Thirty years later, Todd Schlopy recalls moment of glory with hometown Bills - The Buffalo News

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Thirty years later, Todd Schlopy recalls moment of glory with hometown Bills

Three decades later, Todd Schlopy remembers to bring a football everywhere he goes in case opportunity strikes. In a life revolving around visuals, he's in constant search of anything remotely resembling goal posts, a target that turns back the clocks to his brief moment of glory with his beloved Bills.

Schlopy has kicked footballs everywhere from the intersection of Rodeo Drive and Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills to downtown Prague. A few years ago, he booted one over a bridge along the Kensington Expressway in Buffalo while filming "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows."

A few weeks ago, just for kicks while working on the set of "The Happytime Murders," a comedy starring Melissa McCarthy that is scheduled to be released next year, he drilled one directly over the middle of traffic-lane indicators along the Fourth Street Bridge over the Los Angeles River.

"I kick footballs in weird places," Schlopy said with a laugh. "You find something to aim at, like downtown Atlanta in the middle of the night. The thing is, with the movies, you get things closed down, so you get opportunities to do funny things that you would never get in any other business."

And there was another kick around the corner from his home, 30 years and two stadium names ago, when he lifted the Bills to a 6-3 overtime win against a New York Giants team that included Lawrence Taylor. In all, he played in three forgettable games in NFL history, enough to become part of an answer to a trivia question:

Who were the three barefoot kickers in NFL history to win games in OT? That would be Tony Franklin, Rich Karlis and … Todd Schlopy.

All these years later, after joining Bills fans pulling for Scott Norwood to make the 47-yarder that sailed Wide Right in Super Bowl XXV, and acknowledging it shouldn't have come down to that play and certainly was no gimme, he couldn’t help but wonder if the outcome would have been different if he had the same opportunity.

Of course he wonders.

After all, he believed he had won the job in training camp in 1987. Former Bills General Manager Bill Polian confirmed the battle between Schlopy and Norwood could have gone either way. Therefore, the same could be said about the Bills' fortunes three years later in their first Super Bowl.

Scott Norwood tries to hold his head high despite pain of missed kick

"You don't know what would have happened," Schlopy said. "Would I have liked the opportunity? Are you kidding me? I'd kill for that opportunity. But it was Scott's kick. I wished he would have made it for a lot of reasons – for the City of Buffalo, for the Bills. It's hard to find a more passionate fan base than fans in Buffalo."

If his surname sounds familiar, there's a better chance it's because of his cousin, Erik Schlopy, a three-time Olympic slalom skier who grew up in Hamburg before chasing his career in Utah. A younger generation may know Todd's son, Alex, a world-class freestyle skier and X Games champion.

Todd Schlopy, 56, is known mostly these days as a first assistant cameraman, second-in-command to the cinematographer, and the ex-husband of two-time Olympian Holly Flanders. On the side, he has a small film company in Park City, Utah, where he once worked as an agent representing world-class skiers.

Long forgotten is the kid who dropped out of high school to pursue a skiing career before landing on the University of Michigan's football team, thanks largely to the revered father of a high school teammate with whom he remains friends, and kicked his way into the NFL record books during the 1987 players' strike.

On Oct. 18, 1987, he lifted the Bills to their only victory as a replacement player during a three-game players strike, making the difference after an atrocious display of football against the Giants came to a merciful conclusion when he made the second of his two field goals in overtime.

"Worst football game ever?" Marv Levy asked. "It may have been."

Michigan offers football – and film

If the careers of many NFL players follow the linear path of a drag strip – high school phenomenon to Division I college star to can't-miss draft pick – Schlopy's road to professional football, with its funky twists and hairpin turns, looks like something out of the Grand Prix.

He had a big leg in high school, but barely anybody noticed. He wasn't some decorated player who had D-I coaches beating down his door like his friend and former teammate, Ronnie Pitts, or others before him who starred at Orchard Park, such as Craig Wolfley and his brother, Ron, before Ron transferred to Frontier.

Schlopy's primary connection to football was his father Max, who coached at Nichols School in Buffalo before he became a lawyer. The Schlopy name was synonymous with local skiing back in the early 1980s, not football.

Todd Schlopy left Orchard Park High for a ski academy with the idea he would become a World Cup ski racer. He remained friends with Pitts, the son of late Bills assistant coach and former Packers star Elijah Pitts. Eli Pitts worked in Buffalo under Chuck Knox, Kay Stephenson, Hank Bullough and Levy.

When skiing didn't work out for Schlopy, Eli Pitts suggested he become a college kicker. Schlopy was an intelligent kid with a high SAT, but he failed to earn his high school diploma while on the slopes. He took a few night classes at Erie Community College and walked on at Michigan under Bo Schembechler.

"Eli, he was like my second father, he and Bo Schembechler," Schlopy said. "My parents were divorced. It wasn't like I was looking for father figures, but different people in your life – teachers, coaches, whatever – they fill gaps. Eli was amazing. He's one of the greatest men that I've ever met."

Schlopy was a kickoff specialist at Michigan. According to sports-reference.com, he made one of three field-goal attempts and was six for eight on extra points over two seasons with the Wolverines. Michigan offered him something better than football: an opportunity to earn a degree in film.

Pitts recommended him to the Bills in 1985, when they invited nearly a dozen kickers to training camp after finishing 2-14 the previous season under Stephenson. A few weeks after camp began, Schlopy and Norwood remained. Neither had kicked in an NFL regular-season game.

"My best day as a Buffalo Bill was my first training camp in Fredonia in 1985 when I walked in with a jersey and my name on a locker," Schlopy said. "You can't describe what pride you feel putting on that uniform and helmet and going on the practice field with a team you grew up with. It was amazing."

Joining 'circus' in Buffalo

Norwood had more experience kicking field goals while playing college ball for James Madison University and another two years in the United States Football League. Schlopy had the stronger leg and kicked higher, but he hadn't been tested much at Michigan and had no experience at the professional level.

"There were 10 or 11 of us, and they were trying to chart every one of us," Norwood said. "I remember calling it a circus, and it really was. They were trying to get a representative view of what everybody could do. It was Barnum & Bailey walking around out there. I remember Todd. He was a good guy."

Norwood ended up winning the job and making 13 of 17 field-goal attempts and all 23 extra points during his rookie season. The Bills invited Schlopy back to training camp the following year, but he challenged Norm Johnson for the job in Seattle. Johnson was an established NFL veteran who ended up kicking for 18 seasons.

In 1987, Schlopy was back in training camp with the Bills for a rematch against Norwood. The two battled kick for kick in practice. By then, Norwood had four years of pro experience while Schlopy, at age 26, had yet to kick in an NFL game. And he still almost won the job.

"That's correct," Polian said. "He absolutely had a chance. I remember seeing Todd at Michigan. He had a chance, for sure."

Upon his release, the Bills asked Schlopy if he was interested in accepting a $5,000 check to retain him in the event of a players' strike. Schlopy was trying to digest the fact he had been cut and his career was essentially over. He couldn't fathom the players would walk away from the big money they were making.

Schlopy took the $5,000. To him, it was money found under his pillow.

"Yeah, sure," Schlopy said. "I was like, 'Sheesh, they're not going to go on strike. That's ridiculous. I'll just take the money and walk away.' "

Finally getting a shot

The Bills were 1-1 after a terrific comeback against Houston – "A harbinger of things to come," Polian said with a laugh – after they trailed by 10 points in the fourth quarter and scored two late touchdowns to win, 34-30. Afterward, it was evident players would follow through on threats to strike.

On Sept. 21, 1987, the day after the victory over Houston, Polian stood before his players and told them he respected their rights as union members. In turn, they needed to understand the Bills had to replace them. He wanted to make sure they remained united on the field when they returned.

"We knew, and the players did, too, that we were on our way," Polian said. "We knew we had a good team, and it was only going to get better. … I said to them, 'Whatever you do, do it together. This group proved yesterday what we could do together, and let's make sure that we keep that up. You are our team. You're the Buffalo Bills.' "

Schlopy and players in similar situations needed to make a decision about whether they would join the replacement team. He was conflicted. He had been raised in a union town and respected workers' rights. Thirty years later, he's an active union member in the film industry.

"I wasn't trying to make any statement," Schlopy said. "I was a kid trying to play football. I've been a staunch union member for 20 years now. You don't think about those things when you're in your 20s. I was ticked off. I had just been cut. I thought I had beaten out Norwood and thought the job should be mine."

The replacement games offered an opportunity to show he could kick at the NFL level, and the Bills fan that festered within, ultimately convinced him to play for the Bills. If the games were going to count – and they did – he rationalized that he would do his part to help his hometown team.

Schlopy worked out in New Jersey with punter Rick Partridge and away from players as they prepared for replacement games. "I didn't deal with staying out at the hotel where guys were getting trapped on top of Coke machines by Fred Smerlas," he said. He and Partridge didn't report to the Bills until two days before their first game.

"I was aligned with the union," Norwood said. "You're exposed. Somebody could come in and take your spot. But somebody doing that was pretty sensible. I don't like people to judge me, so I try not to be judgmental. If put myself in his shoes – or I guess in his 'shoe' – I can see why he would go in there. I understood."

Other than retaining Schlopy, the Bills made almost no effort to build a respectable team. Polian and Levy didn't want to contribute to any disruption to their team when the labor dispute ended. Bills owner Ralph Wilson agreed. It showed.

The Bills were outscored, 61-13, while losing their first two games. Schlopy kicked his first NFL extra point against New England with the barefooted Franklin kicking for the Patriots. Meanwhile, the union was starting to come apart with established players crossing picket lines in favor of their paychecks.

"I wanted to play football," Schlopy said. "I wanted to get a shot. There's no minor leagues for football. Being a kicker, there was one job on every team. That's it. I was itching for the opportunity to get more swings."

Schlopy kicks winner

In the days leading into the Bills' third game with replacement players, Polian heard rumors about Lawrence Taylor rejoining the Giants. New York was coming off a season in which they won the Super Bowl.

Taylor was one of the highest-paid players in the league and the most dominant defensive player. Thirty years later, Polian was laughing while recalling how he heard Wilson's high-pitched voice, which emerged when the owner was excited or upset, screeching over the telephone.

"Is Lawrence Taylor coming in?" Wilson asked Polian. "My God, he'll kill some of our guys! We have to do something about this!"

The Bills' answer was signing former center Will Grant to a one-year guaranteed contract to play offensive tackle against the Giants. Grant's job was blocking Taylor no matter where the outside linebacker lined up. Buffalo was called for 11 penalties, a majority of which were called on Grant.

"He got called six times in the first half, Will did, for holding Lawrence Taylor," Levy said. "At halftime, I said to him, 'Will, you've been called six times for holding.' He said, 'Coach, that's great because I'm holding on every down.'

"They were funny. We had about five guys named 'Jones' on the team, and I couldn't keep them straight. There was one, no matter what you said to him, he said, 'Thank you.' We called him 'Thank You Jones.' I was glad to put that period behind me, but it was a lot of fun with those guys."

The Giants game was particularly sloppy. Neither team scored until George Benvola, certainly you remember him, kicked a 22-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. Schlopy missed three attempts, one that he still insists was good but traveled over the upright, another on a bad snap and another he simply missed.

"To be charitable, both teams were non-competitive even in the replacement league," Polian said. "Interceptions, missed field goals, fumbles and God knows what else. It was not a good football game. The guys were trying the best they could, but to use a phrase Roger Goodell uses now, 'not up to NFL standards.' "

Late in the fourth quarter, Schlopy converted from 31 yards to force overtime. Finally, after the two teams combined for five interceptions and nine fumbles, four of which were lost by the Bills, Schlopy drilled a 27-yard field goal in OT to give the Bills a 6-3 victory in a game long forgotten that he'll forever remember.

"I made the one to tie it," Schlopy said. "Then in overtime, with nowhere else to hide, I made the one to win it. And I was going to have to be good with that."

'A long, strange trip'

The Bills reported the following Monday, and Schlopy was gone with the others who had replaced them. By then, he had met Flanders, a two-time Olympian in the women's downhill who had retired from the sport and was working as a ski director at a resort in Park City.

In 1989, Schlopy was working small jobs for a small film company in Park City when the crew for the movie "Ski Patrol" came to town. They needed an expert skier to help with production. Schlopy had a degree in film and was an elite skier, a combination that sent his career path in a direction he never expected.

"And I never looked back," he said.

In a few months, he ascended to a point in his film career that usually takes a few years. He has been involved with nearly 50 movies in his career, including "The Rookie," "Seabiscuit," "The Parent Trap" and, in recent years, "The Revenant," "Now You See Me" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows."

While filming several scenes in "Ninja Turtles" in Buffalo, Schlopy ordered beef on weck sandwiches with Miller's horseradish for the cast and crew. Somewhere in his garage, he has hockey sticks once used by Gilbert Perreault and Mike Robitaille. He has always remained a Buffalo guy at heart.

Three decades later, Schlopy believes he would have come through for the Bills if given the chance. Yes, their first Super Bowl has flashed through his mind many times when kicking balls on the set. But he has been so busy living that he hasn't spent much time obsessing over dreams that died a long time ago.

"Of course you think you would have made it," he said. "Anybody who gets to that level of sports, you better think that you're the best at that position. Would I have made it? The kicks that I did make at Orchard Park (High) and with the Bills, when the money was on the line, I managed to sink the 8-ball.

"You would like to think that could have been you, but I don't sit here and pine for that. I've got a good job. I have great kids. I'm not sitting around and looking at the old days. When you look back, you get depressed. Life is better living in the now. No regrets. The marble tumbles down and hits pegs. It sends you in all kinds of different directions. What a long, strange trip it has been."

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