Paying Tribute

The final horn sounded and George Sisson Jr. covered his face with his hands.

It was last Wednesday night and the Jamestown Community College women’s basketball team had just held off Pitt-Titusville, 70-67, at the Physical Education Complex. While the win improved the Jayhawks’ record to 3-0 on the season, the outcome was more relief than exhilaration. Leading by as many as 21 points in the second half, JCC was one defensive stop away from giving it all back in what would have been a home opener to remember for all the wrong reasons.

“I came out and I was exhausted,” George Jr., JCC’s second-year coach, said afterward. “Maybe the girls sensed that I didn’t have the same persona that I would normally have gearing up for a game. I tried to be (the same person).”

But Sisson Jr. wasn’t. Just 30 hours earlier, his beloved father, George Sr., passed away at Heritage Village in Gerry at the age of 76, leaving behind his wife Nancy; daughter Cheryl; three other sons, Glen, Ken and Karl; and 17 grandchildren.

“Every song that came on (the radio on Wednesday) connected me back (with) my dad and my relationship with him,” George Jr. said. “He was my best friend. … He loved me unconditionally and supported me through all the goods, the bads and the uglies. … Dad was always there.”

The Sisson clan gathered Saturday morning at the Gerry Free Methodist Church to celebrate George Sr.’s life. After the funeral service, he was laid to rest at the Gerry Cemetery and then, by late afternoon, the large family – immediate and extended – hopped in their respective vehicles, headed out Route 60 and, ultimately, to Fredonia and the New York State Thruway.

The Sissons’ destination was Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, site of the Section 6 Class AA championship football game. From the stands, they watched the unbeaten Jamestown Red Raiders defeat Frontier, 42-7, keeping alive their season for the ages that they hope won’t end until early December.

The person leading the way was, not surprisingly, Jake Sisson, the second of George Jr. and Kim’s four boys and one of George Sr. and Nancy’s 17 grandkids. The senior quarterback completed 13-of-29 passes for a Section 6 playoff-record 402 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 74 yards and three more scores, continuing one of the finest individual seasons in Western New York history.

Through 10 games, Jake has passed for 2,871 yards and 32 touchdowns and rushed for 643 yards and 22 TDs. As a team, Jamestown is averaging more than 54 points per game.

Jake learned of his grandfather’s passing as he left his Jamestown home Tuesday morning, bound for Section 6 media day at “The Ralph.”

“Jake’s a tough boy,” his father said.

But the 17-year-old showed his love for his late grandfather each time he found the end zone last night. With each touchdown, he pointed toward the sky and ripped the play-call list off his left wrist to display George Sr.’s initials, his date of birth and the date of death – “GES, 1937-2013.”

“It was to pay tribute to a really big part of my life,” Jake said. “I loved my grandpa and he loved us. His biggest legacy were the ones he left behind – his kids and his grandkids.”

Jake said he plans to write George Sr.’s initials on his taped wrist next Saturday when the Red Raiders take on Aquinas in the Far West Regional in Rochester.

“I want to dedicate the rest of the season to my grandpa,” he said.

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Jake’s season has been well-chronicled by media throughout the area. Dick Gallagher, editor and publisher of Western New York High School Sports, said at sectional media day that the Red Raiders’ offense is the best he’s ever seen.

“Whoever is devising the offensive schemes, they’re throwing in different wrinkles every week and it makes it more difficult for the opponents,” Gallagher said. “Jake Sisson is playing at a level that reminds me of (Seattle Seahawks quarterback) Russell Wilson. You look at his size, you look at what his capabilities are and what he’s accomplishing, it’s just off the chart.

“If anyone would have predicted this at the start of the season, I would have said you have to take your medication. After you witness a few games, it’s just a fantastic experience.”

Jamestown coach Tom Langworthy welcomed Jake to the varsity team before last season when the Sissons returned to Chautauqua County after living several years in Arkansas.

Asked to describe Jake in one word, Langworthy immediately said: “Awesome.”

Then he kept going.

“Maybe ‘unbelievable,’ but I can believe, because I’ve seen it. What makes me really proud, I think, is back in January we started our weight room, and you know how cold and dark it is at 6 in the morning? He was there. February and March (roll around) and baseball starts and he’s still there.

“He goes out (on the football field) and gets a lot of credit, but there’s no media at 6 in the morning in the wintertime and he’s still there. His teammates know he was there and I know he was there.”

It’s that kind of dedication and do-the-job-right mindset that always made George Sr. proud.

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George Sr. grew up on a dairy farm in Machias and, as an adult, owned his own farm in Gerry, was employed by Marine Midland Bank in Jamestown as assistant vice president where he managed the Farm Plan division and, after retiring from banking, served as a financial consultant for Gramco in Springville. He finally retired for good in 2011.

“Dad taught us how to work hard,” George Jr. said. “Do it right or do it again.”

George Jr. didn’t have to think long to come up with an example of his dad’s mantra. Back when the Sisson kids were in their early teens, it was their job to mow the grass on their property on Damon Hill Road in Gerry.

“We had about 2 acres of lawn,” George Jr. recalled, “and we had a 21-inch push mower.”

When the boys asked their father if he would purchase them a riding mower, he balked.

“I’ve got a riding lawn mower,” George Sr. said without blinking. “I’ve got Glen, Kenny, Karl and George.”

On this one particular day, George Jr. said, the grass had grown quite a bit because the family had been away at the Cattaraugus Christian Camp, a place that George Sr., Nancy and the kids retreated to every year.

The boys mowed it, but they weren’t exactly enjoying it.

“We were miserable the whole time,” George Jr. recalled. “We left (grass) clippings everywhere, but we got it done and put the mower away. I remember him coming home from work and yelling, ‘That’s not mowed the right away.'”

George Sr. brought out the rakes and the boys were sent back outside. After raking up what seemed like countless bags of grass, George Sr. demanded that the lawn be cut a second time.

“If we would have had enough money, we would have bought a riding mower ourselves,” George Jr. said with a laugh.

But a lesson was learned.

“He taught us the value of hard work, commitment, loyalty and family,” George Jr. said.

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All of George Sr. and Nancy’s children loved sports, beginning at Cassadaga Valley Central School where each of the boys were especially adept at several. George Jr., Kenny and Karl all went into coaching basketball, although George Jr. is the only one still calling the shots from a college bench after previous stints at Eastern Nazarene (Mass.) College and Roberts Wesleyan. Meanwhile, Glen – because of his athletic prowess in hoops and track and field – was inducted into the Roberts Wesleyan Hall of Fame in 2008.

George Sr. and Nancy enjoyed all of it.

“We could be playing pixie sticks in Silver Creek and my mom and dad would be there,” George Jr. said with a laugh.

With that attitude still filtering down through the Sisson family decades later, it’s not surprising then that many who attended George Sr.’s funeral Saturday morning also took part last night in another family reunion at “The Ralph” in order to root on Jake and the Red Raiders.

“It’s going to be an interesting day,” George Jr. said last week in describing his anticipated emotions. “I’m going to cry in the morning and I’m going to cry at night. My eyes and forehead ache from crying, but they’re all good (now). I’m really looking forward to having my family (together).”

Just the way George Sr. would have wanted it.

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Last Wednesday, George Jr. stood in front of the JCC bench and listened as “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played on the public-address system prior to the Jayhawks’ home opener.

“Halfway through,” he said, “I thought, ‘This is my first game my dad’s not here.’ Even last year he was able to get here. I won’t be able to go to my office and call him and tell him, ‘You know what? We won.'”

But here’s guessing that George Sr., a man of strong faith – the Sissons believe he’s playing cards in heaven with his good friend, Mort – already knew that the Jayhawks held on for a home-opening victory. Here’s guessing, too, that as the Sissons celebrated the Red Raiders’ 10th straight victory last night, the team’s first sectional title since 2000 and Jake’s overall brilliance behind center, “Grandpa” wasn’t far away.

“My mom was (at the JCC women’s game on Wednesday) for me and she sat behind the bench,” George Jr. said. “She said, ‘The funeral is going to get done (on Saturday) and then we’re all going to (Ralph Wilson) Stadium.

“‘Grandpa wouldn’t want us to miss that for anything.'”