This is the first of five excerpts from Marv Levy's book, "Marv Levy: Where Else Would You Rather Be?" The next four parts will run in the Sports section Monday through Thursday.
The ball rose, twirling end over end into the balmy Florida night sky. Forty-seven yards away from where it had been launched, the goal posts beckoned. An eerie silence descended on the packed stadium as the eyes of more than 70,000 people followed the solitary missile on its lonely journey. Elsewhere, in front of television sets throughout the world, millions of enthralled viewers joined in the vigil.
Standing just outside the perimeter of the playing field, I too, mouth agape, gazed transfixed as the ball's flight reached its apex and then continued hurtling toward the uprights' outstretched arms.
The seven-month odyssey we had begun on a hot, humid July day at our training camp site in Fredonia, N.Y., was split seconds away from its culmination. The New York Giants were leading our Buffalo Bills, 20-19.
At stake? The Super Bowl championship!
Just a minute and 26 seconds earlier -- it had seemed like ages ago -- we had taken possession of the football on our own 15-yard line with a minute and 30 seconds remaining to be played in the game. We would have this one final opportunity to achieve the most coveted of all football triumphs.
We went to work.
No huddle. Jim Kelly to Andre Reed; a screen pass to Thurman Thomas; and then Thurman again, this time on a draw play. Another completion to Andre. The clock kept running. Spike the ball. Kill the clock. Now it was Jim to James Lofton, who caught the pass inches inside the left sideline stripe. Quickly, James stepped out of bounds at the Giants' 29-yard line. There were four seconds left to play.
I sent our field goal team out onto the field.
Snap! Hold! Kick! The ball leapt into the sky and soared toward the beseeching arms of the goal posts. Closer and closer it came. And then -- it fluttered on by, a scant two feet outside of the right upright.
The game was over. The Giants were Super Bowl champions. Imagine their jubilation. Imagine our desolation.
When you are a coach in the National Football League, there always comes one specific moment on game day when you are going to experience one of two intense emotions. Either a wave of ethereal serenity will wash over you, or -- at the other end of the spectrum -- you will become the victim of a despair so gripping that you can feel it physically. It is when you have lost the game, of course, that the latter sensation takes hold, and if that loss represents your outcome in the Super Bowl, the impact of what you are feeling is multiplied by infinity.
It starts with a throbbing in your temples; then you feel it creeping tightly up the back of your neck. You sense a weakening in all your joints and an invisible constriction clutching at your throat. . . . Most of all you feel the energy from that despicable frustration flowing from your torso down your arms into your balled-up fists while your psyche screams at you to pound those fists against any inanimate object in the area.
Every coach knows when that exact moment is going to come. Surprisingly, it does not occur as the final gun sounds, and the certainty of victory or defeat has been determined. The game may have ended, but there are still many tasks that need immediate attention.
In leaving the field a coach must be gracious in victory and able to maintain his dignity in defeat. In the locker room there are tired, bruised, and often injured players. They, along with the assistant coaches and everyone else who had been so immersed in that week's effort, need a head coach who is in charge and who can provide a sense of perspective. Very soon after the game the coach will meet with the media. His words and his demeanor will come under close scrutiny.
It is only when he returns very late at night to the lonely quiet of his bedroom or hotel room that the coach realizes there is nothing more to be done until the following day when he begins preparations for the next game. (WHAT NEXT GAME? WE JUST LOST THE SUPER BOWL, DAMN IT!) That's when it really hit me.
I spent most of that tormented night trying to refrain, sometimes unsuccessfully, from kicking away my blankets and from pummeling my mattress. In the darkness I winced as I listened to an occasional sob from my dear wife, Frannie. She had dried the tears from the cheeks of our daughter, Kimberly, just before we finally returned to our room that night, and now it was Frannie's turn to weep.
A few hours earlier I had been in a stadium rocking with noise, music, fireworks and fanfare. I had stood along the sideline when Whitney Houston sang the most beautiful and stirring rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" I had ever heard. The spirit of patriotism that permeated our nation, then in the throes of the Gulf War, showed in the faces of the capacity crowd and of the players and coaches near me as fighter planes from the United States Air Force roared low over the stadium during the pregame ceremonies.
I recalled the pride that had welled up inside of me as our Buffalo Bills, AFC champions, were introduced to the welcoming accompaniment of thunderous cheers just prior to the kickoff. The excitement, the adrenaline rush, and, yes, the confidence I felt while having to make 200 or more split-second decisions during the course of the game had been exhilarating and consuming.
Now, just a few hours later, I lay there in the darkness, disconsolate. As I tossed about, occasionally grunting in anger, I kept replaying the game in my mind, but it always came out the same. We had lost.
At about 5 a.m. I was exhausted, but still awake, when some words, in the form of a question, invaded my consciousness. I sat up in bed, startled, and then, whimsically, I gave voice to those words by whispering their challenge into the quiet of the night: "What are you going to do about it?"
My mind was racing now, and faster than any damn Internet hookup ever it went directly back to a day I hadn't thought about for more than 47 years. It was Dec. 13, 1943, and I was riding on a troop train full of recent enlistees heading from Chicago to Greensboro, N.C., where we were to begin basic training as members of the Army Air Corps. Just before I departed from Union Station in Chicago, my mother had given me a slim volume of English poetry, and as the train chugged southward, I opened the book and began to read.
There was one poem I reread several times because its message fascinated me. In its entirety it was composed of just four simple, poignant lines. An unknown English writer had composed it in tribute to some 16th-century Scottish warrior.
I did not recall having read those lines again since that forgotten day during World War II, but as I sat in bed and as this tortured night neared its end, the words sprang at me again, pristine and clear:
"Fight on, my men," Sir Andrew said.
"A little I'm hurt but not yet slain.
"I'll just lie down and bleed awhile,
"And then I'll rise and fight again."
I repeated the question to myself, "What are you going to do about it?"
This time, however, I spoke it firmly and resolutely because I now knew exactly what I was going to do (Thank you, Sir Andrew! Thank you, Mother dear!), and I'd begin first thing in the morning. I glanced over at Frannie, finally sleeping peacefully. Less than 60 seconds later I was, too.
After all, I had to be fresh for tomorrow.
I settled into my seat for the airplane trip back to Buffalo on the morning after we had played in Super Bowl XXV. The airline had provided a stack of newspapers for us at the entry door. No one picked one up.
As they came onto our charter flight, our players were more subdued than I could ever recall having seen them. They were somber, but they came aboard -- coats, ties, clean shirts, clean-shaven, their heads held high. There was no "angry with someone else" attitude about any of them. Quietly they filed back to their seats.
Once the plane was airborne, I made my way back down the aisle, something I did, win or lose, on the journey home after every road game. I didn't say much, and neither did any of the players. It wasn't the time for that, and we all knew it. I could feel their pain, and they could feel mine, too. Most of the players looked up as I came by, and when they did, we would exchange a reassuring glimmer of a smile.
However, as I continued moving toward the back of the airplane, I became aware that it wasn't the faint smiles tugging at the corners of their mouths that struck me. It was the look in their eyes. What I saw reflected was not defeat. I saw resolve. And do you know what? That's what I had expected. How could I not have been proud to coach men such as these? I had expressed that exact sentiment to our team as soon as I could after the game the night before.
When I had returned to the locker room after congratulating the Giants' coach, Bill Parcells, most of them were sitting on the stools in front of their lockers gazing vacantly at a far wall or at the floor. You could hear the fan as it whirred overhead, but not much else. The only other sound was an occasional ripping of tape as a few of them absent-mindedly pulled the wrappings from their wrists.
I knew they didn't want to listen to some long-winded speech at that grieving moment. . . . But there was still one player with whom I wanted to visit personally. It was our place kicker, Scott Norwood.
Scott was a quiet, somewhat introspective person. He was conscientious, dependable, and respected by his teammates and coaches. On several occasions during our march to the AFC championship Scott had delivered the game-winning kick in the game's final moments. There would also be contests in the following season when Scott's last-minute heroics would once again propel our Bills to a crucial victory.
His outward appearance now as he sat with his teammates in the almost silent locker room didn't seem much different from any of theirs, but I could only imagine the torment he felt inside. I found a stool, pulled it over, and sat down next to Scott. While I was searching my mind seeking the right words to say, some other stalwarts did it for me.
Linebacker Darryl Talley and defensive back Nate Odomes stopped by, and Darryl spoke. "Hey, Scott, if Nate and I had tackled their receiver on that third and 14 during their touchdown drive, it wouldn't have come down to one last kick." Nate nodded his assent.
Then our great wide receiver, Andre Reed, drifted over.
"You know, Scott," he said, "if I'd have hung on to that pass on their 15-yard line in the first half, we probably would have come away with seven points instead of three."
Defensive lineman Jeff Wright also approached Scott.
"Doggone it, Scott, when Bruce Smith sacked (Giants quarterback Jeff) Hostetler in the end zone and forced him to fumble, we could have had a touchdown instead of just a safety if I'd been able to recover it."
They kept on coming. Carlton Bailey, Pete Metzelaars, Kirby Jackson, Cornelius Bennett, Kent Hull, Frank Reich, Mark Kelso, Kenny Davis, Steve Tasker, Jim Kelly, Shane Conlan, Dwight Drane, Keith McKeller, Mark Pike, and others. Each with his own mea culpa.
I knew by that time that Scott didn't need a "me too" from his coach. I patted him on the shoulder, and as I walked away, I couldn't tell whether that film of moisture I saw was in his eyes or in mine.
When our plane arrived at Greater Buffalo International Airport, we boarded the team buses expecting to go directly to Rich Stadium. Instead, we headed toward City Hall in downtown Buffalo. Why, I wondered. We had lost. We had let our fans down! What was there to celebrate? In the next hour or so we found out.
The buses parked behind City Hall, and we were shepherded in through the back entrance. Then we proceeded down the long, quiet hallways to the foot of a winding stairway at the front of the building. We ascended several floors and emerged onto a spacious, old stone balcony that overlooked historic Niagara Square. Assembled below in the biting January cold and snow were 30,000 Buffalo Bills fans.
How long had they been waiting? I didn't know; and they didn't care.
As our party moved out onto the balcony, a tumultuous welcome erupted from the assembled throng. They sustained the clamor. On and on it reverberated. When finally the noise began to subside, several of the fans started a chant. Quickly, others joined in. Soon they were bellowing in unison, "We want Scott! We want Scott! We want Scott!"
The crescendo mounted, and at last Scott Norwood, urged forward by several nudges from his teammates, stepped forth to speak. His voice was cracking, but he spoke for us all when he said, "I know I've never felt more loved than right now. We will be back. You can count on it, and we are dedicating next season to the fans of Buffalo."
We learned a great deal about those Bills fans on that day and in the weeks that followed. Their support, their healthy ardor, and their warmheartedness were always there to uplift our team whenever we needed it most. The resilience and admirable qualities of character that were to mark our Bills teams were inspired in great measure by the people of Buffalo. There are no fans anywhere like Bills fans.
Next: Marv becomes Bills' coach and gets some good advice.
This excerpt is from the new book, "Marv Levy: Where Else Would You Rather Be?" ($24.95; Sports Publishing L.L.C.), written by former Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy. It is available in bookstores, by calling the toll-free number, (877) 424-2665, and online at www.sportspublishingllc.com.