It was just an hour or two after the first story of our 50th anniversary All-Western New York football series was posted on www.buffalonews.com, when we knew what we were in for.
After announcing our plans to select an all-time All-WNY team based on this year as well as the 49 seasons before it, we got an e-mail from Ohio:
"This is a novel idea," the first line read, "but you are going to tick off a lot of people."
Well, it's finally time for the tick-off kickoff.
Picking the All-Western New York football team every year is tough. Picking a 50th anniversary team bordered on the ridiculous. We think we've come up with quite a team -- but we certainly realize there have been so many great players through the years that there will be plenty of fun debate and discussion.
In selecting our anniversary team, we attempted to follow the same guidelines that we use in picking each year's squad. We want to honor the best 25 football players, with all positions on the field represented, with the very best from different regions included. For the anniversary team, added to our juggling act was that we also needed to make sure that different eras were included.
We're not talking about quotas or reserving a certain amount of roster spots for a league, region, or even decade. Like anything else printed in a newspaper, we strive to be impartial. We want the best, most deserving players from every corner.
As we do every year, we tried to get a little creative and move some players and positions around in order to come up with a great team of 25, all while keeping a basic structure of a football depth chart.
The only rule was that to be considered: players had to have been All-WNY first-team selections to be eligible. That really narrowed the field down . . . to 1,173 players.
How did we do it?
We relied on the reporters who are still on The Buffalo News' staff who covered high school football, which accounted for the last 25 years. For earlier seasons, we consulted with former sportswriters and some past and present coaches.
But in all cases, we simply let the newspaper clippings be our guide. We've scoured every All-Western New York presentation and every Player of the Year story, which explain why that year's players were the best of the best. As for their future successes, some might be mentioned in this story, but our selections are based on what made them All-Western New Yorkers in the first place: their performance in high school.
We also listened to you. We received more than 200 e-mails and there were 170 comments on the Prep Talk blog. In our mailbox we found envelopes of all sizes. Some people sent in complete portfolios which included photocopies of newspaper clippings from years past (some of which we didn't even have in our archives), while others mailed us small, handwritten notes that sometimes didn't go beyond a sentence.
Each one made their case in its own way. Here's ours:
>Calling a signal-caller
Quick: Who's the best quarterback to come out of Western New York?
Philadelphia Eagles great and Lackawanna native Ron Jaworski? Depew's Don Majikowski, who played for the Green Bay Packers?
Maybe, but neither are on this team. They weren't even eligible. They didn't make first-team All-Western New York, so they can't make this one.
Our pick is Tonawanda's Rick Cassata, the quarterback of the 1963 All-Western New York team and a Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Famer. Actually, he was the first player to be named to the team as a quarterback; the first five teams named a group of "backs" as part of the 11-man team.
In what was an unbelievably tough Niagara Frontier League in those years, Cassata led the Warriors to a share of the title in 1962 and an undefeated season in 1963. He had the tools of a pro quarterback in high school, and picked Syracuse University over Notre Dame, among others. More impressive than the numbers (47 of 94 for 804 yards, 15 TDs, 5.5-yard rushing average) was the utter reverence in which Cassata was held by those who saw him play.
As for who will be catching the passes, we're sending Canisius' Phil McConkey (1974) to one side and Williamsville South's Doug Goeckel (1994 and '95) to the other.
McConkey was a clutch player for the Crusaders before he did the same for the New York Giants. A big playmaker via the reception, run or on defense, he was part of Canisius' Western New York-record unbeaten streak (42-0-1 from 1972 to 1977).
Goeckel finished his career first in Western New York with 101 catches and 1,776 yards (he is now seventh and fifth, respectively) despite a senior season in which he spent most of his time at quarterback. South won at then-Rich Stadium his junior year and returned there his senior year.
>The RB rundown
An all-time team is reserved for the very best, the players who came along and did something that had never been done before.
Lackawanna's Ray Braxton was the first running back to make the All-Western New York team as a sophomore, the first to earn The News' Player of the Year award as a junior, and one of many Steelers who would fill the All-WNY running back spot through the years (Lackawanna has more than any other school with 10). Still inspires oohs-and-ahhs from those who saw him play.
Clymer's Jehuu Caulcrick did Braxton one better by becoming the first freshman to earn All-WNY honors in 1999. After an injury his sophomore year, he returned to the first team in 2001 and '02. The current Michigan State senior is the reigning Western New York career rushing leader at 6,559 (676 yards ahead of 2004 Southwestern grad Dustin Bowser).
The first running back to become a repeat selection was John Chiasera of North Tonawanda, who became the All-WNY team's second two-time selection in 1961 and '62. He was fast, tough, and did literally everything for the 1961 state champions and earned Parade All-American status his senior year before accepting a scholarship to the University of Houston.
First on many people's lips when it comes to the best running backs is Lew-Port's Daryl Johnston, he of the three Super Bowl rings with the Dallas Cowboys. But this isn't an alumni achievement award: "Moose" Johnston is a star on this squad because he won every postseason honor in Western New York in 1983 by doing just about everything on the field: running, kicking, punting, returning kicks, and dominating at linebacker. One of the best All-WNY tidbits from the archives: the only punt Johnston had blocked, he picked up and ran 52 yards for a touchdown.
When it comes to picking the All-Western New York team, the toughest position to pick is offensive line. Jim Peters, who was part of the Courier-Express's selection process from the 1960s through its final team in 1981, and who would later go on to work at The News, speaks for all sportswriters who have been part of the All-WNY process.
"If you do get a chance to go out to a couple of games, you just can't watch an interior lineman much," he said. "You have to cover the games. You have to worry about who's running the ball and who's catching the ball. That's where you have to depend on the coaches, and you have to have people you put a lot of faith in, that they're not just pushing their kid. You have to rely on them being honest about it."
For the all-time team, thankfully we've got players who were unanimously lauded by coaches during their time.
Joe Ehrmann of Riverside was a two-way lineman on the 11-man teams in 1965 and '66, using his 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame (which was giant in those years) to overpower and intimidate opponents. The 1965 Courier-Express writeup explained that colleges were interested in him already as a junior; he went on to Syracuse and the Baltimore Colts.
Jeff Yeates of CardinalO'Hara (1968) went on to play for Boston College and the Buffalo Bills. "One of the finest college line prospects ever to come out of WNY," the Courier wrote. "Extremely hard tackler, went through one new helmet and three face masks. Paintless helmet vivid proof he always plants head when hitting, not an arm tackler."
The name Vaughn Parker (St. Joe's, 1988) is one that comes to football fans' minds when discussing the best from Western New York, since he played at UCLA and for the San Diego Chargers. But the All-WNY story in the News read, "In a normal year when a superstar like Bowman is not around, the 6-4, 260-pound Parker would be Western New York's hottest prospect."
That would be fellow 1989 graduate Shawn Bowman of Jamestown, who is the only lineman named to the first team for three straight years (1986-88). A rare, two-way, four-year starter for one of the area's elite programs, he started for two years at tackle for New Mexico State. Jamestown's Web page, which records its retired numbers, calls him the "strongest player in the history of Raider football."
Joe Colatarci of North Tonawanda represents the very first All-WNY team -- as well as the second. Colatarci was one of three juniors named to the first team by the Courier-Express in 1958, but he was the only one to be back the following year, making him the first repeat pick and the start of an amazing tradition of outstanding NT linemen. Tremendous speed led to outstanding pulling and leading plays, while he shed blockers to rack up tackles on defense. The Courier wrote in 1958 that Colatarci "helped bottle up champion Tonawanda's offense as NT spoiled its traditional rival's bid for a perfect season."
Talk about a fearsome foursome on the defensive line.
Mark Lyles of Grover Cleveland (1973 and '74) excelled at the time when both the Courier-Express and Buffalo News were selecting competing All-WNY teams. The Courier lauded the future Florida State and Tampa Bay Buccaneers standout as "the instigator of numerous fumbles" as a junior and "one of the most sought after players in the country by scouts" as a 6-4, 225-pound senior. The News spotlighted his total of 2,103 yards rushing his junior and senior years, as well as his playing "all along the defensive line, as well as at offensive tackle and end during his four-year career."
Listen to the quote of Lackawanna coach Bill Pukalo about mammoth Mike Mamula in 1990 and you can almost hear pads popping. The News wrote: "The area's dominant defensive lineman 'went nuts,' according to Lackawanna coach Bill Pukalo. 'He single-handedly intimidated people.' " Translation: 104 tackles, 13 sacks, four fumble recoveries, an interception, four blocked kicks. He would star at Boston College and with the Philadelphia Eagles.
All you have to know about Frank Pavicich of Niagara-Wheatfield is that he was not only a first-teamer for two straight years, but the sack machine who was unstoppable in big games was the first back-to-back recipient of The News Player of the Year (1996 and '97). No defensive player has come close to those kind of accolades.
Doug Worthington was a major cog in St. Francis' rise in 2003 and '04. The current Ohio State Buckeye was a Parade All-American his senior season, drawing constant attention from multiple offensive linemen and helping the Red Raiders to a stint in the USA Today Super 25.
One of the slam dunks in this process was Shane Conlan of Frewsburg, the 1981 Player of the Year who would go to Penn State and become a huge homegrown hero with the Buffalo Bills. The 6-3, 195-pounder impressed most at linebacker -- "he keyed a gritty defense that was virtually unpenetrable until the final game of the season" -- but also carried 121 times for 1,029 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Hard-hitting Marty Januskiewicz started a long line of All-WNY running backs from Lackawanna in 1967 and would go on to rack up great rushing numbers at Syracuse University, but we're starting him at linebacker where he was equally as ferocious. "Power is this fullback's trademark," wrote the Courier, which noted he had the same kind of impact on defense with 18 solo and 95 assisted tackles at inside linebacker.
The Courier's best all-around athlete in Western New York for 1973 was Clarence defensive back Mark Murphy, who is the athletic director at Northwestern after a great career with the Washington Redskins. His dominance started as a Red Devil, as he had eight interceptions for 156 yards, 54 solo tackles, forced five fumbles and recovered three fumbles while calling all the defensive signals.
Ron Pitts of Orchard Park made both papers' teams in 1979 (a defensive back on both) and '80 (a running back on both). He was the only junior on The News' team in '79, a year in which the Courier noted that he "didn't allow a pass to be completed on him." And he was the only repeat pick on the 1980 Courier team after rushing for 1,037 yards and 14 touchdowns and averaging 40 yards per kick as a punter. "One of the top three backs I've seen all year," University of Oklahoma recruiting coordinator Scott Hill told the Courier of the eventual UCLA and NFL standout.
Randy Smith of Lockport is the type of outstanding football player the All-Western New York team is made for: he made the 1989 team as a defensive back, then moved into the running back spot as a senior as he ran to Player of the Year honors.
The same could be said of Dan Mettica of Williamsville South, a linebacker as a junior in 1983 and a running back in 1984. He was one of just two juniors to crack the lineup of the vaunted '83 team that was led by Johnston, rushing for 914 yards while collecting 96 tackles, two blocked punts and two interceptions on defense.
Malik Campbell of Turner-Carroll made the team as a thrilling quarterback in 1995 on his way to The News and state Class C Player of the Year awards, but he was also dominating (and highly regarded by national scouting services) at defensive back.
The utility spot went to Antoine Sims of Turner-Carroll, and rightly so: the spot was created for Sims in 1994 because he did so many things so well. There have been several multi-taskers named to the team since, but none as exciting as Sims.
>Kicking ideas around
When it came to selecting a punter, we . . . well, we punted.
Each year when we select the All-WNY team, we're aiming for the best 25 football players. Often times there's an excellent punter and/or place-kicker who also excels in the all-around game, or vice versa.
But for this anniversary team, we didn't feel right elevating a player who was named to the team as a punter over all-time greats. We decided that if this team's going to punt -- can you imagine a team like this having to punt? -- there were plenty of choices to do that. All-around skills, including punting, is what earned Johnston, Sims, Chiasera and Pitts their spots on their respective teams.
For place-kicker, however, we found a natural choice.
Sandro D'Angelis of St. Joe's was the premier player of his time. The all-around talent was the Player of the Year and won the Connolly Cup as a junior in 1999 when he rushed for 1,817 yards on 195 carries. As a senior an ankle injury slowed his running game, but he was certainly still one of the best 25 football players in Western New York. The strong leg behind four field goals, 24 extra points and outstanding kickoffs earned him the spot at kicker, the position he would excel in at the University of Nebraska and in the Canadian Football League.
We turned the punter's spot into a fourth running back, while we didn't feel that those considered the best tight ends in WNY history deserved a spot on the all-time team. The second team, which was harder to select than the first, includes a punter and just one wide receiver.
Don't like this team? Pick your own on the Prep Talk blog at www.buffalonews.com/sports/highschool.