A few years ago, former Bills defensive end Leon Seals was a guest at the weekly Monday Quarterback Club. Seals, now the chief of security at a hospital in Mississippi, was chatting with one of the young current players. The guy told Seals it was amazing how much the people here cherished the memory of the Super Bowl years.
"You're like the ghosts that still walk the town," he said.
Yes, and the more years that go by, the more tangible those ghosts become. It has been 20 years since the first of the four Super Bowls. The winning came so fast, you barely had a chance to appreciate it. But deep down, fans knew the day would come when they looked back at those Bills teams and realized how lucky they really were.
The players understand it, too. It resonated through two dozen interviews with former players and coaches from the team that lost Super Bowl XXV to the Giants. In varying degrees, that game still haunts them. But they believe it was their bond with one another, and with an adoring, football-mad community, that gave them the will to lift themselves up and make it to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls.
"There was a unique bond between the team and the town," said Bill Polian, the architect of those teams. "It's humbling to know how much we affected people in Buffalo. Time helps you put it in perspective, but we knew it then.
"It was driven home for me at a party after Jim Kelly's Hall of Fame induction," Polian said. "My wife and I were leaving. A couple from Buffalo came up and asked to take a picture with me. I said, 'Of course, but why do you want my picture? This is Jim's day.' They said, 'No, all of you gave us the happiest memories of our lives.'"
The players want Buffalo to know it went both ways. They were essentially boys during the Super Bowl run. Now they're men on the threshold of middle age. They've moved around, played for other teams, become broadcasters. They've seen enough to know that most pro athletes never experience what they had here.
"We internalized the fact we were playing not only for ourselves, but the community as well," said Mark Kelso. "You'd drive down the street and sit at a red light and four or five people would be waving and honking their horns at you. We carried that around, too. There's no question, we had a competitiveness. We felt no one could beat us at home."
They'd give anything to walk out of that tunnel one more time, before a roaring full house of 80,000. They never lost a home playoff game in those days. Maybe they took it for granted after awhile, the way fans took all those playoff years for granted.
Kenneth Davis never took it for granted. Davis, one of 12 children, saw the Bills as a second family. He loved it here. Davis backed up Thurman Thomas for four Super Bowls. He had a chance to leave as a free agent, but knew what he had here.
"I never had a bad day in Buffalo," said Davis, athletic director at Bishop Dunne, a Catholic school in Dallas. "I don't care if it was practice, training camp at the college, Rich Stadium or on the road. I never had a bad day. I was excited to come to work. I was up early every day. I ... loved ... coming ... to work."
Game days, most of all.
"It was in the air," Davis said. "It's the cold, coming into the stadium and seeing the smoke coming out of tailpipes in the cars. You could smell it and feel it. To walk out there and see those fans with their beer helmets on, their wool caps, drinking their beer and the smiles on their faces. It made work better for them when we won. You'd see the team on the other sideline and want to kick their butts. There was no feeling quite like it. Man, Buffalo is such a wonderful place."
The intimacy of a small town can be suffocating. But the Bills believe it brought them closer. As Kelso said, it became part of their identity. They felt connected to the people around them, and to one another.
"We were close," said Jeff Wright. "There was bickering, but bickering happens in a relationship. We had opinions. We were like a big family. Nothing wrong with that. We had strong personalities. That's what makes a good team. We had the fortitude to do the things we did, because we were driven."
They were emotional and petulant, a fiercely competitive bunch. A turning point came when Thurman Thomas challenged Kelly in the '89 season. Another came in the second week of the first Super Bowl season, a 30-7 loss to the Dolphins, when Bruce Smith and some other defensive players objected to being taken out.
Marv Levy fined Smith for saying they'd given up. He set up a committee of team leaders to monitor the team's complaints and act as a liaison with the coaching staff. It worked. The players pushed each other. They held each other accountable. The entire team met at Jim Kelly's after games.
"No doubt, that helped form bonds and break down barriers," Ray Bentley said. "That's what I give Kelly the most credit for, how open he was with his home and how important it was to him to get everybody in that kind of environment."
It wasn't just players.
"Jim would come up and say, 'You coming to my house tonight?'" Steve Tasker said. "I'd say, 'Well, I've got my brothers and family in town.' He'd say bring 'em, too. Moms and dads went. There would 60 or 80 people there. Kent Hull's father-in-law was a fixture. You realized you were playing for more than yourselves. It became bigger than us. You talked to teammates' family members. They literally became part of the team."
When they lost, they felt they'd let so many people down. Relatives. Each other. And of course, the fans who lived and died with them.
Polian said it's ironic that, on the 20th anniversary of the Bills' first Super Bowl, the teams in this year's game (Green Bay and Pittsburgh) come closest to epitomizing the relationship between an NFL team and a community.
"I'm in South Florida now," said Cornelius Bennett. "You get a lot of snowbirds down here. I'll get recognized. Boy, how people long for those days! So do I. Buffalo is in my blood. I hate to see that team now, losing year in and year out."
It's easy to romanticize the past. It wasn't always so rosy. There was boorish behavior in public. Smith had a drug suspension. Bennett later served a month in jail here for sexual misconduct. Thomas raged at the world, then took it out on the opposition.
Polian said it was like a fraternity house at times. You never knew what they'd do next. Most of them were barely out of college, or junior high, it seemed.
Levy, who managed all those disparate personalities like a maestro, laughed at the memory. "We had guys who were a little bit all over the place when they came to us," he said. "But they wound up becoming good citizens and good family guys. These guys had real character. I'm really proud of how many turned out to be wonderful family guys."
Failures? It's amazing how successful they've become. Many of them, including Frank Reich, Don Beebe, Pete Metzelaars and Davis became coaches. Kelso has been a teacher, coach, high school development director and color man on Bills' radio broadcasts. At least half a dozen are broadcasters. It seems you can't tune into a national telecast of an NFL game without encountering a former Bill.
Jim Ritcher is a pilot for American Airlines. Wright works on a cattle ranch in Arizona. Hull and Howard Ballard own farms. Bennett turned to the Lord, pulled his life together and is sitting in on the NFL's labor talks, representing former players. Thomas has a business that develops young athletes in Buffalo. Bruce Smith has his own real estate company. Andre Reed has his own foundation that raises money for kids.
Jim Kelly, of course, is a force for charity. He'll hold his 25th charity golf tournament this year. How many players keep it going for a quarter-century? Levy and Bentley are each about to publish a novel. Two novelists on one team?
Bruce Smith wasn't always a saint in Buffalo. But he's gotten wiser with age. Smith didn't want to dwell on Super Bowl losses. He wanted to talk about going on a USO tour to Kuwait and Iraq two Christmases ago, meeting the troops. It was Smith who inspired Kelly, Thomas and Reed to do the same thing this year.
Smith is especially proud of his work with Operation Smile, which helps repair cleft palates and other facial deformities of children and adults. Bruce said one of his Hall of Fame events raised a half million dollars for the cause. He recalls carrying an 8-year-old child, clad in a tiny No. 78 Bills jersey, into surgery in Africa.
"We think about the score of a game," he said. "When we get older, we understand you can have more of an impact on someone else's life by doing some of these things and being a positive figure, rather than someone remembered for a sack.
"I don't think we realized how much the [Super Bowl] experience would impact the rest of our lives," Smith said. "It makes you a better person. It opens your eyes and makes you realize there are more important things in life than whether you win or lose.
"Marv tried to get us to understand that life is bigger than the game of football. We still had a lot to learn. We've all made mistakes. We're human beings. We're flawed. For those we offended, we wish we had a chance to do it all over again. We ask for forgiveness, to make amends and move on."
They learned it the hard way, on the field. They owned their mistakes and kept moving on. In those first, despairing moments after the game in Tampa, many Bills walked up to Scott Norwood in the locker room and said he would not have been in that position if they had done their jobs better.
"In the end," Polian said, "it's about what you become. As time goes by, I think people in Buffalo, and around the NFL, recognize that."