Rob Gross grew up on Elmwood Park South in Tonawanda, a mere squib kick from Clinton H. Small Stadium. Friday evenings in the fall meant there was football to be played and Gross – like his father and grandfather before him – waited for the lights to come on at the stadium with the anticipation of someone watching his first sunrise.
“I couldn’t wait to be the guy on that field," Gross said. “I think that was true for a lot of my friends growing up. We couldn’t wait to get on that field."
Robert “Hap" Holloway’s first look was more than 70 years ago, back in 1939. He held his father’s hand tightly as they walked into the stadium’s entrance for his first Tonawanda-North Tonawanda football game.
“North Tonawanda and Tonawanda was the king of everything," Holloway said. “I know at least two great athletes who had their ashes spread at Clint Small Stadium. That’s what it meant to people in those days."
In Tonawanda, boys dream of becoming Warriors despising Lumberjacks, starring in the annual T-NT game and playing at Clint Small Stadium, named after coach Clinton Small who from 1949-73 built a legacy so powerful town residents still refer to him today as Mr. Small.
Last Friday night, the curtain all but closed on the historic stadium with the 103rd T-NT game. Tonawanda, which lost that game to NT, will host a match-up game in the stadium Oct. 25 against Newfane
There also could be a soccer game or two still contested at the venue sandwiched between train tracks and a birch beer factory.
But once those events are finished, taking the place of the old stadium will be a shiny new one – also named Clint Small – situated on the school campus.
“There is an amazing amount of tradition in that stadium and it’s also a unique location," Gross said. “It’s in the middle of the city and across from what used to be the high school so it sits right in the neighborhood. It’s an amazing environment.’’
There’s history and stories to tell.
You want to know about Clint Small Stadium history, you talk to Holloway.
He worked at the high school for 37 years, and was with the football program first as a facility equipment manager then as an assistant on Small’s staff as the freshman football coach. He earned the nickname Hap back in the ‘70s because when he coached, even when players made mistakes, he would smile.
The memories. Where do you start?
The annual Thanksgiving Day T-NT game is as good a place as any, back when the season started after Labor Day and there were no sectional playoffs so the last Thursday in November was like the Super Bowl. North Tonawanda won the final Thanksgiving T-NT game in 1942, 14-7.
Tonawanda was in its glory years in the ‘60s, and in ‘62 both the Warriors and Lumberjacks were unbeaten on what started as a cold, brisk sunny morning. The schools hosted a spaghetti dinner for the players in the cafeteria after school and the blinds were drawn. At about 5 p.m. someone came in the cafeteria and said it was snowing. By the time the teams arrived for warmups there was a foot of snow on the ground.
Tonawanda had arguably its three finest players in school history on the field that day in quarterback Rick Cassata, who went on to star at Syracuse and was a Grey Cup winner for Ottawa in the CFL. Record-setting halfback Rick Rowley ran behind an offensive line anchored by Larry Bodie, who played at the University of Miami.
At the end of the game, Rowley appeared to score the tying touchdown on a rush but officials ruled him down at the half yard line and the Warriors lost 13-7.
How about the last time Tonawanda won the classic back in 2000? Hap was the AD then, and he somehow lured Joe Shifflett away from Sweet Home. The Warriors trailed 21-0 but managed to score on a long pass just before the half to tighten the game. The Warriors shut out NT in the final 30 minutes and won 24-21.
Last Friday night’s game was the final good-bye, something that probably should have happened a long time ago.
“Like everything else, the times change and it’s definitely time to move," Holloway said. “The stadium was in disarray."
It was a coat of paint removed from when Small coached the program, and in dire need of repair. The lights, bleachers, locker rooms and bathrooms are all outdated. Upgrades were initially considered but a task force created by the district two years ago recommended that a new stadium be built on school property. Time to look at the big picture.
“There was a decision that had to be made. Did the district want to pay out of their pocket as taxpayers to refurbish the field or did we want to wrap it into a capital project and have the state aid a good majority of the project," Tonawanda Athletic Director Brad Halgash said. “We put it to vote and it was an overwhelming vote for the capital project to go through."
Not only did the bond include a new stadium, but classroom expansion, improvements to school facilities, as well as a community fitness center. From a cost standpoint, it made sense to build new.
“The long and short of it is we needed to get something done because of the condition of the field," Halgash said.
The new Clint Small will be state of the art, complete with FieldTurf, bleachers with a tunnel where the players can run out and a sound and lighting system. There’s an all-weather eight-lane track with the capability to run steeplechase races with the hopes of hosting sectional and ECIC events.
“The new stadium will be Clint Small Stadium and we’re going to make sure the tradition of the program carries over to the new place and the tradition of that stadium," Gross said. “Mr. Small’s name is going to be on the turf and on the scoreboard and everyone there will know it’s Clint Small Stadium."
Everyone came out to say good-bye one final time to the ugly stadium that served as the Taj Mahal for Tonawanda football and its fans.
“The stadium where we are now will always be a special place,’’ Gross said. “There are men with their ashes spread on that field … maybe mine too someday."