BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — The Bennett Tigers enjoyed their moment in the sun. On a glorious morning before the blizzard arrived, there was no rain on the football state championship parade that breezed through the city on Thursday.
“A very treasurable moment,” said Bennett senior captain Rashard Perry, the Trench Trophy winner who one day earlier signed a scholarship offer to play for Syracuse University. “All of my teammates, once the future comes, we are going to remember this day.”
The parade was held in recognition of the NYSPHSAA Class AA title won earlier this month, a crowing achievement at the end of a season that was threatened by the Tigers being forced to forfeit their first four victories over a clerical error regarding one player’s transfer paperwork.
Police escorted six buses decorated with orange and blue balloons, filled by football players, coaches, cheerleaders, fellow students, and the Tiger mascot. Followed by a calvary of honking car horns, the group departed Lewis J. Bennett School on Main Street, traveled down Fillmore Avenue and Genesee Street, and arrived at Niagara Square on the front steps of Buffalo’s City Hall.
“It was emotional,” Perry said. “We passed by some spots that reminded me of times when I was little, playing as kids. People in the city, even though they had their day-to-day things, they came out to support us. It was good to see the whole city and town behind us. Coming this far is really breathtaking to me.”
Bennett coach Steve McDuffie was moved to tears during the bus ride. He recalled the day earlier this season when he told the team that Section VI had ruled an eligibility violation forced them to forfeit four wins. The initial disappointment galvanized the Tigers to win their final seven games after being stricken with an 0-6 record.
“This is the best 7-6 team in the nation,” school principal Carlos Alvarez stated.
Watch video of Bennett’s state championship celebration on the steps of Buffalo’s City Hall in the tweet embedded at the bottom of this post.
“They are true state champions,” McDuffie said. “And they are truly one of the best teams in the country.”
Mayor Byron Brown proclaimed Dec. 4, the occasion when Bennett won the state title game in Syracuse, as Bennett Tigers Day in Buffalo.
“On behalf of the residents of Buffalo, we thank the Bennett Tigers for giving us another thing to cheer, and shining a positive light on the team, Bennett High School, and our entire community,” Brown said. “There was adversity. There was some tough times. But they never gave up. They kept going, in true Buffalo fashion. And when they kept going, they won the whole thing.”
Bennett’s title reign is a beacon for Black excellence, as McDuffie became the first Black coach to win a NYSPHSAA football championship, with a predominantly Black roster of inner-city residents.
“I am so proud of this team and I am so proud of Coach McDuffie,” said Tonja Williams, the superintendent for Buffalo Public Schools, an African-American woman born and raised in Buffalo. “Not only are these young men athletes, but they are scholars.”
One supporter in the crowd shouted several times that McDuffie deserved a key to the city for building Bennett into a championship program. Brown, in his fifth term as the first Black mayor of Buffalo, agreed that if the Tigers win back-to-back titles, McDuffie will be so honored.
“We are going to do it again,” McDuffie declared. “This is not going to be the last state championship at Bennett High School.”
Telling his top-ranked team that it was suddenly winless at midseason was one of the hardest coaching tasks of McDuffie’s career. But the Tigers’ response to adversity, as McDuffie has often repeated, revealed the strength of their character.
“When they say this is the thing that stories are made of, hey ya’ll did it,” McDuffie said. “And I’m so proud of ya’ll. When they came in that room after we talked to them, we said we write our own story. Each page we flipped was a new chapter. And guess what?
“It was a storybook ending.”