It's pouring rain as I open the door to the press box overlooking the football field at Maple Grove Junior-Senior High School. I pull the hood of my raincoat over my head and begin to descend the stairs, making sure to hold on to the railing so I don't fall on my face.
When I get to the bottom, my plan is to head straight to the school a couple hundred yards away and wait to talk to Red Dragons' coach Curt Fischer in the warm, dry locker room. For some reason, though, I do an about-face and head to the field.
As the rain continues to fall, I catch Fischer moments after his talk with his team near the 50-yard line. I ask him a few questions about Maple Grove's 36-15 victory over Portville in the Section 6 Class D semifinal and its impending showdown with arch-rival Randolph in Friday's sectional championship game at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Then I climb the concrete bleacher steps with the intent of heading to my car in the school's parking lot.
P-J photo by Scott Reagle
But before I get past the concession stand, I'm greeted by Red Dragon senior tight end/linebacker Dalton Bolles, who wraps me in a bear hug. To my left, his aunt and uncle, Diane and John Gatto of Maple Springs, are beaming.
As I later drive away from the Dutch Hollow Road campus, I can't help but think that the whole postgame scene could just as well have served as a metaphor for Dalton's life.
Rain. Darkness. Victory. Redemption.
Engineman 2nd Class Douglas Bolles, 43, was a sailor aboard the USS Typhoon, based at Little Creek, Va., in November 2003. According to an online Navy report, Bolles, "fell off the ship's rigid-hull inflatable boat early morning Nov. 7. Numerous ships and assets from the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard began an exhaustive search for Bolles before ending the search 29 hours later.''
Added John Gatto, Doug Bolles' brother-in-law: "The water was pretty bad, there were big waves and the raft capsized. The Coast Guard rescued the one guy, but for some reason (Doug) didn't have his life jacket on."
Bolles, whose body was eventually recovered two weeks later, according to the report, left behind his wife, Karen, and his three children, Lee Anthony (then 11), Dalton (then 8) and Mikayla (then 3).
"When Doug died, Karen asked me, 'If anything happens to me, will you take care of the kids?'" said Diane Gatto of a conversation she had with her older sister. "I didn't even question it. I didn't even talk to John about it. I told her, 'Of course.' I didn't think anything would happen."
Seven months later, the unthinkable did.
On June 1, 2004, Karen died, the victim of what Diane described as a "combination of things." Lee Anthony, Dalton and Mikayla were now without either parent.
And the clock was ticking.
According to the Gattos - remember Diane's promise to her sister? - they had to pick up the children in Virginia within 48 hours or else there would be custodial red tape. Time was of the essence and John knew it. Still, the idea of adding three more children to the family blindsided him.
"We had a little family tension," John admitted. "I'm taking on three more kids and we're not even discussing it. ... I wasn't completely on board, I'm afraid to say."
But, literally overnight, John and Diane were on their way to Virginia. Leaving their three kids - Chris, Lexi and Johnna - with a neighbor, they hopped in their Pontiac Vibe and headed south.
It would turn out to be a life-changing journey.
MAKING NEWS ON THE FIELD
Three weeks ago, the Red Dragons, the state's top-ranked Class D team, completed their regular season with a dominant 49-15 victory over Frewsburg. Senior Oliver Simpson rushed for 111 yards and surpassed the 1,000 mark for the year to highlight the win.
But arguably the best all-around performance on Senior Night came from Dalton.
An athletic 6-foot-2, 190-pounder, he made eight tackles, including four solo, and returned an interception 20 yards for a touchdown. On offense, he scored another touchdown on a 60-yard pass play after making a nifty catch-and-run down the sideline.
"He has an immense amount of ability," Fischer said. "I don't think he ever realized it and I think he's starting to realize it now. ... Now that he realizes it, he's really starting to step his game up a little bit more. He's become a terror the last four games on defense for us."
For the season, Dalton is second on the team in tackles (68), has forced three fumbles, recovered two, and had one sack, one interception and one pass defended. Offensively, he has caught a team-high nine passes for 217 yards and three touchdowns, following in the footsteps of his brother, Lee Anthony, who was part of the Red Dragons' 2008 state championship team.
Their accomplishments on the field are not surprising, considering their father was an All-Western New York running back and a Connolly Cup finalist as a senior at Ellicottville Central School in the fall of 1978.
"He would be among the top running backs ever at Ellicottville since I've been there," said Coach Tim Bergan, who was an assistant for the 1978 season. "He was a very strong kid and he was, I believe, the first 1,000-yard rusher in school history."
Thirty-four years later, Dalton is making news on the field, too just as his father did.
Getting to that point, hasn't always been easy.
A FIGURATIVE ROLLER-COASTER RIDE
When the Bolles' children arrived at the home of their aunt and uncle - Mikayla would ultimately live with family in the Buffalo suburb of Williamsville - the 2003 school year was drawing to a close. While John and Diane's children welcomed their new "brothers" with open arms, John was already looking ahead to how the boys would be accepted in the Bemus Point School District that fall. To that end, he introduced Lee Anthony and Dalton to sports as soon as they arrived in Maple Springs.
"The very next day I pulled the baseball gloves out," John said. "Dalton was probably 4 feet tall and weighed 140 pounds, with his pants pulled up to his chest. ... He was cute, very cute, but the first time he threw the ball, he threw it three feet and it went sideways. I threw a pop fly to his brother and it hit him in the head."
A couple days later, John told Diane that he wanted to register the boys for Bemus Point's entry in the Lake Shore Midget Football League.
"My biggest concern was they were starting in a new school in September and the transition had to be good," John said. "That was the whole idea of it. It wasn't for them to be football stars. (Dalton) was overweight, but there was an athlete trapped inside. You could see he enjoyed being out there, but when we signed him up, he cried.
"Diane and I both said 'you're going to thank us some day.'"
Soon, Dalton and Lee Anthony were finding success in the midget program and once they put on the pads, Dalton, in particular, began to transform himself. By the time his football season ended he had lost nearly 40 pounds.
"Knowing his father's history, the DNA was there," John said. "Somebody had to introduce him to it."
But even with all of Dalton's success on the field - he was the offensive most valuable player of his junior varsity team despite missing four games for disciplinary reasons - he has been riding a figurative roller-coaster throughout his high school experience.
"He made a lot of stupid decisions and he knows it," John said. "... But we have a good relationship now. We didn't for the longest time. It was like a coach and a player rather than a father and a son."
In fact, a week before the start of practice in August, Dalton's status as a Red Dragon was still uncertain, at best. John and Diane weren't sure they were going to allow him to play because of some poor decisions he made over the summer.
Enter senior captain Jon Scroxton, who paid a visit to the Gattos.
"I knew how much football meant to Dalton and he meant a lot to me," Scroxton said. "And it's not only because he's a player on the team, but he's a friend as well. Dalton and I have always been very close. I knew for a kid like Dalton and the situation he was in, he needed football almost more than we needed him just to keep him in line. I really wanted to see him play for his own good."
The next day, John accompanied Dalton to school where they met with Fischer, laid out some ground rules and later had a two-hour heart to heart.
"So far, so good," John said.
As proof of that, Dalton said he has a 90 average in the first two months of the school year.
"He's come so far," Fischer said. "Being a better person off the field and better in school has made him a better football player, but his life is much more important than football."
'I'VE CHANGED 180 DEGREES'
Throughout the Gattos' home in Maple Springs are reminders of Doug and Karen Bolles. Photographs are everywhere. Diane even had reel-to-reel film of Doug's high school football career converted to a DVD so that Dalton and Lee Anthony, now 20 and living in Buffalo, could see their father run with the football.
"Diane has made it a point that they don't forget where they came from," John said. "We have always told them our beliefs and we believe they're right here with them."
To honor his father, Dalton switched his jersey number a couple of seasons ago from 31 - always his favorite - to 33. That number was the same one his father wore a generation earlier at Ellicottville.
"I had to take it," he said.
Another thing he is learning to take is responsibility.
"From when I got here, I've changed 180 degrees, I think," said Dalton, who plans to enlist in the Air Force after graduation. "People say everything happens for a reason. I have awesome friends, a family that loves me, I'm living in a good community and playing for the No. 1 team in the state. I can't go wrong."