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'30 for 30' film is a poignant love letter to the Bills, their fans and Buffalo

If you are lucky enough to be headed to the North Park Theatre Wednesday for the world premiere of ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary on the glory days of the Buffalo Bills, it would be a good idea for the more nostalgic fans to bring along a box of Kleenex.

The tears have long since dried since Scott Norwood’s 47-yard field goal in Super Bowl XXV went wide right, but “Four Falls of Buffalo” likely will move Bills fans in ways far more powerful than any missed kick.

The one hour, 41-minute documentary – which airs at 9:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPN – plays like a love letter to  Buffalo, its National Football League team and fans.

It packs an emotional wallop as it interviews many of the Bills who played in the four straight Super Bowl losses in the early 1990s.

If you aren’t moved by the interviews of Norwood and his special teams coach, Bruce DeHaven, you should check your pulse to see if you are alive.

The way DeHaven has honored Norwood for the grace he showed in multiple post-game interviews is priceless and life-affirming.

While watching the film I couldn’t help but think of a famous "Mad Men" scene in which advertising executive Don Draper gives a definition of nostalgia during an advertising presentation.

“Nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound,” said Draper. “A tinge in your heart far more powerful than memories alone. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.”

Scott Norwood and Bruce DeHaven on the steps of Buffalo City Hall (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

There has been no more painful place for many Bills fans to go than those Super Bowl losses. But as the constant ESPN promo for “Four Falls” says, “… history is not always written by the victors.”

“Four Falls” shows Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, Andre Reed, Marv Levy and Bill Polian, as well as their teammates, were anything but losers. They are all interviewed, along with Darryl Talley, Steve Tasker, Frank Reich and Don Beebe.

The film is narrated by actor William Fichtner, a Cheektowaga native. A perfect choice.

It is directed by Ken Rodgers, whose previous “30 for 30” film, “Elway to Marino,” led to the idea for “Four Falls.” Rodgers uses Niagara Falls as a backdrop for the four falls when the Bills assembled to make their annual Super Bowl trip, as the gospel tune “One More River to Cross” appropriately plays.

Michelle Girardi Zumwalt, a Buffalo native who did many of the interviews for the film when she worked for NFL Films, said the film was Jim Kelly’s idea.

Michelle Girardi Zumwalt, a Buffalo native who did many of the interviews for the film when she worked for NFL Films, recently told me that the film was Kelly’s idea.

Zumwalt, who now is a producer for the Pegula Sports and Entertainment Network, said that after Kelly was interviewed for the Elway-Marino film he suggested to Rodgers that he do a film on the Bills.

Kelly’s recent personal story of being a cancer survivor is used by Rodgers as the framing device and metaphor for a Bills team that persevered through incredible professional challenges to beat the odds of going to four straight Super Bowls.

Early in the film, viewers meet Kelly when he was a young gunslinger who took shots at Buffalo after being drafted by the Bills. By film’s end, it is clear to the nation that there is no place the permanent Western New York resident would rather be than right here, right now or anytime.

There are too many highlights to mention, and I’m not just referring to the pleasure of hearing the late Van Miller call some big plays. Among the highlights:

  • Norwood’s poignant interviews. One is done with DeHaven on the steps of Buffalo City Hall, decades after fans shouted “We Want Scott! at a rally there after the wide right kick in Super Bowl XXV. In another, Norwood calls Buffalo “nothing but a winning city.”

Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas sit on a couch talking about the early days of the so-called "Bickering Bills" in this scene from "Four Falls of Buffalo." (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

  • Then there is Smith and Thomas sitting on a couch talking about the early days of the so-called Bickering Bills, watching replays of the Super Bowls after the team grew up and became a family, and also joining other Bills in their appreciation of Whitney Houston’s national anthem performance before Super Bowl XXV. Thomas explains the famous time he couldn’t find his helmet at the start of the second Super Bowl loss because someone working for singer Harry Connick Jr. moved it prior to Connick’s singing of the national anthem. Watching Norwood’s kick, Smith shares a sentiment shared by many Bills fans. “I still somehow imagine this kick is going to go through,” said Smith. At another time, he refers to Bills fan “as best fans ever.”
  • Don Beebe reading letters from the thousands he received after chasing down Dallas’ Leon Lett to prevent another touchdown in the Bills’ 52-17 loss to the Cowboys in Pasadena. Later, Beebe poignantly notes that he wishes all of his Bills teammates and Buffalo could have experienced the same feeling he had when he won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers and got the game ball from Brett Favre.
  • Levy going to the Buffalo and Erie County Library to find a book of poems that included the four-line poem he read to inspire the Bills to “fight on” after Super Bowl losses.
  • The late South Buffalo native Tim Russert, through old clips, praying for a Bills win on “Meet the Press,” something his son Luke notes that his father was criticized for.
  • Bills running back Kenny Davis providing unintentional comic relief by suggesting the wind created by the military helicopter above Tampa Stadium was responsible for Norwood’s miss. The only thing funnier in the film was seeing how often former Channel 7 sportscaster Jerry Azar is in it considering how short his stay was here.
  • Finally, any time Tasker speaks. The CBS analyst is one of the film’s biggest stars. He is almost poetic in numerous sound bites describing the Bills state of mind at various times. Tasker poignantly explains the Bills just ran out of gas at halftime of the fourth Super Bowl after playing 20-25 games for four straight seasons. He even is able to laugh at himself, noting how often he speaks to schools and some young guy tells him that Bills stands for Boy I Love Losing Super Bowls.

Boy, this film illustrates how foolish that acronym really is and how much other NFL players – Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman among them – have come to appreciate how difficult the Bills achievement was in the 1990s and how unlikely it is that it will ever be repeated.

The Bills couldn’t have gotten back four times to the visible disgust of some national writers if free agency had been different back then and if they also hadn’t had some luck.

The Bills playoff victory over Houston in the Greatest Comeback game was helped by a Beebe touchdown that would have been overturned by instant replay today. Beebe’s memorable play catching Lett also might have been overturned.

With Polian’s help, the film also disputes the suggestions that the Bills made the four Super Bowls because of the weakness of the American Conference and that they lost them because the National Conference was much stronger. Fichtner notes the Bills had a 14-2 record in the regular season against NFC opponents in their Super Bowl years and even owned a win over the Giants six weeks before the sad ending in Super Bowl XXV.

Speaking of endings, “Four Falls” has a fantastic one – in more ways than one -- that is augmented by a song made famous by Elvis Presley.

I won't spoil it for you.. But it may even make many Bills fans smile as widely as the Bills players do as they take their final bows in the film.

 

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