The game ball Joe Bock received for his role in a Buffalo Bills’ overtime victory 30 autumns ago has seen better days. Much of the paint has peeled off the deflated, commemorative pigskin, but you can still make out Bock’s name and the logos of the Bills and the New York Giants from that memorable (for all the wrong reasons) Oct. 18, 1987 contest at the stadium then known as Rich.
The Fairport resident chuckles when reminded that Bills Hall of Fame Coach Marv Levy called that game the worst in pro football history.
“I wouldn’t disagree,’’ Bock said, grinning mischievously. “It was pretty bad.”
Yes, it was. That game, which employed hastily thrown together replacement players while the regular National Football League players were on strike, proved to be a comedy of errors. The counterfeit Bills and the counterfeit Giants combined for nine fumbles, five interceptions, five missed field goals and 48 incomplete passes. It was such a farce that Lawrence Taylor, the Giants Hall of Fame linebacker who had crossed the picket line to play, occasionally lined up at tight end.
“I tried to convince (Giants coach) Bill Parcells to let me play running back and carry the ball a few times,’’ L.T. recalled. “But he was afraid I might get hurt.”
Or perhaps Parcells was afraid Taylor might hurt somebody. One of the more humorous mismatches involved former Bills center Will Grant attempting to block the crazed linebacker.
“Will got six holding penalties in the first half alone,’’ Bock said. “Marv was livid. At halftime, he addressed the team and said, ‘Will, you’re killing us; you’ve been flagged six times for holding.’ Will just smiled and replied, ‘Marv, considering that I’ve been holding on every play, that’s pretty good.’’’
The Bills finally put the game out of its misery when Bock’s perfect snap to holder Dan Manucci resulted in a 27-yard field goal by Orchard Park native Todd Scholpy to secure a 6-3 win. Earlier in the overtime, Buffalo botched two field goal attempts when Manucci fumbled perfect snaps and was creamed by Taylor.
Before the final kick, Bock looked up and did a double-take. This time, Taylor decided to line up over center. Fearing for his life, Bock tried to make light of the situation.
“I said, ‘L.T., why don’t you go back to the outside and rush from there because you’ve been having a field day off the edge?’ ’’ he recounted. “He didn’t budge. So, I had to come up with a new strategy. Before the snap, I looked back at Manucci and said, ‘You better not drop this one or we’re not going to get out of the stadium alive.’ L.T. started laughing, I quickly snapped the ball before he could react, and the kick sailed through the uprights.’’
After that game, the regular players returned, and Bock went back to his Pittsford-based meat and seafood company. His three-game NFL career was over.
“I have no regrets playing in what some people called ‘scab’ games,’’ said Bock, a former star lineman at East Rochester High School and the University of Virginia. “There was no lingering bad blood. After it was over, I heard from several veteran players who said they would have done the same thing if they were in our shoes.”
Bock had spent the first two replacement games with the St. Louis Cardinals. Their regular long-snapper returned before the second strike game, and the Cards wound up trading Bock to the Bills.
“They dealt me for a case of Budweiser,’’ he joked. “Actually, I think it was for the whopping sum of $100. Hey, that’s better than trading me for an old pair of shoulder pads.”
Bock was different from many of the replacement players who had been signed off the street. He had played professional football before, including stints with the Bills and New York Jets, though he didn’t play in a regular-season game until the strike. His eight-team pro career, also saw him suit up for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League, and the Birmingham Stallions and Houston Gamblers in the defunct United States Football League.
So deep was his passion for football that in 2006 he played briefly with the Rochester Raiders and New York/New Jersey Revolution in the old Great Lakes Indoor Football League. He was 46 at the time. “I’ve always been crazy about the game,’’ he said. “Or just plain crazy.’’
Bock grew up loving the Bills, and came oh, so close to making the team before the strike in 1987. Several Bills players were customers of his, and, one time, during a sales call at the stadium, he met Levy. He told the coach about his USFL experience; how he had played with Jim Kelly on the Gamblers and was the long-snapper on the Stallions team that won the league title in 1985. He knew Levy put a huge emphasis on special teams and told him he would love to audition for him.
Levy and then-general manager Bill Polian eventually took him up on his offer. They signed him to a contract, and when regular long-snapper Dale Hallestrae broke his leg in training camp, it appeared Bock would make the final roster. But after the last exhibition game, Buffalo signed Adam Lingner, who had played for Levy in Kansas City and had just been cut by the Chiefs.
“Classic case of me being in the wrong place at the wrong time,’’ Bock said, shaking his head. “I’m 98 percent over it, but every so often, I think about what might have been. Had Adam not been cut, I might have been the long-snapper on those Super Bowl teams.’’
And he would have been reunited with Scott Norwood, his old USFL teammate. The two had collaborated on thousands of kicks in practices and games. Thanks to the generosity of late owner Ralph Wilson, Bock attended Super Bowl 25 as a spectator. His heart sank as he watched Norwood’s 47-yard game-winning field goal attempt sail wide right. It always has bothered Bock that people blame Norwood for that loss.
“They act as if that kick was a chip shot,’’ he said. “If it had been from 27 yards, then OK, I get it. But that was a long field goal. The truth is that the Bills were out-coached and out-played by the Giants. It never should have come down to that kick.”
Bock taught physical education in the Rochester City School District for 23 years, and helped coach Marshall High School to two sectional football titles. The Section V Football Hall of Famer still dabbles in coaching, teaching football and life skills at his Joe Pro Football Camp each summer in East Rochester. In recent years, Jim Kelly, Ray Bentley, Joe Cribbs, Tony Jordan and Scott Virkus have served as instructors. Bock gives each camper a flyer with a poem he wrote about imagining your dream.
Three decades ago, his dream came true when he played in a regular-season game with his hometown team. So what if it may have been the worst game in NFL history? It was a Bills victory that Bock had a hand in. The game ball he earned may have faded, but Bock’s memory remains vivid. Sometimes it feels as if it occurred 30 seconds rather than 30 Octobers ago.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.