There were numerous times over the years in which I wished to speak to that kid in the picture standing proudly alongside Greg Bell after his first practice in Fredonia back in 1984. You see a young, vibrant and wishful teenager who was eternally optimistic when it came to Buffalo sports.
If he only knew what would transpire in the coming decade, how the lousy team he adored would someday stir emotions he didn't know existed, how it would capture his heart and feed his spirit and let him down just the same, how it would contribute to a career that he didn't realize was within reach.
Seventeen-year-old me was a diehard Bills fan, you see, long before he (I) became cynical and jaded from covering one poor team after another. Once was a time when my love for the Bills was unconditional, when I froze my fanny off in the stands, when I was "Talkin' Proud," when results each Sunday affected my mood each Monday.
Once upon a time, I was you.
Man, was it ever fun.
It's important to explain a few things. The NFL seemed far less complicated and infinitely more genuine than what you see today. Fewer games were on television. Thursday Night Football didn't exist. Most games in Buffalo were blacked out because the Bills failed to sell out.
Fans had a greater voice. They supported the Bills when they won and stayed home when they lost, leading to crowds in the 25,000 range during lean years of the early 1980s. Buffalo's place nationally was mostly reserved for highlights on Monday Night Football and, even then, the Bills were often on the wrong end of a great play.
The Bills were still my team and remain a scrapbook of my youth. I dodged potholes while delivering newspapers the way O.J. danced around tacklers. I toed imaginary sidelines the way Bobby Chandler did. You have no idea how much I wanted to step on Terry Bradshaw's head the way Jim Haslett did.
It was a different world.
There were no fantasy leagues, no patdowns or metal detectors, no #billsmafia, no scoreboard telling you when to cheer and certainly no talk about the Bills going to the Super Bowl. In 1983, first-round pick Jim Kelly refused to sign with Buffalo and bolted for the USFL. In 1984 and 1985, they were 2-14.
But you know what? Screw Jim Kelly. If he didn’t want to be in Buffalo, we didn't want him playing for the Bills ... although deep down we really did.
In 1984, my high school team won a game in the stadium before the Bills did. Frontier beat Jamestown for a Section VI title a week before Bell ripped off an 85-yard run on the first play from scrimmage to lead the 0-11 Bills to an upset win over the Cowboys.
Back then, Buffalo fans moaned mostly about the Sabres failing to win the first round of the playoffs. Buffalo didn't have feelings of inevitable doom that have permeated over the past three decades and counting. The Bills hadn't lost any big games because they hadn't really played in any big games.
Within six years, it changed.
Bruce Smith, Andre Reed and Frank Reich were drafted in 1985. Bill Polian was hired in 1986. Months later, fans lined the highways when Kelly was ushered into town in a limousine while Kent Hull rode in an equipment truck behind him. In 1987, the Bills drafted Shane Conlan and months later acquired Cornelius Bennett in a blockbuster trade.
Bennett's debut was 30 years ago, but it feels like yesterday. I was an orderly at Sisters Hospital, running from room to room, listening on patients' radios while Bennett tormented John Elway all afternoon. The following month, I started dating my future wife. Thurman Thomas was drafted the next season. The Bills were off and running.
And so was my life.
Kids, ask your parents, but I'm telling you nothing breathed more energy and enthusiasm into Western New York than the Bills on a roll. Buffalo was electric when the Bills won their first four games in 1988 and gained momentum every week while winning 11 of their first 12.
Far-fetched fantasies about winning the Super Bowl and bringing the city its first major sports championship since the AFL-NFL merger suddenly became very real. There were many Saturday nights in which I lost sleep thinking about Sunday's game. Fans woke up every week upbeat and ready to roll.
(Quick note: I did NOT wear Zubaz.)
For years, fans didn't need to watch games to know what was happening. They merely needed to stroll down any Buffalo street and listen. You would hear entire neighborhoods erupt, knowing when the Bills scored or fumbled. Priests wore Bills' jerseys under their vestments and wrapped sermons of faith around their success.
And when the Bills and their No Huddle offense pummeled the Raiders, 51-3, to advance to their first Super Bowl, well, it seemed our prayers were answered. I don't remember a time in which the town was so alive. If you didn't get swept up in the euphoria with people singing in the streets and filling taverns, then you didn't have a pulse.
Kids, ask your parents where they were for The Comeback. Trust me, they know.
RVs showed up on Wednesdays for big home games. Imagine being a 20-something super fan who lived for the Bills during the week and attended Kelly's house parties after home games. My roommate and late cousin, Billy Rieman, was a bartender for Kelly. It was THE place to be on Sundays during the heyday.
The Bills became such fixtures in the community that nobody flinched when Kelly, Smith, Thomas or anyone else strolled into an establishment. People personally knew the players and coaches because they had been entrenched. They were just Jim, Bruce, Thurman, Andre, Biscuit and Marv.
Players often hung out at the Big Tree Inn, celebrating with the very fans who cheered them from the seats. They attended the same churches and restaurants and school functions. It seemed every player had a commercial or radio gig. Adam Lingner had his own show, and he was their long snapper.
Count me among the people who couldn't get enough.
See, long before OneBuffalo, Buffalo was one. Fans felt like they contributed to the Bills' success because they did. Teams visiting Rich Stadium during the glory days were down two touchdowns before they hopped off the bus. The Bills and their fans had a special bond that hadn't been experienced before or since.
Plus, players didn't need to worry about cameras catching them in some compromising position. There were no cellphones, no internet and therefore no social media. People understood what was off limits, and that included the media, and for the most part respected the players' privacy.
Athletes can't make an illegal lane change these days without someone finding out, which is why there's a greater divide than ever between players and fans.
Buffalo fans also didn't brace for the worst, at least not at first. Their playoff loss to the Bengals after the '88 season was a learning experience. Ronnie Harmon's drop against the Browns a year later was a speed bump.
The feeling of inevitable failure didn't infiltrate the region until Super Bowl losses started piling up and the Bills became the B-I-L-L-L-L-S.
And it coincided with my career.
I was a part-time reporter and copy editor at The News when their first Super Bowl sailed wide right. I was with the Olean Times Herald when they lost the second one. I was a temp for the Associated Press, covering fan reaction in Buffalo bars, when they lost the third one. I was covering state politics in Harrisburg, Pa., for the last one.
By the time I returned to Buffalo for good in 1995, my life had changed. I was married and had been hardened by working in Philadelphia, a competitive market with a sharp edge. My attitude toward the Bills as a young fan had been replaced by the cold and unsentimental views of a reporter.
When the AP offered me an opportunity to come home and cover the Bills full time in 1995, it was too good to resist. I must say covering the first year was strange. After years of admiring them from afar, I had become more analytical up close.
There were times after heated moments in which I walked away thinking, "If they only knew I cheered for them, or partied with them, a few years ago." I can't help but laugh when people tell me how I've always hated the Bills.
It's ludicrous. If you're wondering why I'm so critical at times now, it's because they’re so far removed from greatness that I remember as the norm. Fans today forget that columnists criticized them for underachieving during the glory days, too. They were held to higher standards than today. Mediocrity has somehow become satisfactory.
To me, that's pathetic.
There are times I miss having a favorite football team. Although I'm not cheering for (or against) Buffalo the team, I'll forever root for Buffalo the town. For the sake of my children, not to mention a fantastic story that has yet to be written, it would be nice to see Buffalo win a championship someday.
I have four kids. My oldest son is 21 years old. He was born after the Bills last won a playoff game. My daughter, a sophomore in college, was an infant when they last reached the playoffs. My other two sons are 15 and 13. To my kids, the Bills' glory days are little more than a rumor. They're left to ask their parents, too.
No matter how bad the Bills were at their worst, and they were godawful many times, nobody would have fathomed going this long without making the playoffs. The postseason drought is 17 years old, or the same age I was when visiting training camp in 1984. It was 33 years ago, a lifetime.
A few days ago, I looked at that photo and wondered:
Who is that kid and what happened to his team?