By Matt Parrino firstname.lastname@example.org
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — After last season’s T-NT game, it took Tonawanda coach Rob Gross a while before he could watch the film.
It had been 14 years since the Warriors went into the locker room at half time with a lead over rival North Tonawanda. It felt like 2012 was the year. But NT scored the only touchdown of the half and outlasted the Warriors, 17-14.
It took Gross a while but he finally stumbled on a realization about that game that has him and his program re-energized.
“In the short term that was a game that took me a while to watch it. In the long term, after now having watched it more times than I can count — going through every single play — the main thing I took away from last year is that we’ve announced to everybody that this will be a competitive game,” he said.
“I’ve always said as soon as we can consistently make this a competitive game, the talk that was emerging of ending the rivalry will stop. I didn’t hear anybody talk about ending the rivalry this year, despite us now being a C school and them being an A school. We need to compete and this needs to be a completive game.”
The Warriors began their transformation into a competitive football team the moment Gross stepped back on the sidelines. But he wasn’t alone; he brought his father, Rob Gross Jr. and his brother, Matt Gross to help him protect the tradition.
“My father’s presence is a direct link to the tradition for our guys,” Gross said. “That was most notable when we honored the ‘63 team, the undefeated ‘63 team when my dad was a junior. They’ve always known the tradition exists, but to bring back the players to talk to them and to see people who experienced the tradition is valuable. That’s irreplaceable and that’s hard to duplicate.”
Rob Gross Jr. said he knew his son would turn things around at Tonawanda because of his tireless work ethic. He puts the time in and is always available to the players, and they see that dedication.
“The kids’ attitude is the biggest difference; they really want to work hard for him. They see how hard he works and they work hard for him,” Rob Gross Jr. said. “There are a lot of basic things like technique, tackling — they weren’t learning that stuff for a long while. The first thing he did when he got here was get rid of that single wing.”
Gross said when he took over in 2010 the Warriors threw a drop back pass for the first time in seven years, and that was exciting for the players. The road to respectability has been long and grueling, at times, but Gross said it was always worth it.
“I’ve never doubted our guys, I’ve always had faith. But that doesn’t mean it was easy,” Gross said. “The complete radical change in philosophy — we may have thrown the first drop back pass at the school in seven years when I got here. That first group of guys that were seniors were so excited and bought into what we were doing. They were kind of like the engine that pulled the train and I’ve always known that it was pulling us somewhere in the hope that things would improve.”
Matt Gross earned 11 varsity letters while at Tonawanda and went on to play Division 1 baseball. He volunteers on the Warriors coaching staff and his presence is invaluable for the players, Gross said.
“The players can see Matt when they run drills and they can see his athletic ability,” Gross said. “They understand when he says something he’s saying it from experience. He’s had success as an athlete and they listen to him because of the mental toughness he has.”
When this year’s senior class were freshman Gross told them all they would be a playoff team in four years if they did all the things he asked of them. He said their success is no accident, it’s a direct result of hard work and dedication on the field, in the weight room and in the class room.
After all that work those players now get to play in the biggest game of their lives.
“There’s nothing like a T-NT game. Once you play in one you’ll always remember it,” Rob Gross Jr. said. “I’ll have my 50th high school reunion next year, but at my 45th the football guys were all in the corners talking about their T-NT games. You remember every play, it’s something you never forget. It can’t be replaced.”
Four years later, Gross and the Warriors feel they’re in position to finally compete with North Tonawanda. Gross said all the time and energy is worth it because he’s been able to watch his players succeed.
“The hours, the time and and the overall ups and downs — the emotional roller coaster of getting to that place you believe in — it’s never been unpleasant,” he said. “It’s been amazingly rewarding every single day. Every day I’ve been able to pull something from these guys the last four years that keeps me going.”
It helps to look over in a game or at practice to see his father and his brother. To see the tradition before his eyes.
“If I stop to think about how lucky I am to have my father and my brother coaching with me in my program, it’s emotionally overwhelming,” Gross said. “I make sure I stop during practice and look over at them and enjoy the moment. This is a very rewarding job, but the feeling I get knowing they’re a part of this with me, it overwhelms me.”Find @tonanewssports and sports editor @MattParrino on Twitter for complete high school sports coverage.