Share this article

print logo


The odds of making the National Football League from Western New York are difficult at best.

Current players who have made it are finding it even more difficult to stay healthy.

Only six players out of 1,643 roster spots in the NFL have WNY ties. Of those six, half missed the majority of, if not the entire, 1998 season.

Those six players, five of whom entered last season as starters, missed a total of 40 games.

"It's a strange coincidence, that's for sure," said San Diego Chargers right tackle Vaughn Parker. "To have myself and the other guys get hurt and all be from WNY, it's definitely odd."

Parker, a six-year veteran and a St. Joe's graduate, had started 38 straight games for the Chargers before a hairline fracture to the tibia of his left leg in Game Six at Oakland ended his season.

The injury bug also struck Mike Mamula of the Philadelphia Eagles and Justin Strzelczyk of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Ed Ellis (New England Patriots), ex-Patriot Dave Wohlabaugh and Daryl Johnston (Dallas Cowboys) remained relatively healthy, but Ellis is a backup and Johnston had missed more than a year after surgery to repair a bulging disc in his neck in 1997.

"Everyone has to realize that injuries can happen at anytime," said Johnston, an 11-year veteran and a Lewiston-Porter graduate. "I've had good friends of mine go down for the year in non-contact drills in training camp; you never know when it can happen."

In the Eagles' second preseason game against Pittsburgh last year, Mamula tore the lateral meniscus cartilage in his right knee. The Lackawanna native underwent season-ending reconstructive surgery the next day.

West Seneca's Strzelczyk injured his knee Oct. 26 against Kansas City and missed the Steelers' final nine games. This April, Strzelczyk aggravated the injury in a non-football related incident that required further surgery, and the 10-year veteran may miss the entire 1999 season.

While "Blair Witch" fans may be screaming curse, Johnston emphasizes the sheer violence of the sport.

"Definitely more so than in other sports, injuries are a day-to-day part of the game," said Johnston, 33. "Those of us who have had a long career . . . appreciate it."

The good news is that all but Strzelczyk have been cleared medically to play this season.

Here's an update on the careers of the WNY-tied players thus far:

Ellis -- The third-year pro from the University at Buffalo has yet to start a game in New England, but remains the heir apparent to Pro Bowler Bruce Armstrong at left tackle.

A three-year starter at UB, Ellis, 23, was named first-team All-America by The Gridiron Report as a senior. He's also excited about his alma mater's jump to Division I-A.

"I love it," said Ellis. "I think it will be great to see what happens. It's a result of the great preparation that the new coaches, especially coach (Craig) Cirbus, brought to the program.

The Patriots, who finished a disappointing 9-7 a year ago, are looking to rebound this season. "We've got a great offensive coordinator in Ernie Zampese . . . expectations are high," Ellis said.

Johnston -- One of the more successful players to come out of the area, he has won three Super Bowls over his 11 seasons in Dallas.

As the lead blocker for Pro Bowl running back Emmitt Smith, Johnston has affectionately earned the nickname "Moose." This past offseason, Johnston was left unprotected in the expansion draft for the Cleveland Browns.

"I knew it was going to happen, it wasn't a surprise," said the 6-foot-2, 242-pound Johnston. "I was a little upset at how it was handled. I didn't find out until late. But things are fine now."

The Cowboys were ousted in the first round of last year's playoffs by the Arizona Cardinals and are an aging team.

"The sense of urgency is starting to set in," said Johnston. "Our core of players -- myself, Emmitt (Smith), Michael (Irvin) and Troy (Aikman) -- have been around awhile.

"We have a group of young players coming in who have been impressive . . . We could be as deep as any year I've been here."

Mamula -- Joins linebacker Hugh Douglas as the featured pass rushers in the aggressive scheme of new defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. Mamula will come in on passing downs.

Mamula's best year came in 1996, when he racked up six sacks. After moving to right defensive end in 1997, the undersized (6-4, 252 pounds) Mamula, 26, struggled but still finished with a team-leading 32 quarterback hurries and three sacks.

As a senior at Lackawanna High School, Mamula starred in football, basketball and baseball and notched 29 career sacks in 31 starts at Boston College.

Parker -- The 28-year-old has watched his Chargers' team plummet from a Super Bowl participant in his rookie season (1994), to a perennial loser that finished 5-11 a year ago.

With Ryan Leaf likely on the shelf for the year after shoulder surgery, Parker and his linemates will be blocking for veterans Jim Harbaugh and Erik Kramer.

"People fail to realize the things we did on offense a year ago," said the 6-foot-3, 300-pound Parker. "It was stop Natrone (Means) and stop the Chargers. Well, nobody stopped Natrone when he was healthy.

"Now with veteran leadership at QB, people (defenses) can put eight or nine guys at the line of scrimmage, and we'll be a little more balanced."

Parker was named to the All-America team as a senior at UCLA by a number of publications.

UB's jump to Division I-A also excited Parker.

"When I was a senior in high school, only two West Coast schools even looked at me," Parker said. "It can only open up more exposure for local guys to have another D-I school in the area."

Strzelczyk -- A backup on the Steelers' 1995 Super Bowl runner-up team, Strzelczyk has started a game at every position except center on the Pittsburgh line.

The 6-foot-6, 305-pound Strzelczyk has seen the most time at right guard (25 games). He began his career as an 11th-round draft pick out of the University of Maine.

Wohlabaugh -- The centerpiece to the return of the Cleveland Browns franchise to the NFL, Wohlabaugh was signed to a lucrative free-agent contract after four strong seasons with the Patriots.

As the starting center in 1996, Wohlabaugh was a member of the AFC Champion Patriots team that eventually lost to Green Bay in Super Bowl XXII. Wohlabaugh, 27, played guard and center for the Syracuse Orangemen. The 6-3, 292-pound Wohlabaugh is a graduate of Frontier High School.

Player Team Pos.Exp. CollegeStatus
Ed Ellis New England OT 3 Univ. at BuffaloBackup
Daryl Johnston Dallas FB 11 Syracuse Starter
Mike Mamula Philadelphia LB 5 Boston College Backup
Vaughn Parker San Diego G 6 UCLA Starter
Justin StrzelczykPittsburgh OT 10 Maine Injured
Dave WohlabaughCleveland C 5 Syracuse Starter

There are no comments - be the first to comment