In Orchard Park, across the street from Ralph Wilson Stadium, a football team practices. There are no cameras, no fans watching, no team managers or assistant coaches.
But there is passion. That zeal, that will to win, is as prevalent on the practice field at Erie Community College’s South Campus as it is across the street. And their mean streak and propensity to simply get after it is sharp.
All of that can be attributed to ECC’s leader, Brandon Cannon. He is 29 years old. The middle linebacker sports a black skullcap and a scruffy beard befitting a man playing with boys. He talks like a wise grandfather.
He gained his perspective from four years in the Marine Corps.
“I just transitioned,” Cannon said. “If I’m able to lead Marines, I take it to the football field, and they seem to be willing to follow.”
Dennis Greene has been ECC’s head coach for 13 seasons. His squad finished 2-7 last year, and he has an even younger team this go-round. But Greene gets excited when you bring up defense. The reason: “Our captain, Brandon Cannon.”
Cannon grew up in Auburn, Ala., a Tigers fan “born and raised.” He is a bit of a Cinderella Man. He may be nearly 30, but his dreams have not diminished.
“I want one day to get down there and play for them,” he said of Auburn. “That’s why I try to do the best I can for the team.”
Cannon treats ECC as the SEC because, he says, his teammates inspire him.
“I see the camaraderie, I see the effort, I see the time we put in, so it’s hard not to be motivated when you’ve got a group of guys who work as hard as these guys do,” he said.
Cannon leads a team in transition. In March, the Kats announced they were leaving the Northeast Football Conference and will play an independent schedule this year, though they’ll still play four NEFC teams.
ECC was a power in the early 2000s, winning the league championship in 2003 and coming in second in 2002, ’04, ’05 and ’06. Things have changed, though. ECC has won only four NEFC games the last three seasons.
Questions surround the team. Greene isn’t sure who his quarterback will be; there are six players in the mix. The vast majority of the roster is composed of freshmen.
But he loves his defense.
“We’ve run the same thing I’ve run for 13 years,” Greene said. “We’re a 4-4 team, and we’re a strong blitzing team. If we’re on the field 10 times, we’re bringing heat eight out of the 10. We’re constantly bringing pressure all over the place, from different places.”
Greene knows what he has in Cannon. He also realizes the immense talent next to Cannon in the linebacking unit – Okoya Anderson, the former star just down the street at Orchard Park High School.
“Our defense, they’re so revved up, they’re such leaders, that the team feeds off of those two guys, those character guys,” Greene said of Cannon and Anderson.
Wasn’t Anderson a running back, though?
“This is the funny part: When I brought him in here, I brought him in as a running back,” Greene said. “I said, ‘If I told you to take the field, where would you go?’ And I’m waiting for him to say, ‘I want to run the ball,’ and he said, ‘Defense.’
“I said, ‘What would you play on defense?’ He says, ‘Linebacker. I’m better at linebacker than I am at running back.’ And when he said that, I threw him right at linebacker. And he is – he was very, very good.”
ECC’s 2012 record could be misleading, Greene said, because his team was in most of the games but fell apart late with turnovers and mental mistakes.
“The kids never quit,” he said. “They always fought hard, stayed in every game.”