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Janine Talley: Watkins on the part to becoming a leader

About 29 years ago, I was sitting in the dining room of our tiny Orchard Park apartment reading The Buffalo News when I stumbled upon Jerry Sullivan’s column giving his year-end synopsis of the Bills’ performance. I skimmed through the positions until I reached “Linebackers.” The overall grade wasn’t good and Jerry referred to my husband, Darryl Talley, as “finally reaching mediocrity.” Ouch! My ears got hot. My palms began to moisten. I felt nauseous. I was causing myself a panic attack trying to figure out how I was going to keep Darryl from reading the paper. No luck. Darryl asked for the sports section.

Through the brown wooden spindles that divided the dining room and living room, I watched him read. When I saw him sit up on the edge of the sofa and his eyes go bugged, I knew he’d come to the words “finally reaching mediocrity.” The apartment felt like a doll’s house. The room seemed to shrink around me as Darryl’s angry voice ricocheted off of the walls. At that very moment Darryl had had it with the jokes and criticism of his play and that of his teammates. Jerry’s evaluation did two things for Darryl: It challenged him to improve his play, so as to never be referred to as cumulatively mediocre again, and it encouraged him to become a leader on the field and in the locker room.

I write about this because Twitter was ablaze with negative reactions to Sammy Watkins’ locker room “rant” after the Bills’ loss to the Washington Redskins, and his assessment of his and his teammates’ play and lack of leadership on and off the field. To me, he sounded like someone who was tired of the jokes and the criticism and the losing, and was making a pivotal stance. Labeling his words a “rant” sounds aloof and dismissive, Sammy’s words were passionate and ambitious.

Folks, to have wisdom, one must have experience. I think a player going into his third year with a team is a fine time to assume a leadership role. The thing that convinced me is that during his “rant,” he said, “You’ve got to go out there each week and play for the guy next to you.” He gets it.

A former Bills player once said he didn’t know the names of all the guys on his team and Darryl was irate. He wondered aloud how a guy sharing a locker room, dependent on those guys to win games, could not bother to know their names.

It sounds to me like the loss to the Redskins was the last in a litany of events that became Sammy’s motivator. Whatever the catalyst, the importance is his willingness to step up and assume the responsibility. Jerry Sullivan is the single outside influence that caused Darryl to step up and assume that responsibility when he played.

Darryl stayed ticked at Jerry for several years, even contriving with Kent Hull to relentlessly set picks on Jerry at a Bills vs. The Buffalo News charity basketball game. Whenever Darryl or Kent were on offense during that game, they would force Jerry to be bounced off of Darryl’s chest or take an elbow or twelve from Kent. It was Darryl’s fuel.

When the Bills decided in 1995 to not resign Darryl, Jerry wrote the most moving column about him of all that were written. Jerry even admitted in that column that Darryl was his favorite player.. Jerry had gained respect for Darryl as he watched his play and leadership develop, play that would eventually earn him a spot on the Bills’ Wall of Fame and a place in the hearts of a region of Bills fans.

Darryl and Jerry have since forged a friendship.

So, if the voices of social and mainstream media and too many locker room egos are the fuel to your fire, Sammy, use it. Burn it and burn them.

Leadership will require you to dig deep. It will not let you sit on the bench when you’re exhausted, but instead demand that you work the sideline, encouraging your teammates. You’ll have to be the first to offer a pat on the back when a teammate does well or rally them when things aren’t going as planned.

The effort may earn you a spot on The Wall, a place in the hearts of a region and a parting column by a sports journalist who might admit you’re his favorite player.

Janine Talley, wife of Bills great Darryl Talley, writes an occasional column in The Buffalo News.