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Commentary: Remembering Jason Zdrojewski

By Tim Schmitt

Tonawanda, NY – It's easy for Christian Laettner to love Duke University. Or for Jim Kelly to speak fondly of the Buffalo Bills.

These are individuals who have been showered in celebrity, revered for their heroics and considered symbols of their athletic programs or franchises. Sure, Kelly did plenty for the Buffalo Bills, but the Bills -- and the city of Buffalo in general -- did plenty for Kelly. We plastered him on billboards, collectively patted him on the back during tough times and proudly designated him the spokesperson for our blue collar town.

For crying out loud, I tried to convince my ex-wife to name our then-unborn child Jim if it was a boy or Kelly if it was a girl. Her name is Molly, proving the lack of clout I had in my marriage.

But while superstars often reap benefits for their involvement in athletics, those who don't get a sizable slice of the limelight usually don't seem to develop a similar attachment.

That's what makes the case of my fallen classmate, Jason Zdrojewski, so interesting.

Zdrojewski, the Tonawanda city engineer who died last week at the city's landfill while taking readings, graduated with me from Tonawanda High School in 1988.

He was not a great athlete.

And that's not intended to be a knock on him, since Jason and I split more than our share of benches. He was capable, not spectacular.

While sports came easy to many of our bigger, faster classmates who didnt need to work hard, Jason got everything he could out of his lanky frame. An occasional starter for the football team, he was one of those guys you could tell took genuine delight from being a member of the team, even if it meant sprinting through two-a-days in the August heat.

I didn't share his enthusiasm or fortitude, quitting the freshman football team a few weeks into my first season. But Zdrojewski stuck it out, handling football like he seemed to handle everything else. He was intelligent and determined, and proved he could make the team even if most didn't share his confidence.

More spectacular than Zdrojewski's meager athletic accomplishments was his affection for the Tonawanda athletic program after he left school, especially in light of the consistent beatings we endured. At that time, we were still part of the storied Niagara Frontier League, which included heavyweights like Lockport, North Tonawanda, Niagara Falls and Nichols. Our enrollment fell well below the other schools and we struggled badly in most sports other than wrestling and soccer.

But that didn't faze Zdrojewski, who then cemented his legacy in the press box, becoming the public address announcer at the school's football games. He also helped out at basketball games, coached a volleyball team and was a public servant as the city's engineer.

When I wrote a column a few months ago suggesting that the annual Tonawanda-North Tonawanda football game might need to be rethought, Zdrojewski fired back a smart response in defense of the time-honored tradition. At the next home game, he kiddingly banned me from the press box, then again presented his case for nostalgia.

I truly admired him for it.

When I got a promotion just over a month ago, Zdrojewski sent me an e-mail congratulating me on the new job. Since he knew we shared the same passion for local sports, he told me how much fun I'd be certain to have. Then he mentioned he was happy to see a friend and classmate do Tonawanda proud.

Of the many parents, coaches and kids I've come across in over a decade of high school sports reporting, Zdrojewski was one of the few who seemed to truly get it. Athletics are supposed to be about learning, sharing experiences and developing character. Not screaming at referees or trying to cheat opponents.

Tonawanda Mayor Jack Gallagher, who worked closely with Zdrojewski for the past 18 months, is cut in Jason's selfless mold. He fought through tears to close his portion of Jayson's service with the following words:

"God must have a heck of a project for you up there, Jay. Make us proud. I'm sure you will."

Listener Commentator Tim Schmitt is a columnist for the Tonawanda News.