Talk about the long way home.
Though they've always worn "Buffalo" on their uniforms, the semipro football Gladiators will actually play their home games in the city they represent for the first time in their 16-year history this season.
The Gladiators -- who have won seven New York Amateur Football League championships during the last 10 years -- will call Johnny B. Wiley Stadium, site of the former War Memorial Stadium or "The Rockpile," their home.
"Most of our guys are city guys and they're all excited about being back home to play," head coach John Augustine Sr. said. "The place holds a lot of memories for a lot of us."
Put the Augustines -- the coach and the quarterback, John Augustine Jr. -- at the top of that list.
The corner of Jefferson Avenue and Best Street is where Jack Kemp and Tom Sestak led the Buffalo Bills to back-to-back American Football League championships and O.J. Simpson began his legendary NFL career. It's where college standouts like Gale Sayers participated in the summertime Coaches All-America Game in the mid '60s. It's where future Hall of Fame players like Johnny Bench honed their skills as minor-league baseball players with the Buffalo Bisons, and where Robert Redford played Roy Hobbs in the 1984 smash hit "The Natural."
It's also where Patricia Ann LaMarca, later known as Patricia Augustine, helped fire up crowds as one of the original Buffalo Jills during the 1967 and '68 AFL seasons.
"That's one of the very first things I thought of when I found out we'd be playing there," said John Augustine Jr. "When they started tearing down the original Rockpile I remember actually going there and stealing paraphernalia, trying to grab any little piece of the place. I came away with a little blue ticket box and I gave it to my mom. She got a big kick out of it."
Pat Augustine died of cancer on June 16, 2004, at the age of 61 after having spent most of her life involved with football and cheerleading. When she wasn't coaching cheerleaders, as she did for the West Side Little League and at Canisius College, she was coordinating fund raising and serving as the Gladiators' team videographer, community liaison and statistician.
Aside from memories of his mom, John Augustine Jr. also spent a few Friday nights under the lights at the stadium as an assistant coach for Lafayette High. Many of the Gladiators players, more than half of whom live in Buffalo, grew up near the Rockpile.
"My first time in high school playing there I was named WJJL player of the game on a Friday night when I was playing at Grover Cleveland," said third-year defensive back Mike Wells. "When I was in little league I won four championships at the Rockpile. I've had a lot of success at that field."
"I love the Bills, I grew up watching those guys," said Pete Gittere, a 12th-year defensive lineman who grew up in the Elmwood District. "I've always looked forward to playing where they did. I think we'll have a bigger fan base now, more support than in the past. Everybody knows where the Rockpile is. People who haven't had the chance to see us, because we've been so far away, will be able to support us now."
In many ways the Gladiators have been orphans of the sporting world because area high schools are reluctant to allow additional games to be played on their fields, fearing that the combination of overuse and bad weather will chew up the playing surfaces.
The Gladiators played their home games at Lockport's Outwater Park last year and have also been housed at Clinton Small Stadium in the City of Tonawanda, at the University at Buffalo, St. Mary's of Lancaster, Sal Maglie Stadium in Niagara Falls, Lackawanna, Lewiston-Porter, Salamanca, even Medina for a playoff game last fall.
"I have a lot of people who like to come to every game and they were always complaining about having to go to Lockport," said Greg Rogers, a fifth-year linebacker from North Buffalo. "Hopefully we'll get more than 300 people in the stands. Some teams around semipro football get like 5,000 at their games. We're competing for the national championship every year and if we can develop a nice following to get a real home-field advantage it could be huge."
Augustine Jr. says his team welcomes the opportunity to give back to the community. The team is planning clinics for little leaguers and autograph sessions. Local ultimate fighter Kevin Rosier has already committed to appear at a Gladiators game and other celebrities are in the works.
The first of five home games is Aug. 11 against Central New York.
"We've never had a true home field," Wells said. "Now a lot of people can come see for themselves what we're all about."