A state senator, television news anchor and legendary local public address announcer were among the celebrities at a grand gala last Sunday, but they weren't the ones receiving the red carpet treatment in the Riviera Theatre.
They were there to give members of the North Tonawanda High School football team the star treatment.
North Tonawanda completed a perfect 13-0 season last fall by beating New Rochelle of Section I, 14-7, in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse to capture the Class AA championship. The Lumberjacks became the first Niagara County high school to win a state football championship.
With the spoils of victory have come celebrations of the team's amazing feat, which culminated last weekend with a championship ring presentation in the Riviera before an estimated crowd of 300. Most of the onlookers were family and friends of the 49 players and 12 coaches who were the afternoon's star attractions.
Channel 2 News anchor and NT alumna Maryalice Demler and legendary North Tonawanda public address announcer Dick Grapes shared the hosting duties, and State Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, gave a congratulatory speech.
School football coach Eric Jantzi also spoke.
The event was the final public celebration of what arguably goes down as North Tonawanda's best season ever.
"We've been waiting so long for these rings," senior quarterback Mike Tuzzo said. "The game was a couple months ago. It's just real cool. These are like our Super Bowl rings. They're a symbol of all of our hard work."
Striking a championship pose on the Carrier Dome playing surface with the state title was a nice Kodak moment, but the ring made the championship even more tangible.
"It was the perfect ending to our season," said junior linebacker Dan Montesanti. "I wouldn't want it any other way. It's still surreal. We were the first team in NT to do that.
"It's going to take a while to hit us. I felt it the most when I was wearing the ring in school [Monday], and everyone was amazed. [The championship] means a lot to our school. When I realized how much it meant to everyone else at the school, that's when it really started to sink in."
The ceremony was organized by the North Tonawanda Football Hall of Fame. The organization held fundraisers to finance the purchase of championship rings that resembled "the bowl rings" given to college teams, according to school Football Hall of Fame member and trustee John Montesanti.
Those who are a part of a championship run ultimately form special, indescribable bonds that last a lifetime because it takes a lot of work and trust for a team's championship dream to come true.
"We really tried to honor them and give them a lifelong memory," said Montesanti, whose sons Joe and Dan will return next season for the school's title defense. "Certainly the season itself will always be a memory. The whole community and the Hall of Fame wanted them to have something to always remind them of it."
North Tonawanda did receive some nice swag for winning the state title, including a championship plaque along with state champion windbreakers, certificates and patches for team members but . . .
"The ring finishes the collection. It's the last piece of the puzzle. It just makes everything else fit into its proper place," said Dan Montesanti.
"It caps off our season and completes the dream," Joe Montesanti said. "[The ring ceremony] was really nice. They put it together really nicely. It helps when you got those well-respected people showing up. It makes us feel really respected. It's a great honor to have all of those people there."
North Tonawanda isn't the only Western New York football program that has won a state title the past two years, and the Lumberjacks aren't the only ones with championship rings.
A number of Sweet Home football players own two rings to commemorate the Panthers' 2008 and 2009 state Class A championships. Orchard Park's football booster club also covered half the cost for the Quakers' 2008 Class AA championship rings. Southwestern got into the ring of things following titles in 2008 and 2009.
NT's rings just aren't inscribed with the words state champions. Each player has his own name, number and position engraved on one side of the ring, while the other side has the team's 13-0 record on top of a map of the state.
"It's a good size [ring]," John Montesanti said.
The North Tonawanda Football Hall of Fame also will have a championship ring on display in its museum. Not only did the fans support the team during its run to the title, they also were key to raising the cash that resulted in one more special memory for a Lumberjacks football team that provided a lifetime of memories over a three-month period.
"These are kids that worked hard, had great chemistry and had great coaching, and that's the reason they had the run that they had," John Montesanti said.
"The rings," his son Dan said, "are going to last forever."