A few hours before the game Sunday, my family sat down and watched “Four Falls of Buffalo,” the latest documentary in ESPN’s “30 for 30” series and yet another masterpiece. If you haven’t heard, it’s about the Bills’ resiliency and their relationship with their fans during the glory days.
My older children were stunned by how many people stood with the Bills in front of City Hall after they lost to the Giants in Super Bowl XXV, how fans embraced their team in defeat and rallied around kicker Scott Norwood, how Buffalo was united as one a generation before One Buffalo became a marketing slogan.
Yeah, kids, it really happened.
Like many parents watching “Four Falls” with their kids, I explained Buffalo’s passion for the Bills and how people didn’t view them as a doomed franchise like they do today. When the Bills build a 14-point lead these days, fans brace for a 14-point loss. Back then, a 14-point lead felt like the halfway mark to a 28-point win. Only later was a sense of confidence replaced by a sense of dread.
The documentary gave my kids a glimpse of a younger me, back when I was a diehard Bills fan who suffered like the people they saw in Lafayette Square. It’s a departure from the man they’ve known, a stranger from an era they couldn’t comprehend, before this job forced me – or allowed me – to detach my emotions from the Bills.
See, the Bills’ evolution coincided with my own. Their wins and losses still stand as points of reference in my life, as they do for many people my age.
People talk about the four Super Bowls, but there was so much more. Fans remember 1986 as the season Jim Kelly arrived along with Kent Hull. Marv Levy replaced blowhard Hank Bullough on the way to a 4-12 record. I was 19 years old at the time, the same age as my oldest son now.
In 1987, after Bill Polian pulled off the blockbuster trade to acquire Cornelius Bennett, I was an orderly at Sisters Hospital and listened to his Buffalo debut on radios playing in patients’ rooms. In 1988, I was 21 years old when Ronnie Harmon dropped a touchdown pass in the playoff loss to the Browns.
In 1990, when they were going to their first Super Bowl, I was a clerk at The News answering phones and taking bowling scores. On the night the Bills lost to the Giants, I was an intern on the copy desk. I can still see the late, great Tom Borrelli with his head buried in his hands, unable to watch the final kick.
And a few years later, while working for the Associated Press, I covered the news conference in which Bill Polian announced his dismissal. In 1995, after leaving the area, I was back in Buffalo covering the Bills full time for AP and watched while the Bills’ greatest days faded into memory.
So, yes, on various levels, I get it.
What’s sad is that the generation that followed mine never experienced any real measure of success for the Bills. You hear about how they missed the playoffs for 15 straight seasons and counting, the longest such streak in the four major sports, but forget they haven’t won a postseason game since 1995. It was a wild-card victory over the Dolphins and Don Shula’s last game as a head coach.
Seven months later, I became a first-time father. My oldest son is a sophomore in college. My daughter will enter college knowing the Bills haven’t made the playoffs since she was in diapers. My younger two sons are 13 and 11. To them, the Bills’ greatness remains nothing more than a vicious rumor.
It was a different world, indeed.
Unlike today, the old Bills had a strong link to the community. Fans saw players having dinner or bar hopping or attending church – sometimes in that order. Heaven knows how many fans piled into Kelly’s house for postgame parties. It seemed everybody knew somebody with a connection to the players in the 1990s.
Darryl Talley was right the other day when he suggested to our Tyler Dunne that today’s players come across as individual CEOs. Years ago, the Bills had their problems with one another and the organization. Bruce Smith in particular moaned about his contract, but he was hardly alone.
Everybody wanted to get paid, which has been true since the beginning of professional sports. Once the season began, however, the Bills shared an insatiable desire to win every Sunday. No matter how many times they lost the Super Bowl, their intention in training camp the next year was winning a championship.
They were building toward something. Nowadays, it seems the Bills are looking for a year in which they can catch lightning in a bottle. But nobody wins championships by accident or simply by spending more money. It takes the right people in the right places at the right time. Even then, odds are against winning it all.
Too many players these days are intent more on collecting paychecks than collecting victories. Mario Williams has physical qualities Smith did, but they had different motors. Bruce, for the most part, played with the pedal to the metal. Mario, for the most part, has been on cruise control.
I’m not necessarily trying to pick on Williams. He’s just an example of a greater, persistent problem that has plagued the Bills since the turn of the century.
If the Bills win, fine.
If they lose, oh well.
Over the years, I’ve often believed fans wanted to win more than players did. They have become more skeptical and less tolerant over the years. They see through Rex Ryan and other bumbling coaches who insisted they knew how to win before providing evidence to the contrary.
People in their late 20s have faint memories of the Bills winning a playoff game. Most who are younger can barely recall, or weren’t yet born, the last time they reached the postseason. They might not have been around winning teams, but they watched enough bad teams to know the Bills aren’t a good one.
Younger people associate the Bills with Dick Jauron and Chan Gailey, with J.P. Losman and E.J. Manuel, with 6-10 and 7-9. The Bills have had so many falls over the past 15 or 20 years that finishing 9-7 and missing the playoffs under Doug Marrone passes for the glory days.
Kids, let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a team and a town with a special bond, just like the documentary outlined. It really happened. And it was awesome.