Fifteen-year-old Niagara Falls resident and Buffalo Bears little league football player Maurice Williams never though he had anything in common with Buffalo Bills linebacker Keith Ellison and former Heisman trophy winner Ernie Davis.
But after attending the Buffalo Bills NFL Day at the Movies Tuesday, Williams and fellow Bears teammate Jaleyn Bierster found out that the lessons of youth football tied them all together.
Ellison along with teammates Brad Butler and C.J. Hawthorne emphasized the lasting impact youth football had on them to a group of area youths before taking in a pre-viewing of The Express, a movie about the former Syracuse University great and 1961 Cleveland Browns number one draft choice.
Hawthorne said the game gave him an early respite from the troubles many youths face even today.
"Football was almost like an escape," Hawthorne said. "I just wanted to get away- I wanted to get out of the house. I just wanted to do something positive."
He said the teamwork taught in youth football still applies as a member of the Bills.
"In the NFL, it's pretty similar," Hawthorne said. "Coach (Jauron) always talks about the team. Even when it comes to game balls after the victories, he says the most important thing is his team."
Ellison stressed the importance of playing the game for fun, saying that his original goal was not to make the NFL, but rather to enjoy time with his childhood friends.
"You just have to go out and for the few hours that you're out there, enjoy," Ellison said. "You can forget your schoolwork or your chores and just go out with your friends and get in the backyard and play football."
Butler said the lessons learned in football apply on the field, in the classroom and in any career path.
"It teaches you to be tough," Butler said. "In life you're going to have to be tough. Most of us came from tough upbringings. Life's not always fair, but on the football field…it teaches you to be brave and play with courage. You're going to need that in life when you go out in the real world and get a job."
Davis came from such an upbringing, overcoming the poor economy of his hometown of New Salem, PA. and the racism he faced at home and on the road while starring for Syracuse.
During his first season, on Syracuse's varsity, Davis led the team to an undefeated season and national championship, capped by a 23-14 Cotton Bowl win over Texas in which a brawl erupted because of racial comments from Texas players.
After his senior season, Davis became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, awarded to college football's most outstanding player, paving the way for future generations of athletes. Tragically, Davis died of leukemia at the age of 23 before ever playing a down for the Browns.
Williams said Davis' story served as an inspiration to him and showed how the game of football can serve as a vehicle for future success.
"He lived life to the fullest even though his life ended quickly," Williams said.. "Because of this game, he did everything he could so his family could live a better life, so that he could live a better life. Throughout all the racism, he came out a tremendous player and a tremendous person."
Davis' story, along with the lessons of the Bills players, was not lost on Bierster.
"Never give up," he said. "Even though times can get rough, always stay positive, always work hard."