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The day that fused our shared connection

This column was originally published on Jan. 3, 2013, as part of a 20-year commemorative edition of the Bills' 41-38 victory over the Houston Oilers in what still holds as the greatest comeback in NFL history.

One of the sacrifices you make as a sportswriter is relinquishing your right to be a fan. The job requires an emotional distance, a hardened, objective eye. I think of myself as a professional skeptic, as the Bills’ biggest critic.

But 20 years ago today, I strayed from the path. In the midst of the greatest comeback in NFL history, I came out from behind the glass and wandered off to join the ranks of the faithful. For one remarkable hour, I got swept up in the moment. I became a fan.

Those were the days when I didn’t cover every Bills game. I wasn’t assigned to write on Jan. 3, 1993. But I had a press pass, and there was no way I was going to miss a home playoff game. I figured I could gather some thoughts for a column later in the week.

When the Bills fell behind, 35-3, I’m sure I was contemplating the end of the Super Bowl run. But when they scored twice to cut the Oilers’ lead to 35-17, I sensed that something amazing was about to occur. You could feel the excitement of the crowd building outside the glass. I decided to go out into the stands and experience it first-hand.

I headed for Section B5, where my next-door neighbor, Gary Pufpaff, had season tickets. It was a typical section in old Rich Stadium, a place where people had been gathering for years, sharing a common obsession for the Bills and a sense of family.

Things were happening so fast, it was impossible not to get caught up in it. Fans who had left the stadium were streaming back in. With each big play, the mood grew more exhilarating, almost hysterical. Everyone was standing, as I recall. Gary’s seats were in the back row, against a cement wall. I remember leaning back against the wall and soaking in the tableau unfolding in front of my eyes.

“I remember you coming down to sit with us,” said Pufpaff, a former sports director at 97 Rock who now teaches at Performing Arts in the city. “It was awesome. When you stepped out of the press box and came down to sit with us in Section B5, you suddenly became part of the bowl.

“There’s something to that,” Pufpaff said. “I’ve sat in the press box and been in the locker room, and that’s great. But once you’re in the bowl, something’s different. It was almost supernatural that day.”

Steve Tasker used the same word to describe the scene that day. “Supernatural.” There was a feeling of destiny, fate, whatever you want to call it. But once the Bills started coming back, there was an inevitable quality to it. The crowd was an otherworldly force, lifting the Bills.

Darryl Talley always talked about “plugging in” to the home crowd, drawing on the fans’ energy as if they were an electrical current. Many of the Bills I spoke to about the comeback used that word: electric.

We were all plugged in. Soon after joining the section, I started cheering. I wanted to be part of the life force, to be an active participant in a historic event. I wasn’t cheering for the Bills so much as for the moment, for the way sports can still reflect man’s most noble, resilient qualities.

“Yeah, it was the moment,” Pufpaff said. “It was like, ‘Can you believe this is happening?’ I couldn’t believe it. I was numb. It was surreal. It was just crazy. God, it was awesome!”

After Frank Reich got the Bills to within 35-31, Pufpaff pulled off his cap and saluted the team he had spent 25 years rooting for. “I don’t care what happens in this football game now,” he said. “They’ve made me and this city proud forever.”

The Bills scored 28 points in that third quarter. People forget how quickly they got back in that game. The fourth quarter seemed almost anticlimactic by comparison. When Steve Christie kicked the winning field goal in overtime, the crowd reaction seemed muted, as if they (we?) had exhausted all their emotional energy.

When the game ended, I went to find another friend. Charles “Bud” Anzalone was a lifelong Bills fan who had suffered through the dark days of the 1980s. I remember him visiting me in Syracuse and searching frantically to find the Bills game on TV during a 2-14 season.

Anzalone was sitting alone in the upper bowl, looking out at the field in amazement. He, too, seemed almost too exhausted to speak.

“I was stunned,” said Anzalone, the former editor of our Sunday magazine and now a senior editor in UB’s Office of University Communications. “I had just witnessed this extraordinary event. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and that might be an understatement.

“There was this aura around Frank Reich,” he said. “We saw him as this angelic, almost religious figure. The fact that he pulled that off was like evidence of the infinite. It was like God reached down and put his thumbprint on it that day. I feel grateful that Buffalo was a part of that, and to see them so bad now makes me mad!”

We took a lot for granted in the Super Bowl days. The four years went by so swiftly, you barely had time to stop and appreciate them. Now, after 13 years without playoffs, it’s hard to remember when victory was a given, when the near-impossible could occur.

“But when I think back to that game, it gives me a reason to think the Bills could be good again,” Pufpaff said. “If they could win that game, being down that far, with all the injuries they had … ”

That game was a reminder of life’s possibilities. Many of the people from that team refer to it often. They tell their children about it, use it in speeches, summon the memory in tough times. Fans do, too. Anzalone gave his son a copy of the Bills video “Almost A Dynasty” for Christmas, so he could know what it used to mean to root for the team.

“Yes, that’s one of the tales that fathers tell their sons and daughters,” Anzalone said. “One of the Buffalo tales.”

Even 20 years later, it’s a monument to perseverance and hope, to the infinite quality of belief. When it seems the Bills will never be relevant again, it helps to remember that blessed things once occurred inside that bowl.

I’m not a fan, but I can understand the desperation among Bills lovers for the good times to return. The anniversary of the comeback is a chance to honor the memory, to reconnect with the essential, foolish belief that lies in any true fan’s heart.

Twenty years ago today, the Bills proved that even when things seem bleakest, you never know what might be coming next. Who can say they won’t come back again?

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