BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Before venturing on a state championship parade through the city, the pride of Buffalo Public Schools celebrated two Tigers in tandem step on their athletic journeys Wednesday at Lewis J. Bennett School.
Bennett beacons Rashard Perry and Jayden Lewis signed letters of intent to play college football. Perry, a dominant defensive lineman, is headed to Syracuse University, where the Tigers claimed the program’s first NYSPHSAA Class AA championship earlier this month, while Lewis, a dynamic defensive back, will play for his hometown University at Buffalo.
“These two young men have been cornerstones of our program for the last four years,” Bennett coach Steve McDuffie. “They have been great examples, not only in the school, but in the community.”
Perry, who won the Trench Trophy as the most outstanding lineman in Western New York, and Lewis, a finalist for the Connolly Cup awarded to the area’s best player, are pillars in the foundation McDuffie has built his powerhouse program on.
“The three D’s — dedication, discipline and decision-making,” McDuffie said. “These young men have done everything right. And they have really bought into the program, on the football field and the classroom also. This is what we believe can happen with all our kids. These kids are examples of what happens if you do things the right way.”
Perry and Lewis follow a Division I scholarship path paved by recent Bennett graduates Brandon Brown (Central Michigan), Alex Lofton (Abilene Christian) and Isaiah McDuffie (Boston College), the coach’s son who now plays for the Green Bay Packers.
McDuffie compared Perry and Lewis with two players from the city who starred for University at Buffalo before having NFL careers — defensive end Steven Means and wide receiver Naaman Roosevelt.
“Rashard is a lot further ahead of what Steve Means was at this age,” McDuffie said. “At this age, Jayden is ahead of what Naaman was. If they continue to work hard and stay the course, I think they will have the opportunity to be Sunday players.”
Lewis, who had 64 tackles and seven interceptions in a nickel linebacker role for Bennett, while amassing 1,452 yards and 20 touchdowns on offense, is the only local high school player in the UB’s 20-member early signing class. Linebacker Joe Andreessen, a Lancaster graduate, is a transfer addition from Bryant University, where he was an FCS All-American.
“Playing in your home area means something more,” Bulls coach Maurice Linguist said. “I think it means something for Jayden. And I’m really proud we got him with us. I like that he has the position flexibility. I love that he has done multiple things, and he has been productive at all the things he’s been asked to do at Bennett.”
“We always start at home,” added Linguist, pointing to All-MAC linebacker Shaun Dolac, a West Seneca East graduate now on scholarship after walking on the UB program before Linguist’s arrival, and starting quarterback Cole Snyder, a Southwestern graduate who transferred home from Rutgers.
“If we don’t keep our own players home, we’re not going to be successful,” Linguist said. “We want to continue to make sure that everybody knows that UB is Buffalo’s team.”
McDuffie, a former UB player, said two more of Bennett’s seniors could join UB’s recruiting class during the spring signing period. Among those seniors that have received interest from colleges during the season: quarterback Antonio Davis III, running back Cureem Hathcock, linebacker Xzavier Goodman, and lineman Jason Gwan.
“When UB has been very, very successful, it has been the talent form around here that spearheaded the program,” said McDuffie, noting Dolac, Means, Roosevelt, his Chris and Dylan, along with Niagara Falls native James Starks, who won a Super Bowl playing for the Packers. “It’s a very high level of football being played around here. And I think that any powerhouse program needs to take care of their own backyard before they take care of anything else.”
Perry, who made 93 tackles, 21 for loss, with 13 sacks as a senior, is a three-star recruit ranked as the No. 2 prospect in New York State. He is one of four in-state recruits entering a Syracuse program that already includes Maryvale graduate Kevin Jobity Jr., who had 12 tackles and a sack as freshman.
“I’m excited about keeping them home,” Syracuse coach Dino Babers said. “This was a fabulous class. This was the state of New York showing off. I think these are not only good players but guys who will be contributing greatly to our football team in the future.”
Whatever the future holds, the signed scholarships signal the stature Bennett’s football program has attained on its championship run.
“I’m so proud of what this team, what this staff, and the district is doing here,” said Sharon Belton-Cottman, a BPS board of education member. “When I look in your eyes, I see tomorrow. And when I look in your eyes, sometimes it brings tears to my eyes.”
Ahead of Thursday’s victory parade that will take the Tigers through East Buffalo and downtown to City Hall, the team was recognized during Wednesday night’s board meeting.
“It’s such an honor to be with all of you great people,” former Bills running back Thurman Thomas told the Bennett players.
Highlighting how the Tigers overcame Section VI sanctions requiring them to forfeit four victories over an administrative error regarding one freshman player’s transfer paperwork, Thomas said told the players, “what you accomplished and what you went through shows character and the type of men that you are.”
“It also tells me that you can achieve a lot,” the Pro Football Hall of Fame member said. “Especially being a team together. You guys are going to be bonded together forever. I still talk to my high school teammates. And that was 40 years ago. … We still talk about thestate championship that we won in Texas.”
Thomas then challenged Bennett’s returning players, which includes a number of college prospects.
“I want to see back-to-back next year,” Thomas said. “I want to go back to Syracuse and do it all over again. To let them know that we are Bennett. We are a community. And we are together.”
Jonah Bronstein joined the News 4 roster in 2022 as a digital sports reporter. Read more of his work here.