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A terminally ill Bills fan's 'personal Super Bowl'

WASHINGTON – Joel Markowitz convened a conference call in March with his five brothers. Only one of them, Bruce, knew why. Joel had been diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a degenerative neurological disease with no cure.

After soberly informing them all of his illness, he let it be known that he wouldn’t, in the face of a cruel fate, abandon his wry sense of humor.

“I’m pretty sad that I’m not going to live to see the Bills win a Super Bowl,” he said. “But then again, neither are any of you.”

Joel died less than nine months later. The average survival of ALS from its onset is two to five years, but Joel had an aggressive form of the disease, which he succumbed to on Nov. 7.

Throughout his life, Joel was the consummate Buffalo sports fan. That was apparent to anyone who entered his home in North Bethesda, Md., just outside of Washington, D.C., where posters of legendary Bills and Sabres players were everywhere, much like the bedroom of a teenager who dreams of one day making it to the pros.

Those posters hovered over him and his brothers – both literally and figuratively – on the morning of Oct. 22, just hours before the Bills were to square off against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Joel was in the final stages of his illness. He could no longer walk, talk, or do much of anything. The only way he could eat was through a syringe and the only way he could communicate was through spelling out words by pointing to letters on an alphabet chart.

Joel’s brothers Bruce and Saul arrived at his apartment around 10 a.m. to get him ready to watch the Bills game at Jimmy’s Old Town Tavern in Herndon, Va., a local Bills bar that’s a favorite of Buffalo expats in the Greater Washington area.

Bruce, Joel and Brian Markowitz at Super Bowl XXVII at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. on Jan. 31, 1993. The Bills fell to the Dallas Cowboys, 52-17.

But this game was more significant for them than most: They all believed it would likely be the last one they all watched together.

And for the Markowitz brothers, watching the Bills together was a ritual they maintained almost religiously since growing up in North Buffalo.

Before Bruce and Saul lifted Joel into his wheelchair— which had a Sabres decal on its back — they held him up to put a blue Sammy Watkins jersey on him.

As they were getting ready to head for the car, Saul, who is president of public relations firm in Pittsburgh, asked Joel how he thought the team would do. “You know he’s really been a Bills fan all these years,” Saul said, “because he had them choking at the end.”

Growing up in Buffalo

Born in 1957 to an Orthodox Jewish family, Joel became a Bills fan at a young age, shortly after the team was established in 1960.

His father, Morris Markowitz, was the lead cantor of the Ahavas Achim-Lubavitch Synagogue on Tacoma Avenue. He and his wife, Faye, had six sons: Harvey (66), Bruce (63), Stuart (62), Joel (60), David (58) and Saul (55). They have all moved out of Buffalo, but recall the way watching the team as children activated their imaginations.

The Markowitz family, from left: Harvey, Stuart, Faye, David, Bruce, Saul, Cantor Morris Markowitz and Joel.

“You grow up in Buffalo, you become a Bills fan before you begin to walk,” Bruce said. “We used to make our own jerseys. I remember Joel had a Jack Kemp jersey – it was an undershirt that he wrote number 15 on. He must have been 4 years old at the time. I wrote 44 on mine, Elbert ‘Golden Wheels’ Dubenion.”

Joel was also a diehard Sabres fan and hockey enthusiast. As a student at Riverside High School in the 1970s, he would take his two younger brothers David and Saul to get standing-room-only seats for the Sabres games. The three were all roommates in their small house on Homer Avenue and worshiped “The French Connection” line of Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin and Rene Robert.

After Joel moved to the D.C. area in 1983, he remained ferociously committed to both teams – despite the fact, or maybe because of that fact, that they were both perennial losers. He went with Bruce and Bruce’s son Brian to see Super Bowl XXVII at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., the third of the four the Bills lost in a row in the 1990s.

Saul explained that Joel loved the Bills and Sabres because he likely saw some semblance of himself in those teams.

“I think it’s because he’s always been the underdog,” he said. “I think Joel always felt like we had to prove ourselves to everyone. It’s the Buffalo thing. That’s what life is: You get kicked down, you get kicked around, and you still come back for more.”

Arriving at Jimmy’s

Bruce, Saul and Joel arrived at Jimmy’s around 12:30 p.m., a half hour before kick off.

David was there waiting for them. Jimmy’s – which is covered in Bills regalia – is popular among local Bills fans and has a first-come-first-serve policy on game days; so David, an optician, got there early to secure a table.

When the three entered the restaurant, Jimmy Cirrito, the owner, saw them. He quickly pulled out of his pocket a microphone that he uses to make announcements and lead cheers during the game. “Everyone, please welcome to Jimmy’s our hero and soldier, Joel, who will be our good luck charm for today,” he said, to thunderous applause. Cirrito, 51, then arranged for his staff to lift Joel’s wheelchair to get him down a flight of stairs to their table.

Cirrito knew Joel was sick after seeing him last summer. He ran into him and Bruce at the Bills pre-season game against the Ravens in Baltimore.

Bruce and Joel Markowitz at the Bills Ravens pre-season game at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore

An Arcade native, Cirrito said that Joel’s resilience was something to behold: “He is someone the players on our team should think about when they think about our fan base and the kind of people they are playing for.”

Promoting the 'the little guy'

Joel spent most of his life as a self-described "theater nut."

After graduating from Syracuse University as an English and journalism major with a 4.0 average, he moved to D.C. and began working for a number of law firms with the plan of going to law school. But he soon realized that he wanted to pursue his passion as a theater critic.

“Our father was really into movies and theater,” Bruce said. “Joel really developed his interest not as a performer but always as a critic from an early age. He was always a critic at heart. He used to schlep us to see films at the North Park Theatre and then assess them for us.”

For more than 20 years, Joel reviewed dramatic productions for a host of websites – until he decided to create his own. Sitting in a hospital bed after a lower back fusion, Joel had something of an epiphany.

“He realized that he was doing so much of the work for so many other places,” Saul said. “He just wanted so badly to do his own thing.”

Joel then set out to create what he called an “all-inclusive arts website” that would “promote the little guy’s work, which had been ignored for too long.”

And so, with the financial and legal help of his brother Bruce, an attorney, Joel established D.C. Metro Theater Arts (DCMTA) in 2012.

Through that platform, Joel reviewed countless shows and small productions. He made it his mission to publicize the actors, directors, designers, composers and lyricists who he believed deserved more attention.

Over the last five years, DCMTA became the largest online source of performing arts coverage in the Mid-Atlantic, with roughly 2 million monthly page visits and more than 76,000 followers on Facebook. “He made it a phenomenal success,” Bruce said. “He helped launch so many careers.”

After Joel’s diagnosis last spring, the D.C.-area theater community came together and organized a cabaret in his honor, in which they gave him a lifetime achievement award.

His nephew, Eric Markowitz, a 26-year-old data analyst who lives in New York City, sensed that Joel felt a connection with theater artists who put enormous time and energy into their craft –for very little, if any, money.

“Joel cared about ‘the little guys’ partly because he himself was one,” he said.

 The end of the game

At Jimmy’s, Joel was seated in his wheelchair, pulled up next to the table with Bruce, Saul, David, David’s wife Stephanie and Joel’s nephew Andrew.

For the most part, Joel was engrossed in the game. But every once in a while, he would moan and indicate pain or discomfort.

“There were certain times when I could tell he wasn’t feeling too well,” Saul said. “I would lean over and ask him, ‘Are you OK? Do you want to leave?’ He just kept shaking his head, saying ‘no.’ There was no way he was going to leave.”

After all, the Bills and the Bucs were in a tight game. At the start of the fourth quarter, the Bills were winning 20-13. But then, the Bucs tied it up with a touchdown and LeSean McCoy fumbled on the next drive and turned the ball over. The Bucs then scored another touchdown to take a seven-point lead with three minutes left.

The restaurant fell silent. The Bills fans had seen this movie before. Joel sat there, his mouth agape, shaking his head. The Bills were poised, as he predicted, to choke at the end.

But then, McCoy scored a touchdown on the Bills’ next drive to tie it back up. Moments later, rookie Tre’Davious White stripped the ball from a Bucs receiver and recovered the fumble. The Bills were on the Bucs’ 32-yard line. After running down the clock, Steven Hauschka made a 30-yard field goal to win the game.

The place exploded in cheers, the "Shout" song played and Joel did something he hadn't done in a long time.

“He forced a huge smile on his face," David said. "It was so unbelievable to see. He was just so overwhelmed to see that the Bills pulled off this game. That hardly ever happens.”

Cirrito then took out his microphone and dedicated the game to Joel. The restaurant gave him a standing ovation – and Joel began to weep.

“He got a little emotional at the end,” Saul said. “My feeling was that, I think, he in his own mind thought that he’s never going to see a game like this again.”

He was right. Joel died two weeks later.

Going home

After the game ended, the Markowitz brothers paid the bill and headed toward the door. They all looked around like they were about to exit some sacred space – like they already knew this was where they had just solidified their last great memory with Joel.

Outside the restaurant, they all hugged before going their separate ways. Bruce and Saul had to get Joel back home, where he had live-in hospice care.

In the car, they all talked about the victory, and how they wondered if this year’s team would be the one to break the Bills 17-year playoff drought, the longest in professional sports.

Whether they could win the Super Bowl this year seemed a little far fetched, they thought, but maybe someday.

“That’s why we’re Bills fans,” Saul said. “Like real life, it’s always a struggle. You don’t often win, but how amazing is it when you finally do? That’s why you keep fighting and you keep showing up.”

To which Bruce responded: “We’ll treat this as our own personal Super Bowl.”

Joel nodded in approval.

A few minutes later, he gestured that he had something to say. Bruce was driving, so Saul took out Joel’s alphabet chart and held it up for him.

What is it, he asked?

Joel then started pointing to the letters.

He wanted to know who the Bills played next week.

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