The beard is in its budding stages, more scraggly stubble than plush bush. And in the coming days and weeks there’s sure to be growing pains as the follicles fill in and begin digging into my cheeks and my chinny, chin, chin. It’s been a good 20 years since I’ve subjected my face to what once was a personal rite of winter. I’d prefer to remain clean-shaven because the last thing this aging scribe needs is a crop of gray whiskers to remind him just how old he really is. But a challenge recently was issued and civic duty calls. So, grow we must, in hopes a playoff beard can play a karmic role in bringing that elusive, silver Lombardi Trophy to One Bills Drive.
This call to action has roots in a mustache. Two Saturdays ago, after Buffalo clinched its first AFC East title in a quarter-century, I posted on Facebook a sports section from 1995 in which I wrote about the Bills last divisional crown. The column featured a headshot of moi with a beaver-tail thick mustache that would have made Tom Selleck and Ron Burgundy proud.
In my post, I talked about history repeating itself, and off-handedly asked, “What was I thinking with that stache?” Most respondents asked the same question, but several furry-faced readers encouraged me to grow it back. Keith Ryan — owner of an impressive beard himself — suggested it would be good karma for this year’s team, and warned that if I didn’t do my part, I might be responsible for these Incredi-Bills being stopped short of their goal. Far be it from me to tempt the fates. Or incur the wrath of Bills Mafia.
After some deliberation, I thought to myself: “What the heck? Might as well go all-out, and grow a forest thick beard instead of just a mustache.” So, the razor, with the exception of some occasional neck-trimming, is on hiatus for the duration of the Bills playoff run. Hopefully, the whiskers won’t be shorn until around 10 p.m. on Feb. 7, Super Bowl Sunday, after these Bills have exorcized the ghosts of Wide Right, No Goal, Homerun Throwback, and other cursed sports moments that have plagued the City of Good Neighbors through the decades.
This ritual of sprouting playoff beards can to traced to the New York Islanders of the early 1980s. Those magnificent hockey teams opened that decade by skating to four consecutive Stanley Cup championships, and they did so with beards of varying density. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so other National Hockey League teams soon followed hirsute, the only blades in use being the ones on the players’ feet.
It’s a little fuzzy whether this hockey tradition, which soon spread to other sports, was borne of superstition or fatigue. Islanders Hall of Fame defenseman Denis Potvin said it wasn’t uncommon in those days to play four games in five nights in the first round of the playoffs, so not shaving was “just something that kind of happened.” Star winger Mike Bossy credits Islander teammate Butch Goring for broaching the beard-growing idea as a way to promote team bonding and serve as a constant reminder that “now-or-never time had arrived.” The thinking was that from the minute a player awoke and gazed into the bathroom mirror, his whiskers would refocus him on the task at hand.
Still others credit the Islanders’ two Swedish players. Stefan Persson and Anders Kallur were huge fans of fellow countryman Bjorn Borg, and were well aware that tennis’ biggest star of that era eschewed shaving during the two weeks he played Wimbledon. The ritual clearly served Borg well as he became the first male to win tennis’s most prestigious tournament five times.
Facial hair was all the rage in 19th century baseball when thick, handlebar mustaches defined an era. But faces started being mowed clean in the early decades of the 20th century, perhaps spurred on by a desire of men not wanting to look like notorious dictators, such as Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm and Bolshevik icon Lenin.
It wouldn’t be until the Oakland A’s infamous “Mustache Gang” of the early 1970s that whiskers would make a comeback in baseball and beyond. Credit maverick owner Charley O. Finley for sparking the fuzzy revival. Finley offered his players $300 apiece to grow mustaches, and soon Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Rollie Fingers and Sal Bando were cultivating a new trend that would be copied by men across America. Today, facial hair can be found everywhere in sports, from LeBron James to Clayton Kershaw to Aaron Rodgers.
When I think of hairy Bills, Ryan Fitzpatrick comes immediately to mind. His lumberjack beard became the stuff of legend in Western New York, leading to the creation and sale of clever T-shirts that warned opponents to “Fear the Beard.” Sadly, FitzMagic mania in Buffalo was fleeting, a case of “hair today, gone tomorrow.”
Josh Allen is making new magic in Billsland — enduring magic not seen since the days when Jim Kelly was tossing touchdowns and I was writing daily newspaper columns with a bristle brush on my upper lip. In addition to obliterating Buffalo passing records and inspiring all sorts of enthusiasm and acts of goodwill, Allen is attempting to grow a mustache on that baby face of his. It’s kind of thin, if you ask me, but, hey, he’s only 24 years old, so there’ll be time in the coming years for it to fill out.
Despite his youth, Allen already is a grizzled, greybeard when it comes to successful “close shaves” on the field. The third-year quarterback has engineered 11 game-winning drives in his 42 NFL starts, and that only adds to the optimism this postseason could have a super ending.
And, if that happens, I’ll joke I helped the Bills win by a whisker.
Award-winning journalist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.