This street culture was a winner - The Buffalo News

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This street culture was a winner

You get so busy running around and raising your kids that sometimes it’s easy to obsess over the future and minimize the past. For two years, my son was wrapped up with finishing high school and picking a college. It all happened so quickly that it was easy to miss what led him there.

Lately, we’ve been looking back.

This isn’t about my son so much as my street. Fifteen years ago, we built a house in Hamburg with the idea our neighborhood would be rich with kids. We were looking for a healthy environment in which they could run outside and play without turning us into helicopter parents.

Our street was a throwback to my childhood neighborhood, where kids would leave the house after breakfast, have lunch at whatever home had the best snacks and come home late for dinner. We spent all day in cul-de-sacs, on playgrounds and ball fields, switching sports three times a day.

We couldn’t get enough. We didn’t have parents hovering. We chose the teams, established the rules and spent years fighting and swearing over the score. We didn’t just grow taller. We grew up.

Years later, as a parent, it was important.

Over the past 15 years, our street became an incubator for all that was good about kids growing up and sports and academics. It was a case study about children becoming products of their environment, about the importance of choosing friends, about learning how to follow and lead and fail.

The kids on our street had so much fun playing that they didn’t see their own improvement. This collection of kids, knuckleheads in my backyard at one point or another, didn’t comprehend the profound impact they had on one another in the game of life. Here’s hoping they someday understand.

In a 10-house stretch starting with my home in the middle, plus two houses across the street and behind us, there were 15 varsity athletes and an Eagle Scout. It includes 11 kids who were captains of their teams in at least one sport. At one point, seven houses in a row had kids playing varsity sports at the same time.

Nearly all of them carried a 90 average or higher, and more than half were academic high honors. You may have heard of them. They’ve made a few headlines over the years, but they were household names for us.

Let’s go around the horn, starting with the two boys who led the way.

Ryan Ventura, across the street, was captain of Frontier High’s hockey and baseball teams, was an all-star in both and a straight-A student. He graduated from Niagara, served as director of hockey operations at Merrimac and is headed for the athletic department at Florida Atlantic University. Connor Ventura was an all-star defenseman and honor student at Frontier who also attended Niagara.

Nick Ortiz, three houses down, was ECIC golf champion as a senior, was captain of the hockey team and is now playing club hockey for the University at Buffalo. His sister, Noelle, played varsity tennis as a freshman and sophomore and is entering her junior year at Frontier.

Andrew Scull, two houses down, was the school’s No. 2 singles tennis player and captain at Frontier. He graduated sixth in his class and is entering the UB honors program. Michael O’Rourke, next door, played three years varsity hockey, two years baseball, was a co-captain, and was an all-star in both. He’s planning to play baseball at Brockport.

Katie Crewdson, also next door, played three years of varsity soccer, was captain her senior year and an academic all-star. She’s headed for Ithaca College. Her brother, Ben, also was a soccer official and an Eagle Scout. He’s majoring in engineering at Clarkson University.

Chad Mee, two doors down, was the best high school bowler in the state for three years. He rolled his first 300 when he was 12 and had more than a dozen the last time I checked. He’s also headed for the UB honors program. UB doesn’t have a bowling team, so he’ll turn pro with the idea he’ll earn enough to cover tuition.

Samantha Barry, five houses down, captained the rowing team at Buffalo Seminary. She competed all four years in high school and will be rowing for Canisius College. Bob Okneski, across the street, played one year of varsity football and graduated from Coastal Carolina with a degree in … sports management, of course.

Lauren Marchese, across the street, was a star swimmer and captain at Nardin Academy before continuing her career at Cornell before graduating this year. Her sister, Monica, was captain of the tennis team at Frontier and is now enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh.

Bobby Piotrowicz, directly behind, was an all-state hockey player who led Western New York in scoring and served as captain as a senior. He’s also headed for the UB club team. Matt Kelley, diagonally behind, played varsity hockey and will be one of Frontier’s top forwards next season.

My son, Jimmy, played varsity hockey for four years, baseball for two years, was an all-star in both and an academic all-star in both and a co-captain with O’Rourke. He drew interest from dozens of Division III schools and a handful of Division I schools to play baseball before making an academic decision to attend the University of Richmond.

Add a few more houses on our street and Eric, Christian and Nick Shaul all played a varsity sport. Dawson Propp and Jeff Morgan are varsity golfers. Brittany Hillery played soccer at Mount Mercy. Her brothers, Brian and Gavin, were athletes who turned into teachers and coaches.

All that in one tiny section of Hamburg? What are the odds when you consider that playing one varsity sport puts a kid in the minority? Is there another area in Western New York that’s that small and that productive? I suppose. And the aforementioned kids are only the ones that have been around my house. There are many, many more across our small neighborhood doing much the same.

It can’t be a coincidence.

Chad Mee would have been a great bowler regardless of whether he goofed off in my backyard, which he did. It wasn’t as if kids in the street taught Sam Barry how to row or Lauren Marchese how to swim. But in one form or another, to one degree or another, their culture contributed to their success.

The neighborhood kids achieved because they grew up in a healthy, competitive atmosphere. The Ventura kids, perhaps inadvertently, showed the younger ones the importance of academics and athletics. They established standards for kids who followed them. Word gets around, others fall in line.

That’s a different kind of peer pressure.

There are more on the way, including the three Gehen kids, the younger Kelley twins and my daughter, Marley, who is hoping to play varsity soccer and lacrosse this season. My two younger boys, ages 12 and 10, grew up watching them and are now arguing over the score themselves.

I’m not sure it takes a village to raise a child. It depends on the village. But it only works if the villagers are going in the right direction. They weren’t perfect kids, and we didn’t have all the answers. I can’t stress that enough. But when that much evidence is thrown in a pile, it’s tough to ignore.

Too often these days, a parent disciplining another’s child leads to a dispute between two parents and the wrong message to the kid. It didn’t work that way in our neighborhood. They didn’t have two parents. They had more than a dozen. Outside discipline was encouraged, not frowned upon.

And that’s why it worked.

Here’s the best part: The kids developed their athleticism, and competitiveness that carried into the classroom, mostly on their own. They played because free play was fun play, on the street, in the yard, on the backyard rink. They studied because, well, they didn’t want to be known as the kid with lousy grades. Along the way, they pushed one another and didn’t have a single wayward soul.

Keep the kids off the streets? To me, it was a terrible idea. We wanted them on the street as much as possible because they learned something about life.

It’s funny, but looking back, visitors often commented on the commotion in and around our home with all the kids yelling and screaming and laughing and fighting. To an outsider, it was noise.

To us, it was music.


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