NEWS STAFF REPORTER
Van Miller, the longtime voice of the Buffalo Bills and television sports anchor who arguably became the most versatile play-by-play man in Buffalo sports history, delivering memorable calls that became part of Western New York’s sports lore, died late Friday afternoon at the Schofield Residence in the Town of Tonawanda. He was 87.
Known for his sense of humor, playfulness and what a prominent member of the TV sports industry said was his ability to “deliver the moment” during big games, Miller is a member of six Halls of Fame and has his name on the Bills’ Wall of Fame and a seating area at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
In 2004, he became the first local play-by-play man to receive the Pete Rozelle Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, “for exceptional longtime contributions to radio and television in professional football.”
Miller is on the list of some of the biggest names in broadcasting who have won that award, including John Madden, Roone Arledge, Curt Gowdy, Pat Summerall, Jack Buck, Charlie Jones, Ray Scott, Dick Enberg, Chris Berman, Don Criqui and Jim Nantz.
Miller called Bills games for 37 seasons, Buffalo Braves games in the National Basketball Association, and Niagara University basketball games during the Calvin Murphy era. He also hosted the game show “It’s Academic.”
Born in Buffalo’s Millard Fillmore Hospital in 1927, Miller grew up in Dunkirk. He was a decent youth football and basketball player who “announced” University of Notre Dame football games in his backyard on West 6th Street as a 10-year-old by talking into a hose, an eggbeater or a spoon. He made announcing his goal after his own athletic career was cut short by injuries suffered from a pair of serious truck and bus accidents a few years apart.
He was raised by his mother, Esther.
“She was my father, too,” Miller said in a 2003 interview. “She put the worms on my hook when I went fishing. She did everything.”
Like mother, like son. Miller did everything in radio.
Miller’s 55-year play-by-play run started in 1949 at a Dunkirk radio station, WFCB. He did wrestling, basketball, morning shows, farm shows, quiz shows, music shows and anything else required.
After the Army released him because of his pre-service injuries, he worked a few more years in Dunkirk and landed a job at WHLD-AM in Niagara Falls. After he and his wife, Gloria, had the first of their two children, he looked forward in 1955 to a salary increase as morning man and sports director. He quit on principle before his first day in a contract dispute and was hired a few days later at WBEN radio and Channel 4 – which then had the same owner – as a summer replacement.
“I had the promise of a 3-month job,” Miller said in the 2003 interview. “I left (Channel 4 as sports director) in 1998, and they never once told me that I was a permanent employee.”
When Ralph Wilson bought the Bills, his first general manager, Dick Gallagher, decided Miller would do play-by-play after WBEN got the rights. The early American Football League years had a special place in Miller’s heart as evidenced by the 1964 and ’65 championship rings he often wore.
As the voice of the Bills, Miller perhaps became best known for a signature call in which he explained “Fandemonium” breaking out after games in the Bills’ glory days in the 1990s.
Bills linebacker Darryl Talley first uttered the expression and Miller disputed that. But there is no question Miller made “Fandemonium” legendary.
He also advised Bills fans to “fasten your seatbelts” before every game and used the expression, “Do you believe?” after big moments in games.
In an interview before his final Channel 4 broadcast as sports anchor in 1998, the year the station celebrated its 50th anniversary, Miller said it was going to be “Restamonium.”
That comment exemplified Miller’s sense of humor, which could range from being corny to laugh out-loud funny.
‘Do you believe’
He had several “do you believe?” moments in his career.
In 2004, he was given a 2-minute length-of-speech warning before he became the first local broadcaster to accept the Pete Rozelle Award at a Hall of Fame dinner before an audience of 4,000 in Canton, Ohio.
Joe Horrigan, the former vice president of communications for the Hall of Fame, knew that was unrealistic.
Miller ignored the warning and told jokes for what he claimed was 7 minutes.
“Chris Berman came up to me afterwards and said, ‘You were unbelievable,’ ” Miller recalled in an afterward. “Barry Sanders (a Hall of Fame inductee) came up to me and said, ‘You should be doing stand-up.’ I speak all the time in Western New York, and I never had so many compliments.”
Mary Travers Murphy, the former Channel 7 reporter who is married to Miller’s former analyst and play-by-play replacement, John Murphy, confirmed Miller’s star status.
“I’m not exaggerating. He had people shrieking with laughter,” she said. “People were applauding. He came out of nowhere (after some dull speeches) and he was hilarious. If he weren’t a broadcaster, he could have been Johnny Carson, David Letterman or Jay Leno entertaining at 11:30 nightly. Famous people were lining up afterwards to shake his hand.
“I was crying I was laughing so much. As much as Van likes to think he’s good, I don’t think Van could possibly have a good idea of how good he was. He was even better than he thinks he was.”
Miller was always a good storyteller. His biography, “Fasten Your Seatbelts: The Van Miller Story,” written by Rob R. Thompson, had amusing stories to tell about Miller’s attempts to imitate legendary broadcaster Bill Stern as a child, his influence on the early days of the Bills and on local television, and his playful sense of humor.
The book included stories about Miller’s meeting with actor Mickey Rooney, a hair-raising Super Bowl week interview with former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, his ability as the team broadcaster to advise former Braves coach Jack Ramsay when it was time to put star guard Randy Smith back in the game and Miller’s kissing Sandra Dee before she kissed Bobby Darin. (All right, so she was 7 at the time Miller met her.)
Miller was viewed in the book as a gregarious guy who told the same jokes all the time and somehow managed to make them feel as fresh as he did all the games he called in a career that landed him in multiple halls of fame.
Last Bills game
Miller fastened his seatbelt for his last Bills home game in December 2003 at age 76, with the same routine he had for 37 years.
He awakened for a 1 p.m. game at about 7 a.m. in his Town of Tonawanda home, put on the clothes he laid out Saturday night, checked the weather report, grabbed the board his wife, Gloria, made of the players on both teams, and waited for his longtime spotter, Dick Dobmeier, to pick him up so they could head to Ralph Wilson Stadium together.
Miller was a people person whose enjoyment of his celebrity status was apparent when he met people at a restaurant and entertained and flattered them.
“I love people,” Miller said. “I so much enjoy having people come up to me and ask to have their picture taken with them. I never let them take my picture alone.”
The only Bills games he missed came during the several years in the 1970s that WKBW took the rights to the games and hired an out-of-towner, Al Meltzer, to do play-by-play.
Miller also did play-by-play on University at Buffalo basketball games and Buffalo Bisons baseball games during the days of the Boswell sisters. The Boswell sisters? They were the fictitious fans Miller invented to enliven his Bisons broadcasts in his early play-by-play days via ticker tape.
No matter how many other teams and schools and sports that Miller has done play-by-play for, it is his association with the Bills that has made him a broadcasting legend with a nationwide following of former Buffalonians.
“There are a handful of broadcasters who are so distinctive when you hear their voice you immediately think of their teams,” said Steve Sabol, the president of NFL Films who died in 2012. “Van is associated with the Bills the way Ray Scott was with the Packers and Chuck Thompson was with the Colts. I could be blindfolded and hear that voice and in my mind I’m in Buffalo and it is Jim Kelly or Bruce Smith. Like all the great radio broadcasters, his delivery and the timbre of his voice approximates the rhythms and the shifts of the game. He has a certain energy to his voice that added to the pictures.”
Sabol used Miller’s calls often, especially during the glory days when the Bills voice spoke of “Fandemonium” in Orchard Park.
“We have an expression called ‘deliver the moment,’ ” Sabol said. “The ability to rise to the occasion when something great is happening, to deliver the moment that may be engraved in fans’ memories and their ears and eyes forever. You could see a great Bills play and you knew you were going to get something from Van that would match and complement and enhance whatever we were going to do with the music and the picture and the story. ... Van was like having an Academy Award-winning supporting actor always ready to deliver that moment when you needed it.”
“He’s what Bills football sounds like,” Murphy said in 2003. “Has there ever been anyone better and more popular in Buffalo broadcasting history than Van?”
His home wall
You might think that Miller’s home would have been overloaded with Bills memorabilia. Sure, he had some footballs signed by Doug Flutie, Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas. But the most prominent picture in his television room was of a young Miller talking to the French Connection of the Buffalo Sabres after the hockey team qualified for the playoffs for the first time.
“I got them to sing ‘Oh, Canada’ in French,” said Miller proudly.
One of his heartbreaking calls occurred when Scott Norwood missed a potential game-winning field goal in the Bills’ 20-19 loss in Super Bowl XXV. While reminiscing about it with a reporter a dozen years ago, Miller also provided the perfect ending to a future obituary.
“I was disappointed, like everybody else,” said Miller. “But you know, the Bills have sort of made me in this area, and I’m eternally grateful for that. But it still boils down to this: Would I rather win a Super Bowl or see a cure for cancer? I’d rather see a cure for cancer.”
“I have a condo out at Mount Olivet,” Miller added playfully of the cemetery. “You know what I want to put on (my gravestone)? Only one thing: ‘It’s only a game.’
“Of all the thousands of games that I’ve done, of all the sports that I’ve done, and I loved every minute of it and I thrive on it, but it’s only a game.”
In addition to his wife of 62 years, Gloria, Miller is survived by his daughter, Cathy; a son, Van, and three grandchildren. A private service for the family is being planned.