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Book about Buffalo sports curses reflects on close calls, fans’ resiliency

Book about Buffalo sports curses reflects on close calls, fans’ resiliency

Greg Tranter was seated in the opposite end zone at the cavernous Tampa stadium known as “The Big Sombrero” that fateful January night in 1991 as Scott Norwood lined up for the field goal that could put an end to decades of misery. Like many around him, Tranter was praying the Buffalo Bills kicker would make good on the 47-yard, game-winning attempt in the waning seconds of Super Bowl XXV.

This was a moment Tranter had been waiting a lifetime to witness, going back to that awesome October day in 1965 when he was a wide-eyed eight-year-old making the three-hour drive from Elmira with his dad to watch his first Bills game at old War Memorial Stadium, the concrete bowl nicknamed “The Rockpile.” Buffalo throttled the Denver Broncos that afternoon and was on its way to its second consecutive American Football League championship. Tranter was smitten from the start, but through the years, the Bills were never able to win football’s premier game. That, he firmly believed, was about to change that indelible night in Tampa.

“Scott hit it strong and from my vantage point, which was a little bit off to the corner of the stadium, I initially thought the kick was good,’’ Tranter recalled recently. “And then I saw the officials waving it ‘no good,’ and I went from elation to total devastation.”

“Wide Right” would become a painful and permanent part of Tranter’s and Buffalo’s lexicon. Over time, misery would indeed love company, as regrettable, unforgettable sports moments such as “No goal!” “Homerun Throwback,” and “13 seconds” were added to an agonizingly long list of near misses.

“Other cities, such as Boston with the Red Sox, and Chicago, with the Cubs, suffered long, painful curses, but during those droughts fans in those cities also enjoyed numerous championships in the other four major-league sports,’’ said Tranter, a former insurance company executive who has transitioned into an encore career as a sports historian, author, and museum curator.

“Buffalo, meanwhile, has never enjoyed those diversions. Yes, the Bills won those AFL titles, and I don’t mean to demean those, or the lacrosse championships by the Bandits or the minor-league baseball titles by the Bisons, but the reality is that no Buffalo sports team has ever won a universally recognized major-league championship. No city, no fan base has ever experienced the across-the-board suffering we have. And no city or fan base has ever showed the resiliency and resolve we have.”

That point is driven home in Tranter’s wonderfully researched, fascinating new book, “The Buffalo Sports Curse: 120 Years of Pain, Disappointment, Heartbreak and Eternal Optimism,’’ published last week by RIT Press.

The idea that perhaps Buffalo was cursed came to Tranter about 19 years ago after reading a book about the first World Series and how the Red Sox really began as the Buffalo Bisons in 1900. The Queen City was supposed to field a team in the newly formed American League the following year but wound up being double-crossed at the last minute by league president Ban Johnson, and the big-league baseball team that was supposed to begin play in Buffalo was relocated to Boston.

Tranter had become a Red Sox fan when he moved to New England in 1986 (yes, the same year the ball rolled under Bill Buckner’s glove and Boston blew a golden opportunity to win the World Series). And Tranter’s rooting interests in the Sox became stronger after he discovered their Buffalo roots. The same year he made that discovery, New York Yankees hitter Aaron Boone slugged the walk-off home run that enabled the Bronx Bombers to beat Boston and go to the 2003 World Series.

“After that, I read Dan Shaughnessy’s “Curse of the Bambino,” and I began thinking to myself that maybe there’s something to these curses, so I began digging more deeply into Buffalo’s curses,’’ he said.

He discovered that long before the pain that befell the Bills and Sabres, sports agony had denied Buffalo other major championships and teams. Thirty-two of them are written about in “The Buffalo Sports Curse,’’ and Tranter’s research reveals several never-before-written-about stories that gives the book compelling historical perspective and life.

The timing of such a book will strike some as strange. After all, these are heady times for the Bills. With leading-NFL MVP candidate Josh Allen playing quarterback at an unprecedented level, Buffalo is 5-1 and the overwhelming favorites to win it all this year.

“I realize I might take some criticism for the book coming out when it has,’’ Tranter said. “But my point is that we have to acknowledge there’s a curse before we can break it. And I think this can be the year to do that.”

Tranter was thumbing through his new book in the living room of his suburban Worcester, Mass. home two Sundays ago, before watching the Bills come from behind to beat their arch-nemesis, the Kansas City Chiefs.

“That’s got to be a good omen, right?’’ he said. “At least, I’m hoping it is. If this is the year the Bills finally win a Super Bowl – and nobody is rooting harder than I am for that to happen – then the book might have played a role ending the curse. And if they lose? Well, what can I say? We’ll just have to keep working on breaking it.”

Tranter’s passion for the Bills and Buffalo are on full display at an exhibit he helped create at the Buffalo History Museum. A few years ago, he donated his enormous collection of Bills memorabilia and artifacts to the museum. It includes more than 7,500 three-dimensional objects, such as game-worn jerseys, as well 100,000 archival items, including programs, publications, ticket stubs. One of the items on display is the helmet Norwood wore while attempting his fateful kick. Tranter would love nothing more than to add items from a Bills Super Bowl victory, hopefully this February.

Such a glorious outcome might prompt him to add another chapter to his book; a chapter detailing the end of the curse. It would be the completion of a journey from Ban Johnson’s “Double-Cross” to Norwood’s “Wide Right” to Allen’s “All Right!” A journey well over a century in the making.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.