by Scott Kindberg
May 2, 2022
Nearly 12 years ago, I walked into a locker room that the Southwestern football team occupied at what was then known as Ralph Wilson Stadium. I was looking for Trojans’ head coach Jay Sirianni, who had just watched Fredonia pull off a stunning 12-10 upset in the Section VI Class C championship game, snapping Southwestern’s Western New York-record 38-game winning streak.
I figured that his responses to my questions would be short — terse even — because, well, the Trojans’ opportunity to continue the pursuit of a third straight state championship had ended in the most gut-wrenching fashion, courtesy of Hillbillies quarterback Shane Smith’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Buckley with 25 seconds remaining.
I was wrong.
This is what Sirianni said:
“I tried to tell these kids they were part of something that no other team in Western New York history has ever done. … We lost a football game. It’s bound to happen. You don’t want to end your season at Ralph Wilson Stadium with a loss, in a sectional championship game, but there’s a lot worse ways to end your season.
“We played to the end, our kids left it on the field and Fredonia made the plays they had to make to win that game. That’s the way a championship game should be.”
Before we parted ways, Sirianni offered this:
“I just think of what somebody at school has in her office,” he said. “It says, ‘Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.’ I think that’s fitting.”
Sirianni stood in front of a group of high school students in a room at Northwest Arena in Jamestown last Friday morning. The teenagers, who hailed from Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Warren (Pennsylvania) counties, were taking part in the 14th annual Athletic Symposium on Sportsmanship.
Organized by the Frewsburg Varsity Club and Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Athletic Association, the event brought 225 athletes, coaches, athletic directors and chief school officials from 25 school districts. According to a press release, each of the attending athletes, who were primarily sophomores and juniors, were chosen for their ability to “exemplify and influence” sportsmanship within their respective communities. Among the goals of the event, entitled “Life Lessons in Sports,” was to examine what greater life lessons athletics can teach someone.
Sirianni had plenty of examples.
During his nearly 50-minute presentation, the Southwestern social studies teacher and boys track & field coach — he stepped down as the Trojans’ varsity football coach after the 2014 season — passionately reviewed the three life lessons that sports have taught him — family first, perseverance, and “sports isn’t everything.”
Then Sirianni talked about the core values that his brother, Nick — the Philadelphia Eagles head coach — drills home to his National Football League team, including the importance of connecting, competing, being accountable, and having knowledge and fundamentals.
“I’m very proud of my brother,” Sirianni said. “I’m really proud of where he came from. I’m really proud of the fact he’s the same guy. He’s not changing what he does. Everything he does can be rooted in Jamestown, New York, and Chautauqua County.”
To illustrate that point, Sirianni showed videos of Nick addressing his Eagles players, affirming to them why those core values are so important.
“You may not be an NFL coach,” Sirianni said to the students, “(but) maybe you’re going to be a CEO, maybe you’re going to be a manager, maybe you’re going to be a lawyer, maybe you’re going to be a doctor, maybe you’re going to work in construction, maybe you’re going to be a teacher, maybe you’re going to be a husband, a wife, a father, a mother. Whatever you do later in life, what you’re learning right now should stay with you.”
Sirianni also suggested that success shouldn’t be measured by winning championships.
“You just work toward your potential,” he said. “Once it’s all done, remember those three life lessons I’ve learned. Family is the most important thing, perseverance will get you through some very tough times … and sports aren’t everything. They get you to places, but they’re not everything.”
As an illustration, a “feeling-sorry-for-myself” Sirianni recalled returning home after that football loss to Fredonia nearly a dozen years ago where he was met by his daughter, Bella, who was 3 at the time.
“She says to me, ‘Dad, great season, you can’t win them all,’ and she was right,” Sirianni said. “As bad as I felt, that made a lot of sense to me.”
Sportsmanship can, and does, start at an early age.
It should last a lifetime, too.