I went to high school with two professional athletes.
No, I didn’t know them personally or have their phone numbers. It was a big school and I’m sure it would shock you to hear I wasn’t much of an athlete in high school.
I may not be best friends with either of them, but I do know quite a bit about Johnny Flynn and James Starks. Flynn once handed me a ten dollar bill when he was in Honor Society, and most people from high school know more about Buck than we’d like to admit.
Of course, Flynn was a star at Syracuse with fellow Wolverine Paul Harris and went on to be an NBA lottery pick. Starks went on to the University at Buffalo, sent the Bulls to a bowl game and was drafted by the Green Bay Packers.
I on the other hand graduated from Canisius College and write about high school sports for a small local newspaper. I feel we are equally successful.
While Flynn and Starks have struggled with injuries and limited playing time, I have struggled with a low-paying career and the crippling reality of student loans. We clearly share the same spirit animal.
The reality is that the three of us have almost nothing in common other than where we went to school. Even growing up we were very different, which is why we are not friends. Paul Harris, who is currently trying to save his career in the NBA Development league, has even less in common with me.
In Western New York it seems that we look to praise those that rise from obscurity and become something, if only because that means they represent us as a region when they do good things. We somehow take the success of others as a sign that we matter, despite the fact that for the most part, no one cares when someone was born.
Our sports teams are full of people that were born in places we’ve never been to, but when someone from Western New York can score goals or catch touchdowns their birthplace matters to us more than anything. I get the reasons behind it, the inferiority complex we carry as a region means that fun facts useful only in games of Jeopardy! or Trivial Pursuit can become so much more.
We are desperate for a sign of progress, of hope that good things can happen around here. When politics and economics fail we end up with sports, and a tight end playing for the Patriots is often as good as we get.
There are thousands and thousands of high school athletes in this area that will never be Rob Gronkowski or Mike Williams. Right now my job is to write about these teenagers and decide which ones are worth talking about. Sometimes it is obvious, such as Niagara Falls’ Dale Stewart, who happens to be James Starks’ brother and is headed to UB next fall.
Stewart is an athletic freak of nature that runs track and flirted with a role on the Niagara Falls basketball team, currently ranked as the top team in WNY.
Dale has the chance to follow in his brother’s footsteps if he plays his cards right, but yesterday was a pretty big day for Starks himself. He has struggled to get into the Packers lineup and really show what he can do, and missing his entire senior season made his draft stock drop like a rock.
There were rumors flying that he wasn’t going to make it, dulling the usual optimism about Western New York products considerably. Maybe his work ethic isn’t good enough or he gets too injured. Brandon Jackson and Ryan Grant and all that; maybe he’s too far down the depth chart.
But talk is just that, and seeing him finally break through on the field was an awesome thing to watch. Watching Marshawn Lynch hit the end zone was fun, but seeing Starks break a 27-yard run and later get another 19-yarder in a game where he saw 23 carries for 123 yards was just as rewarding.
And yes, it’s because he’s from my city. I don’t have any ties to Gronkowski or Williams or even Harris and Starks, but sometimes those little signs really do mean something. Starks’ performance doesn’t mean he is heading to Canton or even that he will start for the Packers next season. But it is progress, a breakthrough we’ve been waiting for all season and maybe, for someone like him, for a lot longer.
I have no idea if Dale Stewart can do the things his brother has, but I know thousands of people in Western New York will wake up this morning and read about what James Starks did for the Green Bay Packers last night. They will know where he went to high school and later to college, and where he grew up.
I can’t speak for other cities but I know those things will matter to them, even if it’s just for a second or two.