Last Jan. 31, on the day he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Bill Polian stood in front of a group of Hall of Famers in a Phoenix hotel and said that winning the Super Bowl with the Colts had nothing to do with personal vindication.
It had to do with people. Polian said the first thing he thought of when he finally won the championship was something an Indiana woman had told him the day the team left for the big game in Miami that year: “You’re taking our dreams with you.”
That’s how Polian saw himself as an NFL general manager, as the architect of a football team and even more important, as the dutiful caretaker of a community’s sporting dream.
Most grateful Buffalo fans see Polian that way, as the man chiefly responsible for building the Bills team that took this town on an unforgettable football journey, one that resulted in an unprecedented four consecutive trips to the Super Bowl.
Polian took the responsibility to heart. He was a relentless, principled leader, a fighter who earned the nickname “Battlin’ Bill” during an often tumultuous but wildly successful seven seasons as the Bills’ general manager.
He loved Buffalo, and Polian says he left a big piece of himself in Western New York. Proud and defiant, competitive and impulsive, the possessor of a huge, generous heart, he came to reflect the essential Buffalo ethos. Deep down, he remains still what we call a Buffalo Guy.
“Absolutely, that’s true,” Polian said recently. “There’s so much of our family history in Buffalo. The children went to school there. Two of my children married Buffalo people. We have so many friends that have remained friends through the years. There will be a large contingent of our Buffalo friends in Canton.
“Through all the years, I remained close to Mr. Wilson and lots of people in the Bills family,” he said. “So it’s a special place for our whole family.”
Polian raised four children in Buffalo. His three sons all followed him into the game. Chris, who was his GM at Indy, is now pro personnel director at Jacksonville. Brian is the head coach at Nevada, a rising star in the coaching ranks. David is assistant director of football administration with the Titans.
He also spawned a remarkable dynasty of NFL personnel man out of St. Francis High School, which his sons attended. Tom Telesco and David Caldwell are two of the younger general managers in the NFL, Telesco at San Diego and Caldwell at Jacksonville.
That tells you how much influence Polian has in the sport, and in the lives of the young men who love it. In his foreword to Polian’s recent book, “The Game Plan,” Peyton Manning characterized his old Indy boss in a simple sentence: “When I think of Bill Polian, the first word that comes to mind is loyalty.”
Polian is intensely loyal. It was not uncommon for him to blow his top in defense of his teams or players. He had an often contentious relationship with the media. It came with the territory, but he never held grudges. And when he joined the media, he became one of the best on ESPN, an outspoken, wise and informed voice.
His loyalty to the team and town was legendary in his days with the Bills. When Jim Kelly was under fire in 1989, Polian said anyone who didn’t like Kelly could “get out of town,” vaulting an obscure announcer named Art Wander to local sports radio fame.
Polian understood the passion that Buffalo fans had for their team, and he saw himself as their champion. He has worked in other towns, but he has never seen anything quite like it.
“We loved Indianapolis and have good friends there,” Polian said, “but it wasn’t the same as Buffalo. Of course, that was our maiden voyage as a family in charge of a team. I don’t know that there’s any place in America, in any sport, where the attachment to the team and the team’s aspirations are as closely held and universal as in Buffalo.”
Polian came to Buffalo during a period of civic decline. He was keenly aware how much the Bills meant to the community, how the arrival of Kelly and the rise of the Super Bowl teams gave a much-needed jolt of good feeling to the people.
“People in public life in other cities, politicians and leading businessmen, are fans of the team and they should be,” Polian said. “Some are not rabid, others are. In Buffalo, I’ve never met anybody in public life – politicians, judges, anybody – that wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool Bills fan and lived and died with it.
“I would often kid Mayor Griffin when we’d be together in the Quarterback Club luncheons. He’d sit down and say, ‘Bill, what are we going to do about the kicking game? Can we get a better left corner? I don’t know that nickel back is good enough.’”
Polian chuckled at the memory. “I’d say, ‘Mayor, you let me worry about that. You take care of the streets and the snow and stuff like that.’ But that’s the way it is.
Former County Executive “Dennis Gorski was a huge fan. If we had a meeting, we’d spend 10 minutes talking about the team before we got to the substance of the meeting. So it’s unique in that regard. And no one – no one – anywhere in sports welcomes a player and their families into the local community the way people in Buffalo do.
“It’s called the City of Good Neighbors for a reason.”
No doubt, there will be a typically large and vocal contingent of Buffalo fans in the crowd when Polian is inducted into the Hall on Saturday evening. He gets emotional just thinking about the old days in Buffalo.
“Oh, I do,” Polian said. “It was a great time. We didn’t take the final step, but it was an incredible time and a great group of people. I don’t know what it was. You can’t put your finger on it, but that chemistry, that family atmosphere remains to this day.”
So many men from those Super Bowl teams have preceded him through the doors at Canton: Owner Ralph Wilson (2009), coach Marv Levy (2001), quarterback Jim Kelly (2002), running back Thurman Thomas (2007), wide receivers James Lofton (2003) and Andre Reed (2014), defensive end Bruce Smith (2009).
Polian will likely be the final one from that glorious era to get in the Hall of Fame. It’s only appropriate that the architect of Buffalo’s football dreams would be the last one to carry them into the building.