Tonawanda News — When Tonawanda's Clayton Hess thinks back to this year's T-NT game, there is a brief pause. His eyes go empty as he's transported back to the painful moments following a 17-14, heartbreaking defeat against North Tonawanda — the 13th straight loss in the series for the Warriors.
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound quarterback's eyes then start to well up with tears as he searches for the words to describe the feelings that followed the final whistle.
"It's hard to talk about because it's so disturbing," he said after a few seconds. "I couldn't believe it at first. … It was just a mess after that. I think it kind of devastated our community — us players carry a burden on our shoulders knowing we could have won that game."
The tears he's cried are not for himself, they are for the teammates he lined up with on Fridays and Saturdays and for a town that has supported and cheered for him on the gridiron.
Hess's stats speak for themselves but his role as the leader of the Warriors and his dedication to his team and community is why he is this season's Tonawanda News Player of the Year.
The Warriors only won two games this season, but in a super-competitive Class B West they were in every single game. Hess shined on most nights, finishing with 1,372 total yards and 18 total touchdowns — nine rushing, eight passing and even one receiving.
The two-sport athlete — Hess is the captain of the Warriors basketball team — was an all-around contributor on the football field, making 16 tackles from his free safety position and recording three interceptions.
"Clayton has been somebody that's been able to take previous information and build on it," said Warriors coach Rob Gross. "We've been able to throw more and more at him so by the end of his senior year he was in a position to makes plays. He gave us an opportunity to build on what he was already able to do."
Hess was named to the Class B second-team for his efforts this season, seemingly overlooked as fellow teammates Steven Warthling and Tyler Hughes received first-team honors. But that barely registers with Hess, who is proud of his teammates, without whom he said he wouldn't have been able to do anything on the field.
Tonawanda is a big part of Hess's identity, even though he only moved to the area four years ago.
It was the summer before Hess' freshman year and his dad had hopes of moving from Ohio to Western New York to work as a border patrol officer. As his family arrived the border patrol agency where Paul Hess had applied underwent a hiring freeze, which left him without a job in a new city.
So he did what any good father would do: he got a job at a pizzeria to support his family. Those sacrifices haven't been lost on Hess.
"He always works and he still does all he can to get to my games," he said. "He does a tremendous amount for my entire family. I'm very thankful to him and love it that he's there."
Football is a big part of the Hess family and Tonawanda is at its core. Hess's mom, Laurie, attended Tonawanda and so did her two brothers — Troy and Lucas Langworthy. Troy Langworthy was one of Hess's idols growing up and the two bonded over football.
Hess calls his Uncle Troy one of the best linebackers Western New York has ever seen. He was the team's defensive MVP when he played from 2001-05, was an All-Western New York selection and won the Clint Small Award.
Langworthy shares in Hess's anguish, knowing all too well the gut-wrenching nature of a winless four years of T-NT football. He said it's tough being on the Tonawanda side of the rivalry these days but that despite the bad string of luck, the Warriors always show up to battle.
"In Clayton's game they were right in it until the end," Langworthy said. "You create memories when you play hard and go to battle with teammates, even when you lose. You have these great memories of how you guys all stuck together and hung in there until the end. What the rivalry comes down to is that's the moment when you want to succeed — in front of all your family and friends, and everybody in the community there watching you play. That's the moment that it's hardest to shine, when you're in front of so many people."
Hess threw for 204 yards and two touchdowns in the game. He was almost perfect in the first half — putting the ball on target, in the pocket and on the run. Langworthy was impressed with the way Hess shined when the pressure was at its highest, and to think he almost never got a shot behind center.
"Coach (Jason) Beckman (former Tonawanda coach) told me I was going to be way too big to play quarterback and I played running back and linebacker when I played in Ohio," Hess said. "That was a motivating force to just keep playing — that's all I ever wanted to play was quarterback. Coach Gross gave me a shot and I really appreciated that."
WILL TO WIN
Gross's decision paid off and Hess is now believed to be the all-time leader in career passing yards (1,780) at Tonawanda. Gross said that Hess had a bunch of natural tendencies that were apparent right from the start, so Gross had him plugged in as the starter on the JV team.
"Sometimes when you're a coach you get a gut feeling," Gross said. "It wasn't even so much about how he looked or how he threw the ball, but I felt he could be a great high school quarterback."
Hess hates to lose and that characteristic manifested itself during games as the quarterback paced back and forth on the sidelines. Whether he's getting himself mentally prepared to play or scolding himself for a mistake, at the heart of his approach to sports is his competitive fire.
"I don't like being doubted. I feel like it's a discouragement," Hess said. "I like to go out and prove people wrong. I'm kind of a sick person, I like seeing myself achieve when people tell me I can't."
Laurie Hess said that nobody is as hard on Hess as Clayton himself.
"He is just so dedicated. It's amazing to me," she said. "I couldn't imagine doing all he does. He doesn't have a ton of time for friends and family because he's always so dedicated to what he's doing at the moment, whether it's football or basketball."
Langworthy said that Hess's dedication is part of what makes him such a unique person.
"Clayton has always had the drive to win," he said. "He always puts 100 percent in. He'll never be the guy that tries when it'll make him look good. There's something down in his belly or his heart that pushes him to want to win."
Now that his high school football career is over, Hess has redirected his focus toward the basketball court. He hopes to play his preferred sport at either Medaille or Buffalo State next season.
But he'll always remember his football career at Tonawanda, the memories he made and the legacy his team left. Someday he hopes to look back on the 103rd T-NT game and smile, knowing the effort he and his teammates gave. When they left everything on the field.
"I've become a way better person. I think if you play sports you become a better person because it teaches you how to be a part of a team," Hess said. "I think this team will go down with a legacy that will set a good example for future generations. Coach Gross was another great inspiration to me. I think he will refer to us as having a good work ethic and coach will tell them to follow our example."
Contact Sports Editor Matt Parrino at 693-1000 ext. 4117 and find Tonawanda News sports on Twitter @ tonanewssports.