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Starks' rise puts hometown at fever pitch

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

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

The topic: tickets.

Everybody wanted one.

"Hold on! Hold on!" the Green Bay Packers running back yelled through his cell phone, his voice crackling across 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.

Sanquin, the older brother, looked nervous. This subject was taboo. Some 15 minutes after the conversation ended, he lectured his mom and sister.

"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."

Mom interrupted.

"Who cares, who cares?!" Lillie Hall said. "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 one of Niagara Falls' best-ever athletes can help lift his team to the Super Bowl.

The Falls is on edge as Starks fever spreads, 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.

"He's a household name," his brother said. "There have been people playing in the NFL for years that still aren't household names."

His family sees Starks fever symptoms daily in the Falls.

When sister 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.

Hall is constantly approached for photographs 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, he 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.

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

Early last 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. Last week's game between Green Bay and Atlanta was mass green-and-gold hysteria at the Old Falls Sports Bar & Grill in the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Usually, Food and Beverage Director Rick Crogan sees a steep decrease in patrons when the Buffalo Bills aren't playing. Not now.

"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. Right now, he's carefully ignoring the hoopla back home.

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

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

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

e-mail: tdunne@buffnews.com

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