The story sounds apocryphal, but a good friend who covered the Philadelphia Eagles back in the day swears on a stack of bibles that it’s true. The tale goes like this: During the 1982 National Football League players’ strike, obsessive Eagles coach Dick Vermeil and his wife were driving through the Pocono Mountains when Vermeil’s eyes became as big as Philly cheese steaks. He shouted to her to pull the car off to the side of the road. With the wonderment of a child, he jumped out of the vehicle and began picking up leaves. “Look!” he exclaimed. “There’s a yellow leaf! And there’s a red one over there! And an orange one right next to it!”
The moral of this story was pretty obvious. After spending a lifetime of autumns holed up in an office dissecting game films and plotting X’s and O’s, Vermeil had finally taken off the coaching blinders long enough to discover the beauty of fall foliage.
I chuckle and cringe when I think about Vermeil, who was so crazed he once hung a banner in his office that read in big, bold letters: THE BEST WAY TO KILL TIME IS TO WORK IT TO DEATH. A part of me can relate to him because so many of my falls have been consumed by covering the Buffalo Bills—though my workaholic tendencies never stopped me from taking a moment to drink in autumnal color-fests.
Come Sunday I’ll have even more time to enjoy fall’s majesty because for the first time in 34 years I won’t be sitting in the press box for a Bills home opener at the stadium known as Rich, Ralph and New Era Field. It’s sure to be strange, and I suspect I’ll experience some withdrawal pains, but that’s OK. I’m ready to move on. I really can’t complain. I’ve had a pretty good ride. Written millions of words along the way about the good, the bad and the ugly. And I’ll still be chiming in occasionally about the football team that’s been a major source of pride and aggravation in western New York
I had always dreamed about covering a major league sports team, and that dream became reality a few months after I took a job with the Democrat and Chronicle in January 1985. I was excited at first, but some colleagues offered condolences rather than congratulations because they said my creative juices would be tapped out covering a team that had finished the previous season with an NFL-worst 2-14 record. The prospects were indeed bleak back in those days when one of the most popular pieces of Bills merchandise was a bumper sticker blaring: BRING PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL BACK TO WESTERN NEW YORK. (After last Sunday’s embarrassing 47-3 loss, that bumper sticker might be making a comeback.)
Four games into my first season covering the team—all losses—the Bills fired Coach Kay Stephenson and replaced him with the inimitable Hank Bullough. When it came to malapropisms, even Yogi Berra had nothing on Hank.
“I guess that play took the sails right out of our wind,’’ Bullough explained after one of Buffalo’s 14 losses that season. He also told us, “We keep beating ourselves, but we’re getting better at it,” and added that he didn’t believe in “morale victories.” Bullough’s Bills provided many laughs and many losses—17, in fact, in 21 games.
Things were so bad my first season on the job that I thought I might not have a team to cover down the road because owner Ralph Wilson was threatening to explore other cities after season ticket sales plummeted to 19,000 following their second-consecutive 2-14 campaign.
In reality, though, my timing wound up being impeccable because I had a front-row seat for the Bills rise from ashes. When the U.S. Football League went belly-up in the summer of 1986 and Jim Kelly showed up, everything changed—dramatically. Wilson finally got it right with the hire of the erudite Marv Levy to replace the bungling Bullough. Wilson lucked out, too, with general manager Bill Polian. Behind future Hall of Famer players Kelly, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed, the Bills began a run that probably will never be replicated in these parts.
Yes, I was there for all four Super Bowl losses, including the Wide Right miss by Scott Norwood. I’ll never forget the passion and patriotic fervor in the stadium that surreal day the Bills annihilated the Raiders 51-3 to earn their first trip to the big game. The celebratory mood of finally reaching the Super Bowl and the somber reminders that we had just entered the Persian Gulf War made for a compelling backdrop to a game that will never be forgotten.
Indelible, too, are memories of covering of the historic 32-point comeback playoff victory engineered by backup quarterback Frank Reich, and Don Beebe’s hustling, never-say-die play in the fourth quarter of the Bills’ 52-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXVII—a play that still resonates, still draws praise and fan mail a quarter-century later.
Along the way, I’ve written about way too many quarterbacks who became “err apparents” to Kelly, and have dealt with too many coaches who could never match Levy’s eloquence, sense of humor or winning ways. It’s been a joy dealing with so many standup people at One Bills Drive, guys like Levy, Wilson, Kent Hull, Joe DeLamielleure, Steve Tasker, Darryl Talley, Fred Jackson and Kyle Williams. And chronicling Kelly’s courage and toughness beyond the playing field has been downright inspiring.
But all good things must end. Finishing with the season that ended the 17-year playoff drought is a pretty good exclamation point. Like I said, I’ll still be writing about the Bills occasionally, trying to lend some historical perspective on a team that consumed so many of my autumns.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.