Share this article

print logo

The 16 greatest athletes from the 716

Jim. Thurman. The French Connection. We all know these names and more by heart. But what about the athletes who began their careers in Western New York and made it to the collegiate or professional levels? Here are some famous athletes from our neck of the woods.

16. Ron Jaworski

Before he studied “hours of game film” on the top players of the league for ESPN, “Jaws” grew up in Lackawanna and was a star for the Steelers’ football and baseball teams in the late 1960s. After he continued his career at Youngstown State, “Rifle Ron” was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1973, but had limited success. His career took a turn for the better when he was acquired by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1977. Three years later, the Eagles won their first NFC East title and advanced to Super Bowl XV, but lost to the Oakland Raiders. In 1985, Jaworski lost his starting job and he retired in 1990 after brief stints with the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs. He finished his career with more than 28,000 passing yards and 179 touchdown passes.

15. Jonny Flynn

In the early 2000s, Niagara Falls was the top basketball program in Western New York because of this guy’s success. Along with Paul Harris, Greg Gamble and current Green Bay Packers star James Starks, Flynn and the Wolverines became a modern-day dynasty. In 2004-05, when he was a sophomore, Flynn and the Wolverines became the first team from Western New York to win the New York State Federation title. The Wolverines won another Class AA sectional title the following year but could not complete the three-peat in 2006-07. Flynn continued his career at Syracuse for two seasons and was later drafted sixth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves. After stints in Houston and Portland, Flynn played overseas until 2014.

14. Rick Manning

Now a color commentator for their broadcast team, the former LaSalle High School shortstop was drafted first overall by the Cleveland Indians in the 1972 MLB Draft. The Indians, however, converted him into an outfielder, where he contributed from the moment he made his rookie debut with the Tribe in 1975. In his first season, Manning had a .285 batting average, 19 stolen bases and 69 runs scored. The following year, he recorded a .292 batting average and won an American League Golden Glove. Manning walked away from baseball after 12 seasons with the Indians and the Milwaukee Brewers with a .257 career batting average, 56 home runs and 458 RBIs.

13. Lee Stempniak

Born in West Seneca, Stempniak graduated from Saint Francis High School in 2001 and was a two-time All-American at Dartmouth before he was drafted by the St. Louis Blues hockey team in the fifth round of the 2003 NHL Draft. The right winger led the team in goals in his first full season (2006-07) at the age of 23. After stints in Toronto, Phoenix, Calgary, Pittsburgh, New York and Winnipeg, Stempniak signed a one-year deal with the New Jersey Devils. He has 165 career goals.

12. Aaron Miller

After starting out as a third-line defenseman at St. Francis High School, Miller continued his hockey career at the University of Vermont, where he finished with 11 goals and 51 assists in 162 games. Miller made his NHL debut with the Quebec Nordiques in 1994 against the Washington Capitals. In 1996, Quebec moved to Colorado and formed the Avalanche and brought Miller with them. He scored his first NHL goal that year and finished with a plus-minus rating of +15, the best among rookies. Miller went on to play for the L.A. Kings for five seasons and won a silver medal with Team USA in 2002 before he retired in 2008. Now a co-owner of the Buffalo Wild Wings chain, Miller will be inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in November.

11. Rick Cassata

He’s arguably the greatest Tonawanda Warrior and his accomplishments in high school alone back this up. On the gridiron, the quarterback led the Warriors to a share of the Niagara Frontier League title in 1962 and to an undefeated championship season the following year. On the hardwood, he led the Warriors to the Class AAA championship in 1962. On the diamond, the hard-hitting, hard-throwing shortstop and pitcher won the NFL batting title in 1963 and was named All-Western New York in 1964. Cassata had football offers from the top programs of the day, Miami and Notre Dame, but he opted to stay home and enrolled at Syracuse University. Even with offers from the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals, Cassata headed to the Canadian Football League, where he flourished for nine years and won the Grey Cup with the Ottawa Roughriders in 1973.

10. Stan Rojek

Considering that there wasn’t even a baseball program yet in the Lumber City in the 1930s, Rojek established himself as one of the greatest Lumberjacks ever. While playing semipro baseball in Western New York, Rojek signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1939 and made his debut with the team against the New York Baseball Giants on Sept. 22, 1942, scoring a run in the ninth inning. After serving overseas during World War II, Rojek returned to the Dodgers. In 1947, Rojek became the lone link from Western New York to the start of Jackie Robinson’s career. In 1948, Rojek was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates and flourished. “The Rabbit” led the Pirates to a fourth-place finish in the National League, had a .290 batting average with four homers and 51 RBIs. But his career was never the same after being beamed twice in one game, which sent him to the hospital. After brief stints in St. Louis, Rojek returned to the Lumber City in 1955. Rojek and his family opened Rojek’s Major Lanes in 1961. In June 1977, North Tonawanda renamed Payne Field in his honor. Rojek was also enshrined in the Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame.

9. Dave Hollins

After going through the Orchard Park baseball program in the early 1980s, Hollins was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 1987 amateur draft but opted to play college ball at UB and eventually the University of South Carolina, where he won the 1987 College World Series. In 1989, the Philadelphia Phillies drafted the Quaker off of the Padres Triple A roster and made his big-league debut the next spring. In 1990, he became the first Philly to hit pinch-hit home runs from both sides of the plate. Hollins’ breakout season came in 1992, when he finished with a .270 batting average, 27 homers, 93 RBIs, and 104 runs scored. The following season, Hollins was elected to the MLB All-Star Game and once again scored over 100 runs and appeared in the World Series but lost to the Toronto Blue Jays. Hollins battled wrist injuries and was diagnosed with diabetes but continued through his finest season with the L.A. Angels in 1997: a career-high .288 batting average, 16 home runs, 85 RBIs, and 16 stolen bases. The end of his career was filled with injuries with stops in Toronto, Cleveland, Philadelphia and eventually the Buffalo Bisons. Hollins now lives with his family in Orchard Park and his son, Bubba, was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in 2013.

8. Cliff Robinson

After a successful career at Riverside High School, Robinson played basketball under Jim Calhoun at the University of Connecticut and helped the Huskies win the National Invitational Title in 1988. Robinson was named to UConn’s All-Century team and his number 00 jersey was retired at Gampel Pavilion in 2007. Robinson was selected by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1989 NBA Draft, where he played for eight seasons. While in Portland, “Uncle Cliffy” made appearances in the NBA Finals in 1990 and 1992. In the 1992-93 season, Robinson won the 6th Man of the Year award after he averaged 19.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, both career highs. In 1997, Robinson continued his career with the Phoenix Suns. The highlight of his career came while he was in Phoenix in January 2000 when he scored a career-high 50 points. Robinson retired from the NBA in 2007 after stints with the Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors and the now-defunct New Jersey Nets.

7. Daryl Johnston

Known by his teammates as “Moose,” Johnston began his gridiron career at Lewiston-Porter High School. As a Lancer, Johnston was named Western New York Player of the Year in 1983 and led his school to a division title in 1984. His number 34 was retired by the school in 2006. Johnston continued his career at Syracuse and converted to fullback in 1986 and soon became a starter for the Orange. He rushed for 1,830 yards and caught 46 passes during his collegiate career and also was an All-Big East selection in 1987 and an All-American in 1988. In 1989, Johnston was selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the second round of the NFL Draft.. Johnston won three Super Bowls with Dallas (two over the Buffalo Bills) and became the first fullback ever selected to the Pro Bowl in 1993 before he retired in 1999 due to a neck injury. Today, Johnston is a color commentator for the NFL on Fox.

6. Patrick Kane

A hockey prodigy, the South Buffalo native began his career with the USA Bobcats junior team at the age of 14. After a couple of years in the OHL, Kane was drafted first overall by the Blackhawks in 2007. He made his debut on Oct. 14, 2007, and scored his first shootout goal two nights later. Kane won the Calder Memorial Trophy for the top rookie as he finished with 72 points that season. Since then, Kane has become a phenomenon in the NHL. Three Stanley Cups, four All-Star appearances and an Olympic silver medal with Team USA are just some of the accomplishments on his résumé. This season, he also became the first American player to score at least 20 goals in each of his first nine seasons in the league. Kane is definitely on his way to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

5. Sal Maglie

Known as “The Barber” for his five-o’-clock shadow and his inside corner strikeouts, Maglie began his baseball career at Niagara Falls High School and soon found a roster spot with the Buffalo Bisons in 1938. Maglie made his MLB debut on Aug. 9, 1945, with the New York Giants but had to find a job in the Mexican League for four years, which is where he found his early success. From 1946 to 1949, Maglie threw a pair of 20-win seasons and returned to the MLB in 1950. With the Giants nine games back in the pennant race, Maglie was given the starting role and won his next 11 starts and finished with 18 wins. At the age of 33, Maglie was a hero. The next season, he got even better as he won 23 games with the Giants and helped them erase a 13½-game deficit to win the pennant. After stints with the Cleveland Indians, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Yankees, and the St. Louis Cardinals, Maglie retired in 1958 with a World Series title, 119 wins, 862 strikeouts, 25 shutouts and a 3.15 ERA. Maglie became a pitching coach, including a stint with the Bisons before he passed away in 1992.

4. Rob Gronkowski

Gronk was raised in Williamsville and attended Williamsville North High School for three years. As a Spartan, Gronkowski was a tight end on a gridiron and a center on the hardwood. In his junior year in 2005, he recorded 36 catches for 648 yards and 7 touchdowns along with 73 tackles and six sacks. He was nominated to the 1st Team All Western New York and 2nd Team All State teams that year. In 2006, the Gronkowski clan moved to suburban Pittsburgh and Rob won multiple national awards. In 2007, Gronkowski began a three-year career with the Arizona Wildcats. The New England Patriots then selected him in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft. In addition to his Super Bowl XLIX victory last year, Gronkowski has been named to the Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro three times so far in his career and has caught 388 catches for over 5,500 yards and 65 touchdowns.

3. Christian Laettner

Born in Angola, Laettner began his career on the hardwood at Nichols High School in Buffalo in 1984 and was a starter on varsity as a freshman. In 1984 and 1985, Laettner led the Vikings to back-to-back Federation titles and reached the semifinals a third time. In 1988, Laettner enrolled to Duke University and formed a top duo with Bobby Hurley and won two NCAA titles. His buzzer beater against Kentucky is one of the greatest plays in sports history. In 1992, Laettner was the only collegian selected for “The Dream Team” and won the Olympic gold medal that year with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and the gang. Laettner then found success in the NBA for 13 seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Atlanta Hawks.

2. Bob Lanier

When he entered Bennett High School as a freshman in 1962, he was one of the tallest students in the building, which made him feel like an outsider, according to a 1998 interview with The Buffalo News. His coordination hadn’t caught up to his height yet and he was cut from the Tigers’ basketball team as a sophomore because he was too clumsy. After a year of practicing every day, Lanier tried out again and a legend was born. In the 1964-65 season, Lanier averaged 21.5 points per game and was named to the All-City team. He got even better his senior year: 25 points per game and All-State honors. Bennett won back-to-back city titles as well during Lanier’s tenure. Lanier continued his career at St. Bonaventure. As a sophomore, the 6-foot-11 forward led the Bonnies to a 23-2 record and made the All-American Second Team. In his junior year, Lanier averaged 27.2 points and 15.5 rebounds per game and was offered a deal to play for the New Jersey Nets in the ABA but declined it. To this day, Bonnie Nation is glad he stayed for his senior year. Leading the way with 29 points and 16 boards per game, Lanier and the Bonnies made their first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history. The Bonnies won the Eastern Regional title. Lanier’s season, however, was over. He finished with 18 points but left the game with a torn ligament in his right leg. The injury was a huge blow for the Bonnies as their season ended in the Final Four. Lanier, who is now third all-time on the Bonnies’ scoring list, was drafted first overall in the 1970 NBA Draft by the Detroit Pistons, where he played for nine seasons. Lanier continued his career with the Milwaukee Bucks and led the team to two Eastern Conference titles, but when he retired after the 1983-84 season, he didn’t have the coveted Finals ring that every player wants. Lanier was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992.

1. Warren Spahn

Named after President Warren G. Harding and his father, Spahn grew up on the East Side of the Queen City in the early 1920s. His father was a semipro baseball player, but his lack of height ended his dream of a professional career. Ed built a mound in his backyard for his son and the two spent hours every day throwing fastballs and curveballs to each other. By the time he got to South Park High School in the late 1930s, Spahn was on the path to becoming a great pitcher. Before he graduated, Spahn led the Sparks to back-to-back city titles, had an undefeated record and threw a no-hitter his senior year. However, big-league scouts told him that he was too small. All except Billy Meyers from the Boston Braves, then known as the Boston Bees. However, his first stint was short as he went into the service in 1942. After serving in multiple battles during World War II, Spahn returned to the States and was immediately called up to the Braves. At the age of 25, Spahn recorded his first big league win in a victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Spahn then began his dominance in the MLB. In 1947, Spahn recorded 21 wins, which helped the Braves finish in third place. From 1949 to 1951, Spahn had a 64-45 record and led the National League in strikeouts all three years of that span and wins twice. In 1953, the Braves moved to Milwaukee and Spahn’s career almost ended as he tore cartilage in his knee during spring training. Spahn pitched through the pain that season where he won the Braves’ opener in Milwaukee, won the All-Star Game, and led the league in wins (23) and ERA (2.10.) The Braves finished near the top of the division over the next three seasons. Spahn finally won his lone World Series title in 1957. Spahn won the inaugural Cy Young Award with a 21-11 record along with 18 complete games. In 1961, at the age of 40, Spahn recorded his 300th win in the big leagues, the first pitcher to do so in two decades. After brief stints with the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants, Spahn walked away from the MLB. Spahn was inducted into Cooperstown in 1973 with 363 wins (most by a left-handed pitcher) and a 3.09 career ERA.

So do you agree with this list? Let me know who was snubbed on my Twitter page @theprofnt.

Joseph Kraus is a senior at North Tonawanda High School.