Of the 336 field goals Steve Christie kicked during his 15-year National Football League career, none was more important than the one he booted in overtime on Jan. 3, 1993, at the stadium then known as Rich. Though a mere chip-shot, from 32 yards, the three-pointer enabled Buffalo to beat the Houston Oilers, 41-38, in a game in which the Bills trailed by 32 points early in the second half.
Christie’s field goal capped the greatest comeback in football history and landed his cleats in a display case at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. But as remarkable as that game was, it wasn’t the greatest comeback Christie has experienced.
In fact, it pales in comparison to the one he’s been waging since that blind-siding diagnosis on July 8, 2014. On that day— his wedding anniversary—he underwent a colonoscopy that revealed a fist-sized, cancerous tumor in his rectum. After a long, sometimes difficult slog that’s included two surgeries and several chemotherapy and radiation sessions, Christie is well along the road to recovery, with more good stretches than bad.
“I’m lucky they found it when they did because it was only about a millimeter away from my prostate and my bladder,’’ he said from his home in Bradenton, Fla. “If it had spread to other organs, the outcome might have been far worse.”
And he would have cursed himself for having ignored the warning signs for months. The finest kicker in Bills history originally thought the blood in his stool was caused by hemorrhoids. He figured if he watched what he ate and occasionally applied some ointment that would be that.
Like many football players, Christie had been conditioned to deal with pain. And, like many stubborn males, he put off seeing the doctor. But the bleeding persisted. Fortunately, so did his wife. Kelly told him enough was enough, and they wound up celebrating their wedding anniversary at Erie County Medical Center. Two days later, Christie underwent the first of two surgeries at the Cleveland Clinic.
After initially not wanting to go public with his ordeal, Christie had a change of heart. He concluded that by telling his cautionary tale, he might help others from living a similar story—or one even worse.
“The moral of my story is that if you are receiving warning signs, listen to those warning signs,’’ he said. “Don’t dismiss them like I did. Seek help. The earlier something’s detected the better your chances.”
“The other moral,’’ he added, chuckling, “is to always listen to your wife when she tells you to go to the doctor.”
Not long after his first surgery, Christie heard from many of his former Bills teammates and coaches, including two other cancer survivors—Jim Kelly and Marv Levy.
“They offered me a lot of encouragement,’’ he said. “Marv’s message was in line with what he always told us when he was coaching. He talked about being resilient, about reacting to adverse situations and having a game plan.’’
Christie approached his cancer as he would a game-winning field goal attempt.
“Although it’s obviously much more serious, it’s basically like the battles I fought on Sundays,’’ he said. “I treated it like a challenge, like a Super Bowl. I’m going to go out there and try to split those uprights.”
Christie, who turns 50 in November, is back to leading an active, busy life, much of it spent with his 13-year-old daughter, Claire. He and his wife have dabbled in real estate, and recently invested in a two-story, inflatable Irish pub they rent out for parties and festivals. He also continues to work as a sports and entertainment agent. His major client is up-and-coming Buffalo rock musician Terry McMahon.
“I was an art major at William & Mary, so I’ve always been intrigued by the creative process,’’ Christie said. “There’s a common bond among artists, whether it’s paint on a canvas or musical notes and lyrics on a sheet.”
Speaking of canvases, he has set up his easel again. “It’s been therapeutic,’’ said the man who has sold numerous impressionist paintings over time.
He and a business partner also are reviving a food product originally launched in the 1990s, but this time with a twist. Christie Kickers sausages may soon be coming to a supermarket near you. The pork sausages come in three flavors—maple breakfast, garlic parmesan and buffalo wing— and, according to Christie, are healthier than regular sausage links because they are gluten free, contain 40 percent less fat than USDA pre-cooked pork and have no trans fats or MSG.
“It’s pretty darn healthy,’’ he boasted. “And unlike a lot of healthy stuff, it tastes pretty good.”
Christie is donating 150 pounds of the sausage to Camp Good Days and Special Times, which, through the decades, has provided thousands of kids and adults with cancer a respite from the disease.
“I wanted it tied to a charity, and that’s a place that’s long been close to my heart,’’ he said. “If we can get this in stores in Western New York, we’re going to donate some of the proceeds to camp.”
His association with Camp Good Days began shortly after he won the kicking job with the Bills in 1992. He donated money for each field goal, and in retirement he and his family have continued to be supporters. Christie will help out again Monday when he takes part in the Tournament of Love fundraiser at Monroe Golf Club. He can’t wait to see good friends Gary and Wendy Mervis, the husband-and-wife team who run Camp.
The homecoming is expected to be emotional for Christie because of what he’s been through.
“This time I’m coming not as Steve Christie, the football celebrity, but rather as Steve Christie, the cancer survivor,’’ he said. “After you go through the disease yourself, you can’t help but have a different perspective.”
His visit is sure to spark conversations about his old team. Christie, who grew up in southern Ontario, just across the border, loved his nine seasons in Buffalo. He established kicking records there that still stand, as well as lasting friendships with teammates and fans. He continues to pull for the Bills, and even offered to help struggling kicker Dan Carpenter last season, but was rebuffed by then-general manager Doug Whaley.
Whaley recently was jettisoned. And Christie believes something special might be unfolding with new coach Sean McDermott in charge.
“Obviously, I’m a little biased because Sean’s a William & Mary guy, and there aren’t too many of us who make it as players or coaches in the NFL,’’ he said. “I’ve heard nothing but good things about him. He’s an organized, no-nonsense guy, which is exactly what we need. I’m praying he turns things around because this 17-year playoff drought has been embarrassing and painful—particularly for Bills fans. I want them to experience some joy again. They deserve it.”
He’s rooting for the franchise to mount a comeback. He knows a thing or two about rallies. On and off the field.
Best-selling author and nationally recognized journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
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