INDIANAPOLIS -- Two former All-Western New York high school football players will be on the field Sunday in the AFC Championship Game.
Orchard Park High School graduate Josh Thomas is the third defensive end for the Colts. Sweet Home High School graduate Keith O'Neil is a special-teams regular and backup linebacker for the Colts.
Thomas, who had a fine career at Syracuse University, is in his third season with the Colts. He signed with the Colts as an undrafted rookie. Thomas saw a big increase in playing time this season as the backup to left defensive end Robert Mathis and finished with 35 tackles, the most of any reserve Colts defender. Thomas had one sack during the regular season and got another last week when he took down Baltimore quarterback Steve McNair in the third quarter of the Colts' divisional-round playoff victory.
"I've worked my tail off and this year I really feel part of the team," said Thomas, who is 6-foot-5 and 271 pounds. "My rookie year, I tore my ACL [knee ligament], and last year I kind of dealt with it. So this year I'm injury free, and everything seemed to line up for me.
"The first two years it was great to just make the team and be here, but this year I've kind of proven to myself and everyone that I can play in the NFL."
Thomas has a great appreciation for how hard it is for a team to get to the NFL's final four.
"It's so exciting," he said. "I keep thinking back to how tough it was for us to get here and how back in the day the Bills got here it seemed like every year. You realize how much work we've put into this."
O'Neil ranked fourth on the Colts in special teams tackles this year. He played collegiate football at Northern Arizona and spent the 2003 and '04 seasons as a special teamer with Dallas. He was cut by the Cowboys just before last season but picked up a day later by the Colts.
"I get to go out and contribute 15 to 20 plays a game and help the team as much as possible," O'Neil said. "The Patriots have always had good special-teams units. It's going to be a tough game."
O'Neil's parents live in Pendelton. O'Neil's father, Ed, was a first-round pick of the Detroit Lions in 1974 and spent seven years in the NFL. The elder O'Neil spent three years as an assistant coach at the University at Buffalo and now is defensive coordinator for the Frankfurt Galaxy in NFL Europe.
"He has a job interview this week for the Rhein Fire head coaching job, so this is a big week for us." Keith O'Neil said.
Patriots rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski lived in Buffalo from age 2 to 10, and has many relatives in Buffalo, including his father, Larry.
"My dad lives here, and I have five or six uncles, a bunch of cousins, a bunch of aunts, a lot of family in Buffalo," Gostkowski said after the Pats played the Bills in Buffalo this season.
"My whole family is from here. My parents were born and raised here, went to high school here and all that stuff. They went to Maryvale. My grandparents lived in Cheektowaga."
Gostkowski went to high school in Mississippi and played in college at Memphis. He was a Bills fan as a youngster and still is a Sabres fan.