was me,” Emily said. “It sounds like I’m a malicious sister, but I’m not. I was teaching him how to dunk.”
What can you get away with in the name of competitive fire? How hard can you push?
“We’d go to putt-putt as a family,” Jim said. “Will would miss a putt where it was maybe an inch short and he’d just drag the putter all the way around the hole until it went in and said, ‘Oh, that counts. That counts.’ ”
Will concedes to Emily
Life has pulled them apart geographically but not in the heart. Although distanced, Emily and Kelly still keep tabs on the younger brothers. Great thing, the Internet. Kelly returned a call via cell phone about five minutes after Will nailed a three with 12 seconds left, provided the decisive points in UB’s road win at Ball State.
“That was really exciting,” she said. “Unfortunately I don’t think I was ever able to hit a clutch game-winner but he definitely seems to have the personality, the composure to be that type of player under pressure.”
Will’s done well as he rebounds from basically two years away from competitive basketball (one when he played sparingly at Virginia, and one he sat out after his transfer). But best athlete in the family? Will knows he’s cornered.
“No my sister Emily might be the best athlete because she’s played a lot more sports than all of us and she succeeded in all of them,” he said. “I’ll give her that even though if I wanted to I could have played a lot of other sports, too. But she did it so I’ll give her the crown.”