Saturday November 9, 2013 | By:Michael J. Petro | Sports
The Frontier football team in 1984 was the last to make it to The Stadium before this year\'s team. That team included players from this story, as well as talents like tailback Chuck Conti, linebacker Jim Taylor and linemen Nick Karnavas, Keth Koester, Mike Bartolotti and Andre Dunlop.
Jeff Johnston can remember each moment of the touchdown catch that went down as the game-winning score in Frontier’s 1984 sectional championship game.
How could he forget? It was one of those memories that represented a dream come true for a youngster growing up playing sports and lasts a lifetime.
Johnston, a senior at that time, can recite all of the elements of the play — he was set out to the right, ran a wheel pattern and went out and up; the Jamestown defender bit and he found himself alone streaking up the field, when senior quarterback Chris Balbierz hit him with a perfect strike. The play finished with Johnston outrunning any late-coming defenders for a 65-yard score in the third quarter.
“They bit on the route but Chris did all of the hard work,” said a modest Johnston, who admitted to having a pretty good game that day, later adding an interception while playing safety. “He put the ball right where it needed to be -- right in my hands. It actually would have been harder for me to drop it. After I caught it, I was just hoping that I was faster than everyone behind me. Chris is responsible for my name getting thrown around from that game. It was a great experience to be part of and a lot of fun.”
His teammates can also vividly remember that play, which remains etched in their memory, still, even almost 30 years later.
“I remember blocking my guy and then looking up at the pass and seeing Jeff streaking under it,” said Blake Bednarz, a junior lineman on the team, who went on to a successful collegiate career at the University of Syracuse, before playing one season in the NFL. “Another lineman, Shawn Fitzgibbons, and I looked at each other and said, ‘Holy [expletive].’ That is one of my fondest memories in football, even when you bundle it together with my Syracuse career.”
It was the only touchdown scored in Frontier’s 6-3 win over state-ranked Jamestown in the Section VI Division I-II title game that season, giving the Falcons a second championship in just four years. The Falcons vaunted defense of 1984 would take care of the rest.
“At that point, we got the lead and we were tough to score on, but I was still a nervous wreck, because we knew how dangerous Jamestown was,” said Bucky Gleason, a senior receiver and defensive back on that team, who recovered a fumble late in the game. “Jamestown was a great team and everyone expected them to beat us, and I don’t think we liked that very much. We had quite the collection of characters on that team, but we were fearless.”
However, those types of memories have been few and far between since that season. Though there were teams with similar talent in the seasons that followed and others that made strides again for the program in the mid-2000s after years of losing seasons, that would be the last time Frontier would reach The Stadium for a title game for nearly three decades.
“What was tough is the way the playoffs were set up, and Frontier being in a very tough division [what became the Class A and then AA South],” said Johnston, who coached with Frontier in the late 1980s and is now a teacher and the head varsity wrestling coach in the Grand Island School District. “With how successful Jamestown was for years and all of the titles O.P. won, there was no room for error. Frontier always had the athletes and for years, they were right on the edge, on the outside trying to get in.”
It took 29 seasons before a Frontier varsity team would return to the home of the Buffalo Bills, known as Rich Stadium the last time the team was there. With a 17-7 win over Orchard Park in a Class AA semifinal on Friday (Nov. 1), the 2013 Falcons earned the right to compete again for a sectional title.
“That 1984 season was amazing. But we’re thrilled for these guys and want them to win, and kind of get the monkey off their back,” said Paul Kellner, a junior defensive back on the 1984 team, who is now a teacher and the head varsity baseball coach at North Collins. “Records are meant to be broken. We’re all a bit surprised it’s taken this long, but things also have to line up just right. This season for Frontier looks like one of those magical years. What separated us, at the time, was that we were like a family and played so hard for each other. You need to have that.”
In eerily similar fashion, the Falcons will at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov 9 in the championship game the same Jamestown program, which, just like it was in 1984, is perceived to be the big favorite. The Red Raiders average 55 points per game in bringing a 9-0 mark into the game. Frontier started the season with four straight wins, but has had a few hiccups on its way to a 7-2 campaign.
Gleason and his former teammates also pointed out some similarities between this year’s Frontier team and the 1984 squad. Like that season, Johnston said this Frontier team seems to be an after-thought but is sneaking up on the competition.
“The fact that it’s the same teams playing and Frontier is not ranked as highly as Jamestown is very similar,” said Gleason, a sports columnist with the Buffalo News. “We weren’t ranked at all that season, so I think the gap was even broader when we played them. But I’ve got news for you: It could happen. There are two teams out there, so it doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks; what matters is what’s going on with your team.”
What was going on with that team back in 1984 was a whole lot of chemistry. The players who were also on the team the year before resoundingly agreed that the 1983 squad probably was the more talented of the two, yet those guys finished just under .500. There just wasn’t the same togetherness and something was missing, according to Bednarz. Gleason noted the 1983 team, “didn’t have a clue how to win.”
Bednarz remembers the 1984 group getting together before the season with consistency for captains’ practices and workouts to help build the camaraderie, a similar trait of the 2013 team, which talked about in the offseason hitting the weight room, where inspirational news clippings are hung as motivation.
It didn’t work right away in 1984, as that team got off to what could have been a disastrous start at 1-3, which included losses to Division II foe Orchard Park and eventual Division III-IV champion Williamsville South.
But the Falcons came into their own, as Bednarz described it, and gained confidence one win at a time. They ran the table the rest of the way, winning four straight in the regular season, while receiving some help, from Clarence defeating Orchard Park, to win a division title, which put them in a sectional title game with Division I and two-time defending sectional champion Jamestown.
Along the way, the Falcons defense became nearly impossible to score on. The unit recorded four shutouts on the season and allowed just two field goals during a five-game win streak to end the season.
“We had great talent but we overcame the slow start with one of the best defenses ever in Western New York. We would win games 3-0, 7-3,” said Duane Manning, a sophomore starting outside linebacker on the team, who would play quarterback the next two seasons, leading the 1986 group to a 5-3 campaign. “Jamestown couldn’t move the ball on us and that was typical of our season. They had their opportunities — I remember they were on our 20-yard-line and they couldn’t score on us. It’s funny how you remember stuff like that. It’s back in 1984 and I still remember that defense.”
What also elicits the fondest of memories from that year was the players walking down the tunnel for the start of the game. It’s the same tunnel where greats of the time and past greats of the Buffalo Bills had walked through. Manning remembered being only 15 years old and just looking around the locker room in awe.
“Walking out of the tunnel was probably one of the most amazing moments in my sports career,” Johnston said. “To come out there with a group of guys you grew up with, it was an experience. Chemistry is what this group of guys had. We weren’t playing for ourselves; we were playing for everyone around us.”
Gleason, who sees his son, Jimmy, a senior at Frontier, pal around with a bunch of the kids on the football team, can sense the same tightness in this year’s group. He said that tightness is what makes it work. He took away from the season the kinship many of the players felt with one another. Relationships were created back then that are still strong today.
Jamestown was big, physical and talented, but the players on Frontier had one another’s backs, Johnston said. Kellner, who described himself as just a piece in the team’s puzzle, stressed that to be successful in the big game everyone must do their job.
“I would say, ‘stay in the moment; don’t get caught up in the hype of the game,’” said Kellner, whose older brother, Jim, was a senior on the team, but missed the game due to an injury. “Do your assignment — that seemed to work best for us.”
Even after a fumble put Jamestown in Falcons’ territory in the second half, Frontier avoided panicking and held its ground. The Red Raiders kicked a field goal for their only points of the game. The Falcons then forced multiple turnovers in the final quarter with the sectional title in the balance.
“Just like anything else, you relish what you have at the moment,” said Manning, who’s now Hamburg’s modified boys lacrosse coach. “It’s all about the memories. I still think about that game. It is special.”
Bednarz remembers seeing Jamestown before the game in the tunnel and thinking the Red Raiders were flat and seemingly overconfident. He said once he took the first hit, the butterflies were gone and the grind was on. “We were just all over them,” he noted. “Give me being in the underdog position any day of the week.”
The players also admitted they wouldn’t have gotten as far if not for the tireless efforts of head coach Paul Schaller, defensive guru Ron Biersback and assistant Steve Stamer. Most of them noted that they felt so prepared defensively it seemed as if Biersback was in the Jamestown huddle. All of the film work the coaches did was a big reason for the team’s success.
“Our coaches did an outstanding job preparing a team that wasn’t even supposed to have the right to be on the same field as Jamestown. That gave us confidence,” said Johnston of Hamburg, who played college ball at Canisius College. “Biersback had us prepared for everything they did. He had us in the right spot and the right place.”
“We always knew exactly what was coming. We had a lot of trust in him,” added Gleason, who ran in the defensive plays from the sideline. “We had a bunch of kids who bought in. When you start winning games and not allowing many points, you start believing, gaining some confidence and playing for each other.”
Spectators back then, Joe Fasciana and Edwin Streety get to be on the coaching staff when the 2013 Frontier team hits the turf at The Ralph on Saturday. Just a year away from making it up to the varsity at the time, both Frontier graduates remember the electric environment back then, and relish the opportunity to be a part of it again. The coaches, just junior varsity players at the time, didn’t get the call-up for the championship game — to their disappointment, but did take in the experience.
“The whole week at school there was anticipation for the game. Everyone walked differently and acted differently; they were all heads up high and supporting the football team,” said Fasciana, still looking back in awe. “It’s the same atmosphere that I notice now. It’s almost identical. I just remember the electricity. Kids are proud of this team and proud of football. It sets a tone…It’s a great feeling to get back there, and these kids are ready to play.”
In 1984, there were no state playoffs just yet, so this was the biggest game of the season for Section VI teams. The state tournament began for football in 1993. Since, Jamestown has won three state titles.
“Back then, this was the end of the road, so it was a big game and the excitement of the stadium was more than you can describe,” Kellner said. “It was shock and awe. You were shocked coming out of the tunnel and in awe of playing on that field. It was surreal; you had to try not to get caught up in the moment and focus on your responsibilities.”
Bednarz’s other takeaway from the game was just how special it was to share these precious moments with not only his teammates and friends, but also his family. He remembers his two older brothers, Keith, a member of the 1980 Frontier championship team, and Eric, scaling the wall and running on to the field. Keith was initially approached by security guards trying to stop him, but as Bednarz joked, his brother “lowered the boom” and the three siblings would soon be reunited on the field.
“Having those guys there — to celebrate with the team and my brothers, who I love - it was the pinnacle of my career to that point,” he said. “I’m all about life lessons, no matter how big the opportunity — if you stick to the plan and stay focused, you can accomplish anything. We knew how good Jamestown was but I think we humbled them. You have to approach things with a clear focus.”
The lessons Bednarz learned that season from his teammates, coach and their experiences are ones that he’s taken with him for a lifetime. When he used to help run a camp with his former Syracuse roommate, Dave Bavaro, the brother of former New York Giants tight end Mark Bavaro, he’d preached the same philosophy he learned that year with Frontier to the campers.
With busy lives and families, each former player said they would do their best to be at The Stadium Saturday. It’s not easy to plan around a single football game, especially when your alma mater hasn’t been in the final in 29 years.
Their hope is that this team makes its own memories players will cherish for the rest of their lives — like the Balbierz to J.J. touchdown. And maybe, just maybe, the Falcons can shock the Western New York community, once again, and escape with a win.
“I’m sure there will be a collection of us knuckleheads in the stadium,” Gleason said.
“We’re not the `72 Dolphins, popping champagne bottles if they lose, to keep our streak alive,” he joked. “We want them to win, every time.”