John Dahl stood over an empty red carpet, one that soon would be filled with names like Kelly and Thurman, Andre and Tasker, Russert and Fichtner.
Behind him was a poster for his new film, “Four Falls of Buffalo,” which debuts this Saturday on ESPN, where Dahl works as as an executive producer. On Wednesday evening, Dahl and the movie’s director, Ken Rodgers of NFL Films, were in Buffalo for the premiere at North Park Theatre. Joining them would be Buffalo-born actor William Fichtner, who narrates the film, and four of the key players from the Super Bowl-era Buffalo Bills that are the subject of the story: Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed, plus special-teams star Steve Tasker.
Other notable names would be caught among the crowd of several hundred: There was NBC News’ Luke Russert, son of the late “Meet the Press” moderator and famed Buffalo booster Tim Russert. There was Marty Biron, the longtime Buffalo Sabres goalie who went on to play for the New York Islanders and New York Rangers before retiring and returning to Western New York two years ago.
But amidst the red carpet hoopla that was about to happen, there was a story. One about four straight AFC championships in the early 1990s. One about four straight, cold, heartbreaking losses that followed.
It’s a story that began 25 years ago but, in the eyes of filmmakers like Dahl, is only beginning to be told.
“I think what’s also interesting with a little time and distance – and we’ve got about 25 years since that first Super Bowl loss – it affords you the opportunity to step back and see how it really all played out,” said Dahl, vice president and exeuctive producer of ESPN Films. It’s part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series.
The Bills, Dahl pointed out, became a source of ridicule, “the analogy for not being able to come through in the clutch.”
The Bills’ failure to win the Super Bowl, he acknowledged, makes for better filmmaking fodder. “It’s actually more compelling to people because they never actually won that last game,” he said, and added, “I think what this film can do is help the people appreciate the greatness of that team, and the characters of that team.”
As some of those “characters” began to arrive on the carpet, they echoed Dahl’s thoughts.
“To get to where we were at, that was almost impossible,” said quarterback Kelly, who suggested the film to Rodgers while being interviewed for a project that focused on the great quarterbacks of the 1983 draft class. “You have to rely on other people that mentally it will not bring them down, their preparation will be the same, their work ethic will be the same, their mind will be right.”
Steps away from Kelly on the now-crowded red carpet was Tasker.
“It’s a love story,” said Tasker, now a CBS broadcaster. “The guys on the team, and the town and the team. What everyone thinks was walking through hell, we all got through it together. We leaned on each other. A relationship was forged through the worst possible endeavors. Everyone on the outside thinks, ‘It must have been like hell.’ It was actually pretty awesome.”
“It was pretty awesome as a fan, too,” said the film’s narrator Fichtner, standing elbow-to-elbow with Tasker on the carpet.
The film and TV star, a 1974 Maryvale graduate, was long gone from Buffalo and deep into his acting career by 1990, when the Bills’ Super Bowl run began. But Fichtner was a fan then and now.
“Listen, everybody loses games,” Fichtner said. “We just lost those four games.”
“Over time, the accomplishment got bigger and the ridicule got smaller,” Tasker said. “And it continues to do that.”
On the sidewalk outside the theater, the retired goaltender Biron – himself a Bills season-ticket holder for five years in the early 2000s – was talking to his friend Michelle Girardi Zumwalt, who worked on the film.
A longtime employee of NFL Films who recently joined Pegula Sports and Entertainment, which owns both the Bills and Sabres, Zumwalt was only 8 when the Bills’ Super Bowl string began.
“As far as I knew,” she said, “the Bills just went to the Super Bowl every year.”
Zumwalt interviewed people like Tasker, Thomas, Bruce Smith at home in Virginia, Marv Levy in Buffalo and kicker Scott Norwood and his special teams coach, Bruce DeHaven, on the steps of Buffalo’s City Hall, site of a legendary rally following the team’s first loss.
Working on the film, she said, was “cathartic.”
Standing nearby, Russert agreed. Dressed in a Bills tie and standing with his aunt, the 30-year-old started thinking aloud about the Bills’ place in sports history. He talked about winning four conference championships. He pointed out that seven people – coach, general manager and owner included – from those teams are Hall of Famers. He reminisced about watching those teams as a little boy in Washington, D.C., with his Bills booster dad, and how they brought “so much joy to an entire region of the country.”
“That’s not a loser,” said Russert, who also collaborated on the film. “You’re a winner. That’s what this film puts on people. It’s not just hoisting the Super Bowl trophy. It’s how you got there. It’s how you carried yourself.”