I had a lot of time on my hands in 1957. It was my second year in the U.S. Army and I was on my military leave from the old Courier-Express. It was peace time and no one was shooting at us so there was a surplus of bull sessions.
A lot of the discussions were centered on my buddies' sports careers in high school, especially football. Much of the talk had to do with how they were selected for or should have been selected for the All-state teams in Illinois, Mississippi or Indiana; or All-central Tennessee or All-western Pennsylvania.
The more I listened the more I became convinced that an All-Western New York team would be welcomed back home. Our outer suburbs had mushroomed in the previous decade; new schools with ambitious athletic programs had been built. The paper was always trying to increase circulation in the distant towns and cities, so I thought of two recent football products in particular -- Don Bosseler of Batavia and Jim McCusker of Jamestown. Neither had drawn as much attention as they should have.
Bosseler had starred as a fullback at Batavia and then gone on to an outstanding college career at the University of Miami. In January of '57 he had become the first Western New Yorker to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft when the Washington Redskins made him the eighth pick overall. At the same time McCusker was an All-America tackle at Pitt. The following January the then-Chicago Cardinals made him their second-round selection, the 13th overall. Since the NFL was then a 12-team league McCusker's slot translated to the top half of the first round in today's drafts.
When I was discharged in December and returned to the Courier, I pitched the idea of an All-Western New York team to the late Mike Kanaley, the paper's new sports editor. He was all for it and arranged for the first honor team to appear in late 1958 in the Rotogravure section of the Sunday paper.
That's how the All-Western New York team was born.
When we set about to decide how to select the team, all the sports reporters involved in high school coverage were included, but we also had a panel of zebras who worked games in a variety of leagues. Also included were the recruiters for Dick Offenhamer's University at Buffalo Bulls and Ben Schwartzwalder's Buffalo-region recruiter at Syracuse.
It sounded like a nonpartisan panel to me, although it didn't eliminate claims of injustice, the same sort which are still lodged to this day. But isn't that one of the most entertaining elements of all-star teams, the arguments about who should have made the teams but didn't?
We also determined that a candidate's potential as a college player, or even as a pro, should have nothing to do with his selection for the All-WNY team. Some of the best players on the 50 seasons of teams never went beyond high school football because of lack of size, speed or proper academic credentials. A few years ago the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette picked the all-time All-western Pennsylvania team. The honorable mention list of quarterbacks included Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas, Jim Kelly, Joe Namath, George Blanda and Babe Parilli. The starting quarterback was Joe Montana. Two of the three backs were Tony Dorsett and Cookie Gilchrist. One of the ends was Mike Ditka.
But half the honor team was never heard of again after their last high school game. It's an old story.
I was involved in just the first few All-Western New York teams since the Bills came into being in 1960 and I was assigned to be their beat reporter for the Courier, eventually a full-time assignment. Nevertheless those pioneer teams included a number of memorable players.
Some of the most memorable were linemen such as guard Kevin Brinkworth and center Tom Sommer of St. Joe's, Kenmore West guard Jim McNally, today the Bills' offensive line coach, and North Tonawanda's Joe Colatarci, the first lineman to be selected on two consecutive honor teams. Batavia, Bosseler's alma mater, placed two backs on the first All-Western New York team, Steve Waite and Dick Reinholtz.
The entire 1959 backfield was a distinguished group, with Don Gilbert of Bennett at quarterback, power runner Jerry Tubinis of Niagara Falls, Ray Paske of St. Joe's and Tom Butler of Tonawanda. Gilbert later starred at UB and then played in the Canadian Football League and coached in Canadian college football.
The old Niagara Frontier League was still in existence then and it produced many of the best candidates for All-Western New York, including Tubinis, Butler, McNally, Trott Vocational quarterback Roger Hailey and North Tonawanda's John Chiasera, who became the first back to be named to successive honor teams.
In 1961 they were followed by Lockport center Tom Hicks, who was to gain even more notoriety a few years later as a boxer. Also on the '61 team was wide receiver George Carter of Silver Creek, who went on to become a top basketball player at St. Bonaventure. Even though he didn't play football after high school, Carter was still drafted by the Bills.
Larry Felser is a former News columnist.