I stopped in at the Big Tree Inn for a quick refresher after a Bills minicamp workout last week and was astonished to see my old pal, Rex Carr, sitting alone at the corner of the bar.
Rex, as you may know, is the edgy, disheveled old soul who thinks of himself as Buffalo’s greatest sports fan.
“Rex, what are you doing here?” I asked, motioning for Danny to bring over a couple of drafts. “You’re sitting in Thurman’s old spot, you know. He was practically one of the fixtures back in the day, like you up at Cole’s.”
“I’m soaking in the karma, my friend,” Rex said, gazing around at the photos of Bills from the Super Bowl days lining the walls in the ‘Tree.’ “There’s something special going on these days. I can feel it in my bones.”
Clutched in his right hand was a copy of the Sports Illustrated draft preview issue from April, the cover with a smiling Rex Ryan sitting in the Big Tree with Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas on either side of him.
The headline on the SI cover read ‘The Rex Effect’, with ‘REX’ in capital letters emblazoned across the front. Now it was starting to sink in. I looked at Rex – Rex Carr – and realized I hadn’t seen him this animated since Fitz and Fred beat the Pats here in 2011.
“Come on,” he said. “This is my personal destiny, a dynamic coach named Rex coming to save my favorite team. You can’t deny the symbolism. Rex Ryan is almost an anagram of Rex Carr! I’m hoping he’ll come in here again and autograph my SI, maybe share a little Rex moment with me.”
“I think he has more pressing things on his mind, Rex,” I said, chuckling. “And I don’t care if he has the same name, hometown, birthday and favorite color as you. You’ve been reaching for signs that things are turning around for the Bills since Kelly retired.”
“There you go, playing cynic again,” Rex said, placing the magazine carefully on the bar, as if it were fine crystal. “It’s different this time. A rich, generous new owner, Rex Ryan as coach, a great defense. You were at Kelly’s golf tournament. Tell me him throwing the football through the hole wasn’t an omen. I can’t wait for the home opener. Andrew Luck doesn’t know what he’s in for. “
“Well, you’re not alone. They set a franchise record for season ticket sales last week. Not bad for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in 15 years. Wait a minute, Rex, you didn’t … “
“Yep,” Rex said. “I bought seasons. I’m a proud part of the franchise record.”
“But you swore after the 2011 team collapsed that you’d never buy in again. How many times have you told me you weren’t going to get emotionally involved anymore? You’re tired of having your heart broken, remember?”
“I told you last Christmas Eve, the attitude has changed,” Rex said. “We fans aren’t afraid anymore. Pegula was like a gift from heaven. You know what was torturing us all those years? The idea that the franchise might leave, that we put our hearts on the line for a team that could move out of town, anyway.”
“So it’s enough to just have the teams? There’s no standard of performance? It doesn’t matter how bad the product, people will keep coming like sheep?”
“I’m not saying we can’t hold them to a standard,” Rex said. “But Pegula has brought a new belief to Buffalo. Maybe I’m getting old, but after all these years I realize it’s not so much the wins and losses that matter, but caring enough about something to put your feelings out there.”
“I’ll bet you care about the quarterback situation.”
“OK, you know I’ve never been an EJ Manuel guy,” Rex said. “I get the feeling from interviews that Ryan isn’t, either. He certainly doesn’t go out of his way to praise the guy, the way he does Tyrod Taylor. You know, once Taylor gets a chance to play, I think he might really surprise a lot of people.”
“I seem to remember you saying the same thing about J.P. Losman before he played a game.”
“Well, if we get even average quarterback play, we can win 10 or 11 games,” Rex said. “Cassel is average, but look what he did that year in New England. And that defense … did you see the NFL’s top 100 players list? Four guys from our defensive front seven in the top 72. That’s voted on by the players. They could be as good as the Ravens’ D that won it all with Trent Dilfer.”
“Easy, Rex. Not if they don’t play the run better than they did in the last 10 games. Remember what a mess you were after the Oakland loss?”
“Don’t remind me,” Rex sighed. “That was just a a bump in the road. It was that quitter Marrone’s team. Rex said he won’t let us down. He’s a huge upgrade over every coach since Levy. I think Rex and Dennis Thurman will take this defense to another level. And Hackett was a modified coach compared to Roman. You just watch.”
“Just don’t get your hopes too high. You’re a Buffalo fan. You always need to prepare for the worst.”
“You’re missing the point, Sir Sourpuss. It’s like Brandon said, once Pegula bought the team, it removed that anvil of dread from over our heads. We can handle anything as long as we know our team isn’t going anywhere.”
Rex held up the Sports Illustrated and pointed to the subhead, a quote from Rex Ryan that reads “This is my football family now.”
“Fam-i-ly,” Rex said. “It’s like your kids. No matter how they might disappoint you and drive you nuts, they belong to you and no one else. In your heart, you believe they’ll rise up and make you proud in the end. Rex gets it. He’s a Buffalo guy.”
“Next thing, you’ll be telling me you’re on the waiting list for Sabres season tickets.”
“Have you been hacking into my phone or something?” Rex asked with a devilish grin. “It’s only six days ‘til they draft Jack Eichel, the start of a new era. Just wait, we win the Cup in five years. Why would I want to be left out in the cold?”