Second to None
By Joseph Valerio
224 pages, $25.95
By Budd Bailey
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
The timing of Joseph Valerio’s book on the Buffalo Bills’ “Glory Days” of the early 1990s could not have been better.
It’s been an emotional year for Bills fans. First came the death of owner Ralph Wilson, throwing the team’s future into, at the least, uncertainty. Then there’s been Jim Kelly’s battle with cancer. Throw in the fact that the team hasn’t reached the playoffs in this century, and fans certainly needed a reminder of when times were better.
Andre Reed did that when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. The reunion of many of the members of the Bills’ organization who went to four straight Super Bowls packed a huge emotional wallop. Since Reed probably will be the final member of those teams to make it to the Hall, the ceremony in Canton felt like a giant punctuation mark on an era. No wonder so many Bills fans made the trip down the Interstate to Ohio to see it.
Some of those people might want to read more about those teams about now, and what made them special. That’s what Valerio does in “Second to None,” a book that will keep even casual football fans turning the pages quickly.
Valerio at first seems like a slightly curious choice for a book like this. While he started his career working for a newspaper, he has spent the past quarter-century as a producer for “Sports Reporters” on ESPN. There’s no obvious connection to Buffalo or the Bills, although he does mention that he and his young son bonded over those teams. That’s not a problem, as it’s always good to get an outside perspective.
There will be a few too many references to the wintry weather for some; that’s probably to be expected.
Valerio has not written anything close to a game-by-game recap of that era. He concentrates on the four Super Bowls in terms of the games, naturally, although a few other games do come up. The first Super Bowl against the Giants receives the most attention, a classic battle with all sorts of turning points along the way. The comments of Bill Parcells, the Giants’ coach in that game, are particularly interesting in hindsight. He says now that the Giants were confident that they could stay with the Bills, particularly after having played them twice (preseason and regular season) earlier in that year. It was crucial for New York to hold on to the football and not give Buffalo too many chances to score, and the Giants did that superbly.
You probably know how that game ended. Interestingly, both Parcells and Bills’ general manager Bill Polian comment that at the time they figured a 47-yard field goal on grass was a bit out of Scott Norwood’s range. Five yards closer might have made all the difference.
To their credit, the Bills went back to work the next season, and returned to the Super Bowl – only to lose to Washington badly. The next year, a rerun – except the loss was to Dallas. (By the way, Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson says he’s never been more confident about a game as he was that day.) The next year was another repeat performance, with Dallas in the way again.
In fairness, Buffalo wasn’t the better team entering those final three Super Bowls. Still, it’s interesting to read comments from Bills’ players saying they put a lot of pressure on themselves in the later championship games, and didn’t handle adversity well.
Mixed with those game recaps are short biographies of some of the Bills, along with tales about how the team came together and showed such resilience over the years. Students of those Bills years probably figure they know most of the stories about those years, but Valerio uncovers plenty of new information. Polian’s perspective is particularly valuable here, but others such as Kelly, Don Beebe, Reed, Darryl Talley, Jim Ritcher and Steve Tasker also do very well at putting those events in context.
A few fans even check in as well. Their memories show that the journey was just as important to them as the outcome of each yearly trip, and they show what those teams meant to the region then and now.
The accomplishment of reaching four straight Super Bowls has grown over the years, although losing them all has put those teams into a strange niche in NFL history. It’s tough to say if “Second to None” will find an audience outside of this region. But those outside of Western New York who do read it will learn how this group of individuals came together for a memorable run of success. Those inside the region simply will have a smile on their faces for most of the 224 pages.
Budd Bailey is a Buffalo News sports copy editor.