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CBS calls an audible, sending Steve Tasker to Houston for Week One

The Bills on Sunday are holding a halftime ceremony to honor players from the Comeback Game against the Houston Oilers in January 1993. Steve Tasker, who played that day, was scheduled to work at the Bills-Jets opener for CBS Sports and to emcee the halftime show. But Hurricane Harvey in Texas led to a change in plans.

CBS reassigned Tasker to Houston, where the Texans will open their season Sunday against Jacksonville. Tasker will work with James Lofton, who also played in the Comeback Game and is making his debut as a CBS game analyst, as well as Andrew Catalon, who teamed with Tasker on the Bills’ preseason games.

“It’s a little disappointing that I’m not going to be there, but perspective is what we need to keep in this hurricane game, so to speak,” Tasker said in a phone conversation this week. “ … With what happened in Houston, I think that takes precedence over what happened 25 years ago, despite my love and respect for the guys that I played with and the fans that are going to be there.”

Sunday will be an emotional day for Texans fans in greater Houston, for obvious reasons. CBS plans live nationwide coverage of the national anthem from NRG Stadium.

“Week One (in the NFL) is always a little bit more emotional, a little bit more impactful for the viewers, for the fans and for the players since it’s been so long since they played,” Tasker said. “Obviously this is going to have an extra bit of emotion attached to it because of the hurricane and the aftermath of the storm that hit, and all the loss of belongings and possessions, and the loss of life. … There’s going to be a big emotional release when they finally get a chance to do something perhaps normal in their lives for the first time in a few weeks.”

It’s likely that no one in the Texans’ game will command more camera time than Houston’s J.J. Watt, the defensive star who missed most of last season with a back injury. Watt also has spearheaded a fundraising effort for victims of Hurricane Harvey that has amassed more than $27 million in donations.

“He hasn’t even been able to think really about what’s going on with football so much,” Tasker said of Watt. “It’s been interesting to see how the perspective has really come. So many times as fans you put the game way out of proportion to what it should be in your life. But I think it’s great that the players and the organization itself has had a great sense of perspective about how important or unimportant football can be in a situation like this.”

Before Tasker’s 13 years as a special teams standout for the Bills, he spent parts of two seasons with the Houston Oilers, who drafted him in 1985.

“There were at least three Hall of Famers on that team when I was playing there,” Tasker recalled. “Then of course an iconic coach was there my second year, Jerry Glanville. Jerry was actually an assistant coach here in Buffalo for a stretch of years before that.

“It’s interesting, too, that as the Buffalo Bills franchise celebrates the greatest comeback in NFL history this weekend, they are also going to make donations for Hurricane Harvey and the aftermath, for the city of Houston, the city that was at the wrong end of that comeback. I think it’s awesome that the Buffalo community will once again step up and help a city that, while we commemorate our victory over Houston in the great comeback, that we reach out with a hand of compassion and understanding about what it’s like to be hit with a storm.”

24 years ago: The Bills' historic comeback vs. Oilers

As for the Bills this season, Tasker sees reasons for fans to feel hopeful.

“I think (fans) can count on the fact that the team is going to be moving steadily in the right direction. It’s impossible to know what the future holds but I do think this is an organization that has fundamentally reset itself to move forward and to become sustainably good, a sustained contender. How long it takes for them to reach that point is anybody’s guess but I think I know that’s the way the coaching staff and the front office feels now for the foreseeable future. …

“Certainly they are perhaps a few pieces away from being a Super Bowl contender, but there’s no question as this season rolls along this is a team that will improve week by week, and I think at the end of this year I think Bills fans are going to wish that this season could continue because I think you’re going to see this team become very competitive at year’s end.”

On the home front, Tasker and his wife, Sarah, have five grown children, four boys and a girl, with one grandchild in the fold and another on the way. Their youngest son, Jake, was supposed to start college this past week at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. The school, however, postponed opening for a week in anticipation of Hurricane Irma.

“He gets another week of summer here with us,” Tasker said.

Another Tasker son, Luke, is playing pro football, as a receiver for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Canadian Football League.

Tasker, who was a seven-time Pro Bowler, said he has “mothers asking me constantly” whether it’s safe for their sons to play football, in light of the publicity in recent years about the risks of injury and possible brain damage. He feels strongly that playing the game offers many benefits to kids.

“I wanted my kids to be active and youth sports is a great way to do that, particularly if you want them to get outside and be socialized in a team atmosphere,” he said.

“I think the younger they are, the better it is for them to play. And that’s not scientific, that’s only my opinion, but I think the younger they are, the less physically able they are to hurt each other and the less capable they are of overpowering their safety equipment. You get in the NFL and guys can overpower a set of plastic shoulder pads or a helmet or something like that. When they’re little they’re much, much safer than they are as older kids, plus they get the benefit of understanding the huge, huge personal growth that they can go through being part of a team like that.

“I can go on and on about the benefits. I think it’s the first time for a lot of kids where they can go through an entire season on a team, never touch the ball during a game, never score a touchdown, never catch a pass, but can still feel really good about their ability to contribute, even though they’re not the center of attention.

“The physical aspect of the game is also a benefit. … I think in football, for the first time in a lot of these kids’ lives, when they get a little bump or scrape they want to keep participating, because they have people who they love and respect that are depending on them, their teammates.

“That’s one of the lessons I think that even the physical aspects of football can teach kids, that it’s hard to keep playing when you’re tired, when you’re sweating and when you’re thirsty, and when it’s hot out and you’ve got heavy equipment on, even though it’s difficult and it’s hard, you have a responsibility, and it’s a self-imposed responsibility that I think a lot of kids really benefit from.”

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