Chris Balbierz sent the first text last Friday within minutes after Frontier beat Orchard Park, securing the Falcons’ place in Ralph Wilson Stadium.
“Twenty-nine years ...,” it read before trailing off.
Twenty-nine years ago, I was a 17-year-old senior wide receiver and defensive back for Frontier, one knucklehead on a team loaded with them. We had just enough talent and built just the right chemistry to come together in 1984 and win the school’s last Section VI football championship.
It feels like yesterday. I can still hear our coach, Paul Schaller, imploring us “to play 60 minutes of football” and chuckling to myself that high school games were only 48 minutes. I can hear Blake Bednarz’s pregame speech, when he brought new meaning to the term “swear to God” while our coaches shook their heads and laughed.
Man, we had a ball.
Here’s hoping the teams playing this weekend, Frontier in particular, are reading. This isn’t a lecture about the importance of doing well in high school or how cleaning your bedroom and taking out the garbage will someday prepare you for the real world. It’s about enjoying the ride as much as possible, knowing it will be gone in a flash.
Your parents’ truest truth is about how quickly time passes. It seems one day you’re panicking over petty high school issues, and the next day you’re waking up with four kids and a mortgage. The years will zip past at such a torrid pace that you’ll fail to fully appreciate great moments as they happen.
And this is a great moment.
Savor the experience because, I promise, no matter how many years fall off the calendar or how many directions your lives take, you will remember this march to the stadium. Understand that these guys aren’t your teammates for this year. Many will be your teammates for life.
Our cast of characters sounded more like an organized crime family than a high school football team. We had Ozzy, Izzy, Tomater, Blockhead, Moose, Grogie, Whopper, Fitz, Waffle, J.J., O.B., Junior, Prender, Killer, Chides, Barto, Banjo, Tommy Salami and heaven knows what we drummed up for the coaches.
The politically correct sect would argue such monikers are demeaning and endanger the overall welfare of a child. Please. Nicknames were a form of acceptance, not a form of hazing. Hazing wouldn’t have been tolerated on that team. Heckling, however, was strongly encouraged and remains standard practice today.
In fact, it’s an art form.
Frontier didn’t have great teams in terms of ability when I played. We had more talent during my forgettable, 2-6 junior year than in my senior year. The difference in my final season was that we had great teammates who were selfless and competitive. We were smart enough to listen to coaches. We didn’t care how we won, only that we won.
And we weren’t consumed by where football would take us. We didn’t have delusional parents who fantasized about Division I scholarships. We had one kid who was going places and everybody knew who it was: Blake Bednarz. He was a 275-pound junior who was tougher than calculus and destined for Syracuse.
Otherwise, we were a collection of goofballs who had fun playing and seeing how far our team could go. It was the first and only time that my team had perfect chemistry. It’s easier to identify than explain, but you get a sense when a team is just right. Looking back, it was the only chemistry worth retaining from high school.
You hear all the time about how winning brings teams close together, but it always sounded backward to me. Winning doesn’t unite teams. United teams win. It was a lesson learned in 1984. We cared about one another first. It became our greatest strength. Winning was the result.
For three months, we were brothers. Twenty-nine years later, it’s still true.
Barto was the best man in my wedding and is the godfather of my oldest son. Waffle is my daughter’s godfather. Ozzy and Junior stood up in my wedding. My family ties with J.J. go back to the 1940s, when our grandparents became friends. Our sons played baseball together, and he was the coach.
Bednarz was the first person I called after the Bills hired Doug Marrone. Why Bednarz? He played at Syracuse and was friends with Marrone. I knew he would give me his honest opinion. He assured me that Marrone was much like we were back in the day, a no-nonsense guy who cared about winning. And he was right.
Tomater owns a tavern, Kaz’s, a Frontier hangout. Our kids play together. Blockhead and I attended college together. Fitz was one of the toughest kids around but has softened as a grandfather. Our kids are good friends. Prender emails me from New Jersey. He’ll send me another after reading this column.
We’ve gone separate ways. We’ve gained weight and lost hair. We have jobs and families. The wives of at least two former teammates have battled cancer. Nobody went to jail, well, at least not for more than a few hours. Is this where I bring up a certain sewer ordinance in Fredonia? Thanks for bailing me out, boys.
Regardless, we remain together in some form. The connections you make in sports, particularly on a special team, last a lifetime.
In 1984, I was a 17-year-old senior at Frontier with few worries and not quite sure where life would take me. Twenty-nine years later, my son is a 17-year-old senior at Frontier and uncertain about his own future. He plays hockey and baseball and is good friends with the players who are headed to the stadium Saturday.
I’ve watched these kids grow up. Quarterback Tyler Gaglia, who once needed stitches after an afternoon at my house, was on my couch last weekend. Linebacker A.J. Licata played shortstop for me on a tournament team. I coached tackle Paul Strawbrich and running back Paul Brinkel in baseball. I remember Rocco Russo in diapers.
All are good kids who came together with hopes of winning a championship. They’re having a blast now as they prepare for – who else? – Jamestown. The fifth-ranked Falcons aren’t expected to beat the second-ranked Red Raiders. We weren’t expected to beat a much better team in Jamestown, either.
But we did.
Here’s a little advice for Frontier before it boards the bus for the school’s biggest game in nearly three decades: Take a moment to walk up the stairs leading to the auditorium and turn around. You can see the lights of the stadium on a cool November night. Take it from experience. The view is perfect.
I remember. So does Balbierz, who threw a 65-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Johnston for the only score we needed, a play known as “Ozzy to J.J.” when recapping the time we shared together. And that leads me to the second half of Balbierz’s text last Friday that began with “29 years ...
“We are still better.”