For many Americans with hair that's turning gray, their first vivid sports memory - that first nostalgic instant to come out of the childhood haze - is some glittering moment: Mickey Lolich wins three games in the World Series for the Detroit Tigers, or Wilt Chamberlain leads the Lakers to a National Basketball Association title after a monumental playoff showdown with Kareem, or Joe Namath makes good on his big promise as the New York Jets shock the Baltimore Colts in the Super Bowl.
All too often, it happened a little differently if you grew up with the Buffalo Bills. My earliest boyhood image involves Daryle Lamonica, who was playing for the Oakland Raiders, not Buffalo. Everything in this memory is cloaked by gray November shadow in the living room, the Bills getting pounded in the late 1960s on a black and white television, someone flipping the channel to see Lamonica going downfield to Warren Wells or Fred Biletnikoff for another dazzling touchdown, and my grim teenage brothers repeating the same thing, over and over:
Why, oh why, did they trade Lamonica?
Because they knew what we all knew: “The Mad Bomber” left Buffalo to become the big-armed engine of the scary, charismatic Raiders, while the Bills had the wounded Jack Kemp and a string of guys like Kay Stephenson and Dan Darragh and on and on, and I was an 8-or-9-year-old kid steeped in the surest of Buffalo traditions:
These are the Bills, and they never quite nail it at quarterback, which is a kind of microcosm for the way they never quite nail it as a franchise.
That said, as an everyday follower of the team, can I throw my arms up in the air and say:
I found out Wednesday, when my 22-year-old son texted me from a conference in San Diego. He is part of the Snapchat generation, and he has followed the team since childhood, and he is thrilled. His earliest Bills memory? I swear to God, it is a blurry recollection of that awful 2000 playoff moment in Tennessee, when it seemed as if a Bills team with a Super Bowl-quality defense – imagine! - was about to upend the Titans, and instead there was that Oh-my-God-I-don’t-even-want-to-write-this throwback and that classic how-can-this-be Bills silence in the living room, and my then-kindergartner son got the message loud and clear:
Rooting for the Bills is good for you, in the sense that life is all about disappointment, and even at 5-years-old, you might as well start getting ready. That game actually hinged on what in hindsight was a staggering quarterback misread – Rob Johnson inserted for the erratic but mystical Doug Flutie – and since Flutie’s departure we have had …. well, to paraphrase Springsteen, do I even have to say the names?
We’ve had quarterbacks we’ve loved like family who can’t … quite …. get the ball that extra two or three yards to where it needs to be on that big third down in the fourth quarter (Fitzpatrick) and quarterbacks we thought would turn it all around and never did (Bledsoe) and many quarterbacks who did their best but were, ummmm, not exactly nimble (Orton) and a string of others whose careers you will recall without me going through the searing history ….
And then Tyrod.
Yes, yes, I know: He needs to throw more over the middle. But I’ll tell you what: I think if the Bills had Tyrod in Marrone’s last year – and that former coach has officially become “Marrone” in Buffalo, the man without a first name, symbol of that strange Twilight Zone departure after a 9-7 season – they’re 11-5 or 10-6 in 2014, when it all ends.
I join with those who think Tyrod did a pretty good job last fall while coping with the sonic disintegration of head coach Rex Ryan, as well as a ridiculous string of injuries to the backs and wideouts who were supposed to give Tyrod a potent offense.
So I try to look at this historically: Tyrod can throw the ball a long way. He can actually get it to a Sammy Watkins when he goes deep. And he can run like no Bills quarterback has ever run. Ever. Tyrod can be electrifying, which is what my kid and his buddies love. He adds a dimension the Bills rarely had, a dimension that is all too easy to take for granted.
After almost 20 years of haplessness back there – a Bills quarterback against the blitz typically had about as much chance as an arthritic elk on a game farm - what a joy to see Tyrod, time and time again, turn a certain sack into a first down.
And based on history, what reason is there to believe some better option, either very young or very old, is suddenly going to emerge to eventually carry this town to paradise?
Most important: Tyrod hardly ever makes a really stupid mistake, which is 1000 percent more than I can say about a single day in my own life. Think of it. For years, it might as well have been written into every contract for a Bills quarterback: To earn an end-of-season bonus, you will make at least one devastating turnover – based on a poor decision - at the exact instant a playoff berth seems possible, preferably a badly underthrown interception or a fumble when sacked during a potentially game-winning drive.
Let’s face it. During that time, we did not buy tickets to see a team called the Buffalo Bills. We bought tickets to see a team called the Buffalo Since-Jim-Kellys, as in: This team has not had a quarterback who really did the job since Jim Kelly. You heard it in your seats. In the living room. In the line in the men’s room, although a powerful adjective was usually added in that fraternal foot-shifting environment, just before Kelly’s name.
Most important, you heard it all the time in your own head.
Indeed, that voice would bring you back, painfully, to those unbearably wonderful seasons in the 1990s, when the Bills would sometimes be losing deep into the second half. For that one brief sequence in time, we shared that peculiar confidence only followers of elite sports teams can truly know:
We could believe the Bills would still find a way to win.
At least if it didn't involve a Super Bowl.
Now, no matter how you feel about this decision, they are no longer the Since-Jim-Kellys. They start this season, instead, as the Buffalo Should-They-Have-Kept-Tyrods. That is the question we’ll hear everywhere, particularly among philosophical strangers patiently leaning against the wall in stadium restrooms, and the same strong adjective – in admiration or despair – will now come before Tyrod’s name.
Sure, there will be a chorus of voices saying it is a mistake, but as a plain old idiot spectator who sees the Bills as a kind of talisman for all the failures and frustrations in my own life, a corrosive belief system I’ve proudly handed down to my own children, I’ve got to tell you:
I’m with my kid. I’m glad No. 5 is back.