Emmys recognize Buffalo natives whose work helped city come back from tragedy

We are a rustbelt city of overcomers, survivors, believers …

We are Buffalo, and football is our common place.

It’s a moment to collectively exhale because sometimes we just need a break.

A break from hard work, and from heavy snow, and from hate because we know hate.

It found its way into our home on the fourteenth of May

when the east side experienced a massive wounding motivated solely by race,

targeting a community already on the brink of starvation, it could have forced us to break.

But we chose love anyway.”                       

— Excerpt from “Still Here”  by Jillian Hanesworth

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Throughout the country, Buffalo, New York’s NFL franchise, the Bills, are mainly thought of as “the little engine that could” — but didn’t — four times. The Bills made it all the way to the big show, the Super Bowl, on four consecutive occasions between 1991 and 1994 and lost each contest. There is nothing, however, like the energy of sports fans unceasingly devoted to a perpetually losing team, and nothing like the buoyancy, anticipation, and hope that team gives back to its fans on any given Sunday.

The spirit of that taut give and take is captured in “Still Here,” a spoken-word poem by Buffalo’s first poet laureate, Jillian Hanesworth, set to video and music by NFL Network producer Augustus Clarke. Last month the video short won a Sports Emmy Award at a ceremony in New York City.

Augustus Clarke, left, and Jillian Hanesworth, right, in Buffalo. Photo credit: Malik Rainey
Augustus Clarke, left, and Jillian Hanesworth, right, in Buffalo. Photo credit: Malik Rainey

The project began with Augustus Clarke, a Buffalo native and producer for the television program “NFL 360” on the sports pay channel NFL Networks. 

While Edwards sat at his desk in Los Angeles, he felt helpless as he saw one misfortune after another beset his beloved hometown between 2022 and 2023. There was the May 2022 racially motivated mass shooting at Tops Friendly Market that left 10 Black people dead. The brother of Bills tight end Dawson Knox died of an opioid overdose in August. December brought seven feet of snow in a three-day onslaught that claimed the lives of nearly 50 people, most of whom were Black. In January 2023, Bills player Damar Hamlin suddenly collapsed on the field during an “ESPN Monday Night Football Game” and went into cardiac arrest [he has since recovered]. Then, in March, firefighter Jason Arno died battling a furious downtown four-alarm fire, leaving behind a widow and children.

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Hanesworth’s story

As for Hanesworth, she started writing songs for church as a child. At age 9, she wrote a poem for Black History Month titled “I Too Have A Dream” and was encouraged to perform it around town. In 2017, Hanesworth began knocking on the doors of City Council members to introduce the idea of a city poet laureate. New York State had already been appointing one since 1985 but, said Hanesworth, now 31, “I felt like we needed a representative for us.” 

And Hanesworth became that representative in March 2021.

Clarke knew of Hanesworth and had always wanted to work with her. Clarke pitched a general vision to her of what he was trying to do artistically then told her: “There are no rules, no restrictions — just do your thing and cook,” the 34-year-old producer recounted.

Together, they wanted to help people navigate Buffalo’s roller coaster of grief and elation, and show how the Bills could uplift residents in troubling times. On game days, people throughout the Buffalo region don blue jerseys and hats, and serve and eat thousands of chicken wings alongside “beef on weck” (roast beef on a roll) sandwiches, capicola (pork cold cut) subs, and pizza. Beer pours aplenty in red plastic Solo cups everywhere. Rich, poor, young, old, city, suburban, from all walks of life on Sundays everyone belongs to one melting pot of a fanbase called the Bills Mafia.

When Hanesworth sent her first draft to Clarke, he and the rest of the team at the NFL Network were thrilled. It was exactly what they wanted. Clarke and crew flew to Buffalo and shot scenes in and around the Black neighborhoods on the East Side and the richly multicultural West Side. He said most representations of Buffalo on the national scale feature the bright lights of downtown or the affluence of Orchard Park where the Bills stadium sits. He wanted to show the city “the way WE see it.”

Augustus Clarke, left, and Jillian Hanesworth, right, in Buffalo. Photo credit: Jillian Hanesworth
Augustus Clarke, left, and Jillian Hanesworth, right, in Buffalo. Photo credit: Jillian Hanesworth

The finished project was first shown in September 2023 on the network and its various social media accounts. It generated lots of positive response. The Bills themselves shared it on their socials, leading to more positive reaction.

It has been a heady, surreal experience for Hanesworth, who shared what it was like to win the Dick Schaap Outstanding Writing Award, administered by the Sports Emmys.

“Hearing my name over the speaker system, ‘accepting the award is writer Jillian Hanesworth,’ I’m just, like, ‘Wow, I am an actual writer,’ ” she said.  

Winners receive a statue the day of the ceremony but a plaque arrives in the mail later. Hanesworth thinks her feet might finally touch the ground once she sees the plaque.

“I’m just a Kensington and Bailey [s treets] girl,” she said, referring to two streets on Buffalo’s predominantly Black East Side. 

She graduated from Buffalo Academy for Visual And Performing Arts high school, and struggled through the State University of New York at Fredonia, and was ultimately diagnosed with dyslexia. Depending on family, God, and community, she managed to finish with a degree in criminal justice and law. She then became an organizer and community activist. 

“I got my start as a poet in the streets with a bullhorn,” Hanesworth said.

Hanesworth has written poetry that is on display at the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, and written for a TV commercial expected out in July. She also has an upcoming performance in partnership with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

Jillian Hanesworth of Buffalo poses for a photo on Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in Buffalo, N.Y. Photo credit: Joshua Bessex, The Associated Press
Jillian Hanesworth of Buffalo poses for a photo on Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in Buffalo, N.Y. Photo credit: Joshua Bessex, The Associated Press

Hanesworth’s stint as Buffalo’s poet laureate drew to a close at the end of 2023 and the search for another is underway. As the first, she had the unenviable experience of “trying to create the lane and exist in the lane at the same time. Hopefully I [did] it well enough that other people can come down the lane too,” she said.

“I’m excited to see the new life that new voices and minds will bring to the position.”

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