All these years later, that Thursday evening in September is still remembered for its beauty. There was nothing better for a kid than getting home from school, having dinner and playing a game. That's exactly what Paul Posluszny was doing.
He was on the practice field, trying to pass himself off as a soccer player.
Posluszny was only 9 years old at the time, a fourth-grader at Our Lady of Fatima in Hopewell Township, Pa., without a worry in the world, when horrified parents started screaming and pointing into the distance. By then the USAir jet had already rolled over, recovery hopeless, onlookers helpless, and was spiraling toward the ground.
"Yeah, I remember," he said just above a whisper. "Flight 427."
Posluszny and the other kids watched as the nose of the Boeing 737-300 pointed downward as it plunged into a wooded area a few miles away. He braced himself for the sound of impact. For some odd reason, he heard nothing. Suddenly, flames roared through the trees and shot into the blue sky.
The crash Sept. 8, 1994, killed all 132 on board.
"I completely didn't know what to do and didn't know what to say," Posluszny said. "The plane disappeared below the tree line, and I was waiting for the big boom. I just remember it going through the tree line and the huge fireball. I remember waiting for a loud explosion. But it was just a huge fireball. It was crazy."
Looking back, maybe he was too young to fully digest the tragedy. The wreckage was scattered across a mountainside. Investigators looked into the accident for months but never came up with definitive answers for why the plane malfunctioned on that pretty evening in Western Pennsylvania.
"Perfect day," said his father, Paul Sr., a mechanic for USAir. "There wasn't a cloud in the sky. It was a nice temperature outside. It was amazing. It was a perfect day for flying."
The crash left witnesses speechless and a hard-working community devastated, but it failed to shatter Posluszny's childhood dream of becoming a fighter pilot. He often found himself gazing toward the heavens whenever planes roared over Aliquippa, Pa.
"I'm really not sure," he said. "I loved everything about planes and flying. Even now, when I see planes fly by, you know, that's the most beautiful thing. But I do remember that happening that day and, really, I'm having trouble finding the words to describe it."
If anything, it might have contributed to his fascination with planes and his attraction to the military. He admired people who served their country for their drive and discipline.
Fifteen years later, people admire him for having the same qualities on the field.
Tough. Tireless. Unselfish. Intelligent. Humble. Genuine.
It's no wonder his idol is Pat Tillman, the late Arizona Cardinals player who left the NFL after Sept. 11, 2001, and died in Afghanistan. Posluszny jumped at an opportunity last January to watch the Super Bowl with the troops in Iraq, a 10-day journey that included flying around in Army helicopters.
"He always liked airplanes when he was a little kid, even before that incident," his father said. "He was always interested in the military. He still talks about wanting to fly helicopters in the Army."
Simply, Posluszny is one of the good guys. His relationship with Bills Nation was love at first sight, one that has the potential to evolve into a deep romance.
Bills fans have come to know him simply as a football player, which is high praise from a town that once defined Chris Spielman precisely the same way. It was hardly a surprise that No. 51 jerseys flew off the shelves before he played his first snap with the Bills, the way Spielman's No. 54 was a hot item when he arrived in 1996.
Posluszny has come back from a broken arm that ended his season three games into his rookie year to lead one of the league's better defensive units. He has played only eight games in the NFL, but it seems as if he's been here for eight years. He's leading the Bills with 43 tackles, but that's not what stands out most about him along One Bills Drive.
"It's his sincerity," Bills coach Dick Jauron said. "For example, when you ask him a question, he thinks about it and tries to answer it from his perspective. It's not necessarily from what he was prepped to say. He's thinking about it, and he's going to give you an honest response. That's what strikes you about him."
Anyone who spends 15 minutes with him can see why Penn State practically needed three days of mourning after he graduated. He was a two-time All-American, the 2006 Academic All-American of the Year who graduated a semester early with a 3.57 grade-point average and a degree in finance. He remains one of Penn State's top ambassadors, a parent's dream.
And, apparently, a college dream boat.
Stories still float around Happy Valley about Nittany Lions fans (see: students, female) lining up outside his door and asking for autographs. Little did they know they could have found him at 9:30 a.m. Mass every Sunday. Posluszny never was comfortable with his celebrity and refused to play the role of Big Man on Campus, which drew people that much closer and added to his legend.
"It was always with good intentions," he said of his visitors. "A lot of people brought us brownies."
"I have a picture of Poz on the wall in my office," said Fran Ganter, a 40-year veteran at Penn State and its associate athletic director for football administration. "He's the kindest, most sincere and most humble guy -- with that kind of ability -- that we've ever had. He's just a sweetheart. He walks into this office and the five girls that work here just melt. He just does all the right stuff. And there's not one phony bit about him."
And, boy, could he play. He was among the most respected players ever to set foot into Beaver Stadium, a college football mecca that produced the likes of John Cappelletti, Franco Harris, Jack Ham, Matt Millen, Shane Conlan, LaVar Arrington and Larry Johnson.
Cappelletti won the Heisman Trophy. Harris and Ham are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Millen was a defensive tackle in college who became a Pro Bowl linebacker. Conlan, Arrington and Johnson were terrific players. Coaching legend Joe Paterno sent more than 300 players to the NFL.
But the valedictorian of Linebacker U? Paul Posluszny.
"He's the best linebacker that ever went through Penn State," Ham, now the color commentator for Penn State football, said by telephone. "He's just a complete football player. Some guys are smart on the field, but they really aren't smart guys. This guy is smart on and off the field. I knew he would be in the right situation and stand out."
Posluszny, the third of five children, never abandoned values from his childhood. His older brother, Stan, was drafted by the Seattle Mariners. His younger brother, David, is a freshman linebacker for Notre Dame. Posluszny had a difficult enough time just trying to be the best athlete in his driveway and the best student in his house.
For all the times he fantasized about flying, perhaps that kept him grounded. To this day, he treats everyone with the utmost respect. Well, everyone except running backs.
In high school, he was the Pittsburgh Athletic Association Player of the Year in 2002 as a linebacker and running back. He led Hopewell High, the same school that produced Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett, to the state championship. He ran for a school-record 1,575 yards and had 15 touchdowns his senior year.
And to think Poz thought the military was his calling. He was set on going to the U.S. Naval Academy, where he intended to play football and become a pilot. His parents convinced him otherwise after he started showing up on the radar of top Division I schools.
Ultimately, he combined each of his strengths and applied them to football. He has the classic linebacker's body, 6- foot-1 and 238 pounds, and a lunch-bucket attitude that suggests he would play the game for nothing and the character to never forget his roots.
Tough. Tireless. Unselfish. Intelligent. Humble. Genuine.
Posluszny is everything Buffalo wants in a player and a person. Maybe that's why he seems a perfect fit. After all, the only thing separating Western Pennsylvania from Western New York is a line on a map.
"Very, very similar," he said. "They're very honest, just hard-working people. I'm not an experienced traveler or anything, but I've been to places where there's so much emphasis on what clothes you wear and what kind of car you drive. It's not the way it should be, and it's not the way it is here.
"Everyone is just down-to-earth good people who want to work hard at work worth doing and have a great life. That's what it's all about."