It means a lot. I mean, it’s such a small town and you wouldn’t think that anyone can make it from here. But James Starks made it and it gives everyone hope. We know that we can make it if you work hard and have the determination to make it. — Taijay Williams, junior guard, Niagara Falls High School basketball team
James Starks did not make the Associated Press recap of Super Bowl XLV. He was not named MVP. He was not prominently featured in the celebration after the Packers won 31-25 and he did not exclaim his intentions to visit a theme park in the near future.
Starks was far from the star of sports’ biggest spectacle, but he will always be a hero around these parts.
There are going to be a lot of things said about Starks today. My Niagara Gazette colleague Jonah Bronstein did a great job putting Buck’s impact into perspective before the big game, and now that he has won it all there is going to be plenty of revisionist history.
I’m not going to lie to you and say I was best friends with James Starks. He graduated from Niagara Falls High School a year before I did and I have never actually talked to him in my life. I’m not going to revise history to place him in my social studies class or say I saw something magical in him when everyone else gave up.
When I started my job at the Gazette in September, James Starks was an unfortunate footnote in the NFL season. He was hurt and unsure about a roster spot and going on almost two years of inactivity. Anyone who saw him play knew he had potential, but much like the city he grew up in, the difference between potential and reality is immense.
It is difficult to put into words the crushing impact living in a place like this can have on you. Verbs like “demoralizing” and “depressing” don’t do the feeling justice. What it comes down to is the fear of being stuck, an inability to escape the black hole caused by land speculation and decades of failure.
You see it every day and can’t shake it no matter where you go. I can see it in the eyes of the people I meet when I tell them I’m from the Cataract City or that I graduated from Niagara Falls High School. I feel it when I see friends give up on themselves decades too soon or classmates work their mug shots into the police blotter.
Where you come from isn’t written on your face, but it’s something that stays with you no matter how much you may want to forget it. Thing is, I don’t want to forget it. I’m proud of where I came from and what it has made me as a person. I know how bad things are but I know people who have what it takes to be successful in spite of the air they breathe and the zip code on their mail.
When people from “bad places” do great things the hyperbole rains down, but I can’t stress enough just how real this is. That quote is real, and the feelings expressed in it are as genuine as it gets. Taijay Williams is a big part of the No. 1 ranked AA basketball team in New York State, and he worked his tail off over the summer to crack the starting lineup for the Wolverines this season.
That teenage boy has no sense of destiny, no spot on a D-I college team locked up. He isn’t Paul Harris or Jonny Flynn or James Starks by a long shot. Not yet, at least. But you know what, after the last month I can’t question much of anything anymore. No one promised James Starks he would play running back for the Bulls or set school records or get drafted, let alone touch the field on Sunday in Dallas.
Promises are often made and rarely kept in a city like this, and being let down is almost as comfortable as never trying at all. The tangible impact of James Starks may be minimal, but it’s very easy to understate the emotional impact Starks can have on a place like this.
Buck will always belong to Niagara Falls, but the way the region has taken to Starks is telling of just how much something like this can mean. James Starks isn’t going to develop acres of unused land in downtown Niagara Falls or hire thousands of people who are wasting away.
He won’t be an agent of change as much as he is an agent of hope, and that should be enough. To some Starks will be a reason to shoot a few extra free throws and mimic his role as defensive stopper on a team that won it all at Glens Falls. To others he’s a reason to smile despite everything else, the knowing grin on a face that understands reality yet appreciates the meaning.
To me Starks is a lesson, proof that where you are born doesn’t determine how far you can go. Manny Ramirez once taught me you make your own destination, but James Starks showed me that sometimes where you’re headed isn’t that far away after all.