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Starks' rise puts Falls at fever pitch
Former Wolverines star has whole city cheering for him in NFC title game

Brother, sister and mother sat shoulder to shoulder on the couch last Tuesday, shouting into a speakerphone.

Inside the Wheatfield apartment of Sanquin Starks, they made pleas to James Starks.

The topic: tickets.

Everybody wants one.

"Hold on! Hold on!" the Green Bay Packers running back yelled through his cell phone, his voice crackling through his brother's living room.

The family members tried to decide who was going to today's NFC Championship Game between the Packers and Chicago Bears.

Then, ever so seamlessly, the conversation shifted to the Super Bowl. Starks believes he would be given two tickets -- if Green Bay wins -- and can purchase more.

Sanquin, the older brother, looked nervous. This subject was taboo, and he knew it. Some 15 minutes after the conversation ended, he lectured his mom and sister. In a calculated, college-professor tone, the 27-year-old tried to calm everyone down.

"I'm surprised he's talking Super Bowl," Sanquin said. "This is a hard game they have. It's going to be 19 degrees. It's the worst field in the NFL. It's the Chicago Bears. This isn't Atlanta."

Mom interrupted.

"Who cares, who cares?!" said Lillie Hall. "I know what you're saying Sanquin, but it is what it is. They're going to win."

Starting at 3 p.m., we'll find out.

If the Packers do indeed knock off the Bears at Soldier Field, Niagara Falls will be represented in the biggest game on earth.

Today, one of the city's best-ever athletes can lift his team to the Super Bowl. The Falls is on edge as Starks fever spreads uncontrollably, with no cure in sight.

As outsiders everywhere just get to know Starks during the Packers playoff run, Niagara Falls has turned into Green Bay East.

Highlights re-loop on Sportscenter, and Sanquin's living room goes pin-drop silent. Eyes are glued to the television as images of the Packers and Bears emerge. They all wait for James to appear.

Then, it hits Sanquin.

"He's a household name," he said.

"There have been people playing in the NFL for years that still aren't household names. Those dudes are millionaires. But if I asked my mom who [New York Jets lineman] D'Brickashaw Ferguson was, she'd have no idea. And that man is going to be in the league a long time and may be a Hall of Famer. But not everybody can be a household name."

"What's a household name Quin?" sister Ebony asked.

Sanquin smiled.

"Everybody knows you."

>City is buzzing

Starks' family sees the fever symptoms daily.

When Ebony recently took a cab home, the driver listened to her address and cut her off, "Whoa, wait!" he said. "That's where Starks lives!"

"And he went on saying how much the entire town loves him, how great it is to see someone from a small town make it," Ebony said.

One day, as Hall was leaving her home, someone sprinted after her just to say hello. She's constantly approached for photographs at the Holiday Inn, where she works.

Not many athletes experience such a sudden rise to national prominence as James Starks. A year ago, he missed his entire senior season at the University at Buffalo with a shoulder injury, and for a while, it appeared his rookie year would be a wash with a hamstring injury.

Now, he is leading the NFL in postseason rushing.

Three weeks ago, "Buck" shredded Philadelphia for 123 yards on 23 carries in Green Bay's 21-16 wild card win. One game later, he churned out 66 yards and had a key block to spring a touchdown in the Packers' blowout win over Atlanta.

With each punishing run, he's invigorating the entire Niagara region.

"This place is abuzz," said Starks' old high school football coach Don Bass. "It's all we're talking about."

Added Niagara Falls basketball coach Sal Constantino, "If Buck wasn't there, I don't know if any of us would even care about the game. All of a sudden, everybody is running their schedule Sunday around the game."

>Cheeseheads at school

Early this past week, "James Starks Day" at Niagara Falls High School was in the works. Bass planned to disburse Starks-themed T-shirts throughout the school.

And Starks may have inadvertently amended the student handbook.

In the hallways, there have been several cheesehead hat sightings. Technically, headgear isn't allowed. Some teachers spoke up, but Principal James Spanbauer understands this moment is too big to ignore. All cheeseheads, a symbol for Packer fans nationwide, are allowed.

"He was such a good kid and had such a dynamic personality that everybody's excited for him," Spanbauer said. "With the staff, there's a buzz going on. And the students are picking it up."

The epidemic has spread into the local watering holes, as well. The Old Falls Sports Bar & Grill in the Crowne Plaza Hotel has flooded with Packer fans. Food and Beverage Director Rick Crogan said Starks stories have been told and retold at the bar. The legend is growing.

Last week's game between Green Bay and Atlanta was mass green-and-gold hysteria. Usually, Crogan sees a steep decrease in patrons when the Buffalo Bills aren't playing.

Not now.

One fan, who won the night's prize for "best costume" during last weekend's game, was smeared in Packers paraphernalia.

"It was hysterical," Crogan said. "His face was painted, the whole bit. If you didn't know who the kid was, you'd never recognize him. It was like he was sitting in the stands at the game."

For today's NFC title game, Crogan's bar will be decorated in Packer colors -- balloons, banners, the works. Per usual, the 35-cent chicken wings and $6 pitchers of beer will highlight a series of specials.

"This weekend, we're really pushing Green Bay and the hometown boy," Crogan said. "We'll be packed. We should be wall-to-wall, without a doubt."

Those close to Starks say he hasn't let the hype soak in. He knows Niagara Falls is buzzing but hasn't allowed himself to listen in too much. Sanquin admitted that he Googles his brother's name every day.

James, not so much. Right now, he's numb to the pressure, carefully ignoring the hoopla back home.

"And that's a great thing," said Bass. "It makes one of us."

>Mayor confident

Horror-movie music plays in the background. The two-minute YouTube video is packed with drama, suspense.

Slowly, a wolverine stalks a black bear in the woods and climbs after it up a tree. Both meet on the ground, battle toe-to-toe, and the wolverine -- one-third the size of the bear -- scares its adversary away.

Oh yes, this needed to be distributed among Paul Dyster's 1,013 Facebook friends.

The Niagara Falls mayor posted the video on his social-networking page with a message: "Wildlife info for those looking for guidance on the NFC Championship Game. NFHS Wolverines beat Bears every time!"

Everywhere Dyster looks, he finds new Packer fans. At a Block Club council retreat last week, with some 200 people in attendance, Starks' rise had everyone talking. And underneath his sports coat, Dyster proudly showed off Starks' Niagara Falls jersey.

"All of a sudden, he got this chance," Dyster said. "You couldn't write a better movie. It's like a Horatio Alger story. This is a small city. Everybody in Niagara Falls knows each other. With the local guy, everybody has a connection. Everybody has a James Starks story."

Dyster is already plotting a Super Bowl party. Tiptoeing around the jinx, the mayor highlights his preliminary plans. He'd love to roll out a JumboTron at the West Mall, where the city holds its outdoor concert series.

Yes, it'll be frigid. But Dyster knows that it won't matter. Not with Starks playing.

Dyster likens Starks fever to Jonny Flynn's basketball run at Syracuse. When Flynn, Starks' first cousin, led the Orange to a six-overtime win over Connecticut, the city was just as juiced. Flynn was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves and Dyster presented him a key to the city.

"And I see a key to the city in James Starks' future, too," the mayor said.

As for today's game, Dyster has an idea how things will play out. Channeling his inner Chris Berman, his voice skips in excitement.

"The passing game for the Packers will open up the ground game," he said. "I look for Green Bay to get out by maybe 10 points by halftime and hand the ball to James Starks going head-to-head with Brian Urlacher to close it out in the second half. A Niagara Falls boy going up against one of the greatest linebackers of all time.

"Packers, 27-24."

>Bears passed on him

Back in April, the Chicago Bears were seconds away from drafting James Starks with the 181st overall pick in the sixth round. As the story goes, Greg Gabriel, the Bears' former director of college scouting, called Starks and congratulated him. The UB star was Chicago-bound.

As Gabriel spoke to Starks, Bears general manager Jerry Angelo ducked his head into his office. Angelo changed his mind. Chicago decided to draft Central Michigan quarterback Dan LeFevour instead.

Starks was crushed. Regarded a second-round talent, he had slipped into the sixth. Starks drove away in frustration, leaving a slew of friends and family members in his tracks.

Twelve picks later, the Packers drafted Starks.

"I screamed, 'Mom, they picked him!' " Sanquin recalled. "I ran outside on the porch and yelled down to everybody, 'He got picked!' "

Starks could easily use the Bears' snub as motivation. But those close to him insist he's not. That'd be out of character. He's endured a year's worth of ups and downs by staying locked in tunnel vision. One Sunday, he's ripping San Francisco for 73 yards in a 34-16 win. Three Sundays later, he's benched with his entire family in the stands.

Now, he's a playoff hero.

Without question, the Bears will gear their defensive game plan around stopping quarterback Aaron Rodgers. On pass-heavy Green Bay, Starks may be the ticket to a Super Bowl.

Today, he can add to his instant stardom. Today, he can further entrench himself as an immortal legend in Niagara Falls.

"I don't think he really understands yet," Sanquin Starks said. "One day, he'll sit down and realize it. But right now, he's just playing."

And an entire city is watching.

e-mail: tdunne@buffnews.com

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