Tom McCrea answered his phone Friday as soon as he recognized the identity of the caller. It was Flora Pasquale, his godmother, a woman who became close friends with Tom's family decades ago, when the McCreas lived across the street from Flora in South Buffalo.
"Tom," Flora said, with concern. "Is that our Eric?"
She was talking about news reports concerning Buffalo Bills center Eric Wood, who had confirmed his football career was over after doctors learned he suffered a serious neck injury. Flora loves the Bills, but she admits her focus tends to rise and fall with the fortunes of the team.
Her interest in Wood is far more personal. Flora was at the heart of a moment that's become a quiet legend, a moment that helps explain why the 2017 Bills team – the first Buffalo team since the 1999 version to reach the National Football League playoffs – earned an unusually intimate piece of civic affection.
Wood and a group of other Bills, mainly linemen, were at Ilio DiPaolo's Restaurant in Blasdell last month, supposedly to relax, after their memorable overtime win in a snowstorm over the Indianapolis Colts. That victory breathed new life into a season that had been on the brink of fizzling out, like all too many of the previous 18 seasons.
Something about the storm and the holiday season and the raw resilience of the snow-covered fans touched off a celebratory element of civic communion that endured until the Bills lost in the playoffs, to Jacksonville.
Flora speaks of that night as the beginning of her "unending birthday party." She was about to turn 80. Her family planned a big celebration at DiPaolo's, and she kept telling McCrea – who helped Flora's son, Marc, in getting everything together – that she was sure no one would show up.
Everyone did. The place was packed, even as the snow kept falling. The tale's been told before of how Wood led a platoon of Bills into the parking lot to push everyday drivers free of mounds of snow, only hours after the team was banging bodies with massive opponents in the snow at New Era Field.
Yet there are a few details from that night that haven't been shared. In a quiet way, they help explain the regional wistfulness over the impending departure of Wood, who plays a position hardly known for glamour, but who has left with an impression with his selfless work in the community.
Sam and Diane Sacco, for instance had to walk past the Bills, who were near the bar, on their way to the parking lot at DiPaolo's. Wife and husband are both retired, and their friendship with Flora goes back almost a half-century. Sam, 79, is dealing with an illness involving his lungs. He uses a cane. When they're out together, Diane drives.
So Diane parked near the entrance, which seemed like a good move until a plow kicked a mountain of snow toward her car. She prides herself on knowing how to get around in the snow, but she had no luck when she tried to rock the vehicle free.
"I couldn't get us out of there," Diane said. Some members of the staff came out and tried to help. The car didn't budge.
The next thing Diane knew, she was greeted by a couple of the Bills. She recognized Wood only because of his mop of curly hair, and another Bill she didn't know asked if he could drive. Wood bent down and pushed from the front while his buddy hit the gas with the car in reverse, his big legs jammed near the dashboard.
Boom. Seconds later, the Saccos were on their way home.
Several Bills also went over to help Ruth Mendofik, a friend of Flora's from South Buffalo. Ruth works long hours cleaning houses. She was stuck in the snow with her 12-year-old twins, Gaven and Owen.
Everyone in the family had things to do that night. Gaven said he wanted to get home quickly, because if he finished his homework fast enough his mom would let him spend some time with video games.
He got that chance. The Bills made it happen.
"Such a great guy," said Diane Sacco, speaking of Wood's injury. "I was saddened when I learned it was him."
Wood also managed to liberate McCrea, who became stuck in his car while preparing to pick up Flora at the door. McCrea said several Bills didn't even bother to wear jackets when they hurried into the parking lot. His most powerful memory of the evening involves Wood, sitting at the bar, his shirt drenched at the shoulders from all the snow that fell on him as he helped motorists.
"He pushed me out by himself," McCrea said, a feat that takes on greater meaning when McCrea thinks of how Wood is dealing with this career-ending neck injury, how this guy and his teammates were willing to go outside and get cold and wet helping a bunch of people they most likely would never see again.
McCrea said there was something about the whole feeling of that night that led him to make a prediction to Flora: "Mark my words. The streak ends this year."
It did. Not only did the Bills beat Miami in their last regular season game to leave themselves in a good position, but the Cincinnati Bengals had a miraculous finish that defeated the Baltimore Ravens and put the Bills in the playoffs. All that happened on Dec. 31, the actual day of Flora's 80th birthday …
The one that she said touched off her unending party.
Speaking of Wood, this guy she met for the first time, a guy she made sure went home with some cookies, she intends to do what countless Buffalonians of her generation do every morning for people they appreciate. Flora gets up and lets the dogs out and prepares herself a cup of coffee, and then she settles in for a ritual involving a page of handwritten names that includes just about everyone she's cared or worried about, in her long life.
"You have to extra-like someone like Eric," Flora said. "I think I'll need to add him to my prayer list."
Story topics: Eric Wood