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LEVY INSPIRES CHORUS OF PRAISE

Buffalo Bills players past and present expressed their respect for Marv Levy Wednesday in the wake of his retirement as head coach.

Some were shocked, some weren't. But they all expressed pride and gratitude for having been associated with him.

"It's a sad day, not only for the Buffalo Bills players but everybody in the city of Buffalo," said Jim Kelly, who attended the news conference at the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Field House. "You're not gonna find a classier or a more down-to-earth person away from the field than Marv Levy. He's a guy who's pretty much made me what I am today as far as a professional player and a person."

"It brought a tear to my eye," said special-teams ace Mark Pike from his home in Kentucky. "Everybody's been speculating for months whether he'd stay. But when we met with him the day after the season ended, he indicated to us he was coming back. So I was still a little surprised."

"I was happy that he made the decision really quick and it didn't drag on," said Thurman Thomas from his home in Houston. "But I was sad because me and Marv have such a close relationship, probably like no other player and coach on and off the field. I wish he would come back for another year, but I know now it's not going to happen."

"In my opinion, Marv is a representative of all that's good in sports in America," said Bill Polian, the former Bills general manager and current Indianapolis GM. "I feel bad for the game, for the NFL and for the fans of Western New York, because they're losing their greatest asset.

"But I also feel happy for Marv," Polian said, "because he's earned the right to walk away on his own terms and he had already tied the longevity record."

Levy and former Chicago coach George Halas both coached at age 72, the oldest men ever to serve as head coaches in the NFL.

Kelly, whose own retirement was 11 months ago, said he was not surprised by Levy's stepping down.

"No, not really," he said. "I think there comes a time in everybody's career when they feel it's the right time to walk away. After everything that went on this season, Marv's too great of a coach and person to have to put up with the things you hear and read about."

Steve Tasker, who also was at the fieldhouse, was surprised.

"It's surprising to me it happened so sudden, but it happened just the way you would expect Marv would do it," Tasker said. "The guy's always been rock solid."

"He called me this morning and I was surprised," Thomas said. "After the last team meeting, I thought for sure he was coming back."

The players expressed particular appreciation for the way Levy handled them over the years.

"People say there's no such thing as a player's coach, but I think there is," Kelly said. "The way he was able to handle guys like myself, Thurman, Bruce (Smith), Cornelius Bennett, Darryl Talley and all the guys who made the Bills what they are, there's not many who could be able to do that. He knew exactly the right words to say at the right time and how to handle us."

Thomas agreed.

"He was really the rock, the foundation of the team," Thomas said. "You take Jim, myself, Bruce, Andre (Reed), Darryl, Nate (Odomes) -- so many guys with different egos and personalities -- and for him to make us blend into one football team that had great chemistry, that was something."

"Marv always had the ability to make you feel OK, no matter how bad a game or loss you had," Pike said. "And after a big win, he was always even-keeled. He was great at building team chemistry."

Asked what sayings of Levy's he would remember most, Kelly said:

"All of his quotes from history, the Winston Churchills, all the things Marv preached the Saturday night before games. But more than that is the line, 'Where would you rather be than right here, right now?' I wouldn't have missed this for anything. If I was out of the country, I would have tried to fly back. It's a day every Bills fan should cherish because Marv is what the Buffalo Bills stand for."

"I've learned more history from Marv than I did in four years of high school and four years of college combined," Thomas said. "But I learned a lot about a lot of things from Marv. He went to great lengths to talk to me and help me in the past whenever I had a problem with the media."

Polian and several others said they thought Levy hasn't lost a thing as a coach.

"In the end, even the greatest coaches -- Don Shula, Tom Landry, Marv -- can't coach as well if they don't have the horses," Polian said. "That playoff run they had a year ago may well have been Marv's best coaching job. It's a tribute to him that he took those players -- many of whom were aging -- as far as he did. As a friend, I'd rather see him leave under these circumstances than see his record tarnished by a quote-unquote rebuilding project."

"After our fourth Super Bowl, Mr. Wilson presented us with our AFC championship rings," Tasker recalled. "He made up a glass case for all the rings that Marv owned. And he left him a space for a world championship ring. But we never were able to get it for him. I think that's what I'll regret most."

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