On Friday, the Tonawanda-North Tonawanda high school football rivalry continues. One of the oldest high school rivalries around, the game, better known as TNT, will be held at 6 p.m. in George J. Vetter Stadium in North Tonawanda. But it’s more than just the game that makes TNT different; it’s the traditions.
North Tonawanda High School Principal James Fisher has worked in the school district for 16 years, nine of them at the high school. The one tradition that stands out for him is the week leading up to the biggest game of the season between the Lumberjacks and their rivals from the other side of the Erie Canal, the Tonawanda Warriors. “Without it,” he said, “we’d lose a big chunk of our identity. It’s been a defining tradition for the Tonawandas.”
The tradition began with a rocky start in 1896 when football teams in North Tonawanda and Tonawanda formed. However, the status of players as “students” is questionable to this day. The school rivalry would officially kick off in 1909, according to local historians, when the two teams began playing for the possession of the Super Bowl trophy of its day, the Alliger-Vandervoort Cup. The Lumberjacks won possession of the cup in 1911 in the “greased pants” game, where North Tonawanda players were accused of applying a greasy substance to their legs to prevent them from being tackled. After that game, Tonawanda announced it would sever all athletic ties with North Tonawanda. This game would be the final match-up between the two teams until 1916. The 1918 match would be canceled due to World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic. However, the game has been played every year since 1919.
From 1920 to 1945, Christian Tussing coached the Tonawanda Warriors to a 12-8-7 record against the Lumberjacks. But, from 1937 to 1941 and then from 1946 to 1970, George Vetter would compile a 20-5-3 record against the Warriors, and would finish with a total of 194 wins, the most in school history.
Most of Vetter’s matchups were against Clint Small. Small coached the Warriors from 1949 to 1973, and his team had a winning record from 1956 to 1971.
Tonawanda’s new stadium is named after the legendary coach, which the Warriors’ current head coach Rob Gross said “is the best high school facility in the state. We’re very lucky and we’re very grateful to the people who had this idea. We’re grateful to the community for voting in the bond to get the stadium built and we’re grateful to the people who had the vision and the drive to make sure it got built.”
The Warriors, who are coming off a 48-6 loss to Cleveland Hill, clinched a postseason berth earlier in the season for the first time since 2004, and Gross is excited and proud of his team.
“Personally, it’s gratifying because our seniors were freshmen in my first year here and I told them that they were going to make the playoffs,” Gross said.
He also mentioned that their success was due to having a group of dedicated players.
“They’re so much fun to coach,” he said. “They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do, and they’re an amazing group of guys to be around.”
One of the players that Gross has been able to rely on to make big plays when needed is junior quarterback Tristan Boling.
“Tristan is a very good leader in the huddle, and his athletic ability and the way he makes plays reminds me of a college player,” Gross said.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the canal, the Lumberjacks have a star quarterback of their own: junior Chris Woodard. Woodard, who has completed 73 percent of his passes and has rushed for nine touchdowns, believes he has become a better player after having a year on the varsity level under his belt.
“I’m a lot more confident in myself, my teammates, and the game is slowing down for me so I can see what’s going on and it’s able to let me have a lot more fun out there,” Chris said.
It wasn’t until a couple of weeks before the season began that Chris knew who his No. 1 wide receiver was going to be: senior Jake Ferry.
“Ferry beat everybody out,” Chris said. “He showed he could be a No. 1 guy, and it’s proving now in the season.”
The two have connected for six touchdowns.
Another highlight for the Lumberjacks has been senior Jon Zellner, who has 66 carries for 462 yards and four touchdowns entering Friday’s game. The three-year veteran said the team is a family on and off the field.
“No matter what happens week to week, we stick together, no matter the outcome,” Jon said. “In your senior year, you realize that everything is the last time you can do it, so you want to do everything you can before you leave.”
The players who will be suiting up Friday night won’t be forgotten after the final horn sounds as they will become part of the TNT legacy.
Jake said that he has been waiting to play in a TNT game since he was a kid. He was inspired after watching the 100th anniversary game in 2009.
“I was like ‘Wow, I really wish I had the opportunity to play against them,’ ” Jake said.
Leading up to the game, both schools have a spirit week, which will be capped off Friday with a pep assembly.
“It really gets you pumped up for the game,” Warriors wide receiver and linebacker Shane Guenot said. “Not many other teams in Western New York have this kind of tradition, so the hype makes it even more exciting.”
His teammate, wide receiver Paul Palladino, added that his favorite part of the week is “the mental state you have to put yourself into. Once the pep assembly comes, you know that it’s time to focus on the game and get ready to go.”
Gross and North Tonawanda coach Tony Truilizio both said that they were part of rivalries and can relate to how special TNT is.
Gross, a former Warrior, said to his team that “it’s not like this anywhere else. TNT is special because it’s unique and because of the traditions. I’m lucky that I get to continue to be a part of these traditions, and our guys are going to go all out every snap and they will have done everything in their power to be successful.”
Truilizio, who went to Lafayette High School and is in his second season with the Lumberjacks, added, “We have to respect our opponent and we have to play good football to win.”
Fisher, however, said that it doesn’t matter who wins Friday’s game as long as it is a competitive one.
“I know that there was some discussion in certain circles about ending the TNT tradition when it appeared the rivalry was becoming lopsided. But if you ask the folks from Tonawanda or North Tonawanda, they wouldn’t think of ending the TNT tradition because it’s more about the rivalry, the camaraderie and the communities than it is about winning or losing a football game.”
And so 104 years later, the ’Jacks-Warriors rivalry is still going strong, and still bringing the Tonawandas together.
Joseph Kraus is a sophomore at North Tonawanda High School.
Another chapter of ‘TNT’ is upon us