Almost a year ago, I sat in the Town of Tonawanda living room of Van Miller for my final interview with the broadcasting legend.
It was quickly clear that he was no longer at the top of his game.
Diagnosed with the eye disease macular degeneration, Miller couldn’t drive anymore. He needed a walker to get around his neighborhood at times. He had recently fallen a few times while adjusting to the walker, landing in the hospital for a few weeks earlier in the year.
His distinctive voice, which helped him get into six Halls of Fame, no longer was as strong as it once was. “I don’t have that same verve, the same drive,” he said of his voice.
“He’s 86 years old and still kicking,” said his wife, Gloria. “He’s got a lot to be grateful for, and he’s done a lot over the years.”
Then all of a sudden, Miller found the energy to go back to the early 1990s to describe a fictional Bills touchdown to illustrate he still has it once in a while, as he forecast the end of the Bills playoff drought.
“He’s at the 40, down to the 35, down to the 35, 30, 20, 15, 10, 5, touchdown Bills,” Miller said playfully. “They are going to break that 14-year non-playoff streak. They are going to do it. It will be Fandemonium.”
Even at 86 and frail, Miller had what the late Steve Sabol of NFL Films said Miller was known for – “the ability to deliver the moment.”
It was my final lasting memory of Miller, who died Friday afternoon at age 87.
He got more animated when I suggested that former Bills linebacker Darryl Talley first coined the term “Fandemonium” before Miller.
“No, he did not,” Miller protested.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Talley used the word more than four years before Miller made it even more famous. Talley may have invented it, but Miller made it sing.
When it came to special play-by-play moments in Bills and Braves history, Van was The Man.
He was easily the most versatile play-by-play man in Buffalo sports history, even becoming a part-time coach at one point.
Miller told me he had a special place in his heart for the late Braves coach Dr. Jack Ramsay, who died at age 89 more than a year ago. The story goes that Miller once told Ramsay when to insert Braves guard Randy Smith back in a game.
“He was my favorite,” Miller said of Dr. Jack a year ago. “We took our tennis racquets everywhere. He was a decent tennis player, but I could beat him.”
It was Classic Van – the competitor.
He loved life and loved the attention he got as the play-by-play man of the Bills and the Braves and the sports director at Channel 4.
Miller always seemed to be “on,” whether it was walking around in his fur coat inside the Bills press box or interacting with people at a restaurant or on the tennis court.
His sense of humor was priceless. Another of my favorite moments with Van came when he gave me a razor. He said it represented all the cutting remarks I had made about him over his final years on the air.
No one loves criticism. But Van found a clever way to deal with it.
Besides, he got his licks in, too. They usually came on the tennis court. A left-hander, he took me to school on the court one day. He usually whipped me as badly as the Patriots have whipped the Bills in recent years.
As I left his home a year ago during that final interview, I joked that I wanted to play him again because I thought I might finally be able to beat him now that he was 86. We both laughed.
I imagine Miller is up in heaven now entertaining everyone and delivering some priceless moments after playing tennis with former Bills Owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. and Dr. Jack Ramsay.
When you think of what has made Buffalo famous, Van Miller was right up there with chicken wings, beef on weck, Irv Weinstein, Rick Jeanneret, Tim Russert, Ted Darling and Ralph Wilson.
When I think of Van Miller, I also recall what my late father used to say when we watched old films together.
“There was only one Clark Gable,” my dad would say.
“There was only one Humphrey Bogart.”
“There was only one Spencer Tracy.”
It was his way of saying that some actors and people in the limelight in visible professions became legends because of the way they carried themselves and performed.
“There was only one Van Miller.”