Where Eichel Meets Freddy: The Impact of Sports In WNY (and on me, too)
When I first decided to come to Niagara University last winter, I naturally saw a lot of activities on campus I wanted to be a part of.
Last February and March, I had the opportunity to call play-by-play over the radio for my high school basketball team with a couple of my closest friends as they traveled throughout the playoffs and made their way to the sectional finals, where they would lose (unfortunately).
Since we lived in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., we were even able to do the commentary from a press box at the Blue Cross Arena right in the heart of downtown Rochester. After these games, I was praised by countless friends, parents and even teachers for my sense of professionalism and approach behind the mic. Heck, even years before that, I was told often that I would be a great reporter and that a position like that would be fitting for me. That all being said, when I saw the opportunities that WNIA could give me in not only allowing me to develop a background in sports talk radio but also possibly in sports broadcasting, I quickly decided to invest my time in the club.
If you were to ask 10 of my friends to name one thing in particular that they could tie to who I am, I’m confident at least nine out of 10 would, in one way or another, link me to sports in some capacity. What can I say, sports truly do have significant value to me personally. They often create friendships (or, for those who care maybe a little too much, lose friendships) and can be used often as an outlet from all of the pressures of the world.
Toward the end of my junior year of high school, I had a lot on my plate between school work, planning a trip to New York City and the activity that was occurring with my school’s tennis team (a story for another day). So what helped me relax to get away from all of the mounting stress? Just taking a little time to take a breather and watch some of the NBA Playoffs. And heck, there are streaks of days where there are at least three, or sometimes even 4 games, on per night, so the opportunity seemed right. To be honest, it actually did also help me in the long run to get focused and channel my energy toward my homework and what needed to be done. Even today, with all of the constant political drama going on domestically and in other countries, just turning on a game to get away from all of the turmoil just helps, at least for me.
If there’s anything in particular that I have found sports to be most valuable for, it is for helping to bring communities together. Back during my sophomore year in high school, there was a senior by the name of Blake Cognata, who the previous February was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that attacks the bones. As nearly a year passed, Cognata’s condition started to worsen. On January 7, 2013, one of Blake’s closes friends started a Twitter campaign to have Blake receive a call from Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, one of Blake’s childhood heroes. By the hundreds, students gathered together that night online to support #APCallBlake to help make a dream come true for a fellow classmate.
Within an hour, Peterson made the call to the delight of the surrounding community. The story was so significant that it even made headlines on national media outlets like ESPN and SBNation.com. Of course, the goal was not to make any headlines or local news stations, but rather to give a teenager support and care through a tough time in his life. Just five days later, hearts were broken as Blake passed away just two days before his 18th birthday. While Blake’s loss was substantial to the community and it still lingers even to this day, the way we, as high schoolers, were able to come together through sports to turn a dream into reality was a beautiful thing.
Living in Western New York my whole life, I understand the importance the Bills and Sabres play in the local community. While the Bills do not receive the national spotlight as much as other teams (such as the Cowboys, Steelers or Patriots), they still mean the world to many people here. As for the Sabres, they obtain a little more national attention but they are valued more locally as they often finish the year among the leaders in television ratings, even during the last few years, which have been nothing short of rocky. And with a young phenom like rookie Jack Eichel, people are even more tuned in now as he grows and develops. Still don’t understand it all? Let me give you a personal example.
This fall on my first day of classes, I was walking upstairs from my freshman biology class and I pulled out my phone. Texts started to pour in from my dad, my sister, my uncle and some of my best friends as the news had been released: Bills running back Fred Jackson was released from the club.
When I got to Religion 101, I didn’t know what to do so I started talking to another guy who was also befuddled by the move. I nearly even started to cry as the class began; that’s how substantial it all was. Now you can look at his numbers and see this was no guy that was going to waltzing into Canton after his playing days were over. He only had one 1,000 yard rushing season (2009) and never made the Pro Bowl (even though most of it is fan voting so it doesn’t mean as much as people make it out to be).
What stood out about Fred Jackson above all else was the fact that he always spoke the truth and did it in a professional manner both on and off the field. He was a bonafide leader in the clubhouse and, to many, was nothing short of a mentor. People in the area being upset at the time is an understatement, as multiple petitions were sent out to try to bring back their beloved player (which were unsuccessful, of course). In the end, Jackson signed with the Seattle Seahawks as a depth player and was able to be part of the playoffs this year, something he had never been able to do in his whole career since he started his NFL journey with the Bills in 2006. People forget that sports are operated like businesses and that sometimes means letting good people go, But you just have to remember what you had with those people rather than thinking of what you could have had on top of that.
When people ask me if I would change living and growing up in Western New York, I really wouldn’t. Between the people, the way of life (minus times when the snow becomes a little too much) and the culture here, I love it. On top of that, the fact that this is an area where people care about sports and embrace their teams is special. While Western New York is viewed to outsiders often as just being the part of the state that isn’t New York City and loaded with snow in the winter, those are simply narrow perceptions. The truth of the matter is that there is so much more to the area as a whole, and it starts with the large role sports play in the community and the surrounding area.