Tonawanda News — The tradition and nostalgia of Clinton Small Stadium are apparent to even the most unfamiliar outsider.
Warriors coach Rob Gross said the sound of the train as it rushes past the field on game day is one of his fondest childhood memories.
“I love everything about the place,” Gross said. “I remember having people watch through the windows of the birch beer factory when we played. It’s just an amazing environment.”
On Friday night Clinton Small Stadium will house the 103rd T-NT game, the final such contest for the storied field. It will leave behind a lifetime’s worth of memories for those who once battled on its surface or watched each pass and tackle written into Tonawanda’s history book.
Clinton Small coached the Warriors from 1949 until 1973, compiling a 108-69-15 record and five league championships. His coaching ability and contributions to Tonawanda students has been well-documented and his statue outside of the stadium reads “The Greatest Warrior.”
Robert “Half” Holloway worked at Tonawanda High School in some capacity for 37 years — first as a member of the football team’s coaching staff, then as the head baseball coach and finally as athletic director, a position he held for 14 years.
The 78-year-old former math teacher saw his first T-NT game back in 1938 and was instantly hooked.
“We’ve had glory years — not as many as North Tonawanda — but ours started in 1957 when there were two young guys at the time: Rod Cheesley and Al Canter. They really turned the whole program around,” Holloway said. “In the early 50s, I hate to say it, but we were really terrible. We beat North Tonawanda 20-0 in ‘57.”
Holloway is a vault of information, providing an eye into the history of the T-NT rivalry and, more specifically, the Tonawanda football program. He remembers three games in particular that were played at Clinton Small Stadium that have stood the test of time.
In the early days of the rivalry, T-NT games were played on Thanksgiving, but because of the obvious scheduling problems, that tradition ended after the 1942 game. Tonawanda was victorious, 7-0.
After a tough stretch over the next two decades for the Warriors, the 1962 season was one for the ages. Rick Cassata was the team’s quarterback and according to Holloway — the best signal caller in school history, Cassata said. He went on to play at Syracuse University and then in the Canadian Football League. He won a Grey Cup as a member of the Ottawa Roughriders.
“In the ‘62 game, both Tonawanda and NT were undefeated. It was snowing hard that day and by the time we got to Clint Small Stadium there was a foot of snow on the ground,” Holloway said. “Every five yards they shoveled the markers.
“We were offensive juggernauts that day,” Holloway said jokingly. “We couldn’t throw the ball and the ends couldn’t run through the snow. We got beat 13-7. It was an exciting game that came down to the wire and we almost won on a late touchdown, but a runner was ruled down at the one yard line on fourth down.”
After Cassata graduated, the Warriors struggled for years in the series. In fact, over the course of the next three decades, they only topped NT eight times out of 34 games.
It’s been 12 years since the Warriors beat NT in the annual tilt. The 2000 game was special for many reasons, but mostly because it was a comeback win. It all went down at Clinton Small Stadium.
“Randy White was quarterback and Ryan Smith was the outstanding running back,” Holloway said. “The game started off and we were down 21-0. Late in the first half White threw a pass to Smith and we got on the board just before the half. The second half, we shut them down. They didn’t score. We won that one 24-21.”
Change isn’t easy
The debate about whether to rebuild Clinton Small Stadium where it stands or build a new stadium at the high school has raged for a decade.
Warriors athletic director Brad Halgash said that the current stadium needed extensive repair if it was to remain. The field needed work, it needed new bleachers, the lights had to be replaced and the fieldhouse needed a whole new ventilation system.
“When you do the math of the cost of repairing things you end up with a staggering dollar amount,” Halgash said. “It’s a dollar amount that’s not covered by anybody but the taxpayers. You put that against creating a capital project where you can expand the band room, change some of the structures of the building to make it more modernized, and at the same time put the stadium up there and be aided by about 89 percent covered cost. To me I guess it’s do you want to pay out of pocket or be aided by the state.”
Halgash said after the decision was made to build the new stadium at the high school it was immediately decided that Clinton Small Stadium would remain the field’s name. He said that kids in today’s generation like a modern field with turf and all the bells and whistles, like a digital scoreboard.
Holloway agrees with the move despite the tradition and history at Clinton Small Stadium.
“Nobody can ever take away all the great memories of Clint Small Stadium, but it’s time to move on,” Holloway said. “Everyone should be looking forward to the new stadium at the high school.”
The transition — as Halgash calls it — of Clinton Small Stadium will include an effort by the AD to honor the past, while looking into the future. He wants to make sure that traditions live on.
“I anticipate that there’ll be a sizable contingency of old THS football players at the game,” Holloway said. “I know Brad Halgash is going to have them on the field for the last hoorah.”
Holloway said he’s expecting a great game on Friday. He said the Warriors are better than their record and they’re battle-tested coming out of a “loaded B Division.” He said he’ll be very disappointed if they don’t do “very well.”
Gross, meanwhile, will say goodbye to a childhood friend when Clinton Small Stadium closes its doors for good after the 2013 season. A friend that has been there for him his entire life. But he’s happy the name on the stadium will live on.
“It will always be a special place, even when the goal posts and the lights aren’t there. There are men with their ashes scattered on that field. Maybe mine too someday,” Gross said. “It’s going to be tough to leave but at the same time the new beginning will be great for our kids and the community and school.
“The new stadium will be Clint Small Stadium, just in a different location. That tremendous man’s name will be on the field permanently. Everybody in that new facility will know that that is Clint Small Stadium.”What you need to know • Game Time: 6 p.m. • Tickets for the game are available for pre-sale at the offices of both athletic departments. • Hour-long wait times are expected at the gate. • Tickets are $2 for everyone and children under the age of 5 are free. Contact Sports Editor Matt Parrino at 693-1000, ext. 4117.