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Jerry Sullivan: Drought-plagued former Bills share in the joy and relief

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Ryan Fitzpatrick laughs to think of it today. When he arrived as an obscure backup quarterback in 2009, the Bills were already eight years deep into the playoff drought. People warned Fitz that the fates always found a way to conspire against the team’s playoff hopes.

“Then my first game was on Monday night against the Patriots,” Fitzpatrick recalled Thursday, “when Leodis McKelvin fumbled the kickoff and they scored a couple of late touchdowns to beat us.

“After that game, everybody was telling me, ‘See, this is what happens every time!’ That was my first introduction to it.”

So Fitzpatrick wasn’t optimistic about the Bills’ playoff chances last Sunday. He knew their chances were pretty remote heading into the weekend. His Tampa Bay team had played a late game, so he wasn’t aware of the results from the 4:25 games when he and his wife, Liza, began the drive home.

“There was a little confusion,” he said. “I asked my wife how the AFC had shaken out and it took three or four minutes to figure out who was actually in the playoffs. Then it was kind of disbelief when I saw the Bills had snuck in.”

Fitz immediately sent congratulatory texts to Kyle Williams and Eric Wood, the only two current Bills who were his teammates from 2009-13, when he never won more than six games. He smiled all the way home that night. It got a little wider when he found that Williams had scored his first career TD against Miami.

That’s how it went all across the country on New Year’s Eve. Former Bills, many of whom had suffered through the 17-year drought and never reached the postseason, felt a collective surge of joy and disbelief when the Bills got in the playoffs after the Bengals’ astonishing late TD in Baltimore.

“I was excited like I made it,” said Lee Evans, who played with the Bills from 2004-10 and had the most TD catches (43) of any player during the drought. “I was right there with them. I watched with some Bills fans at a friend’s house in Virginia. My 9-year-old son, who is a big Bills fan, was there. I wish I could have been there. But it’s all good. I’m glad we got in.”

Punter Brian Moorman played in the most games in the drought – 190. Moorman was a two-time Pro Bowler. He was often called the best player on his team in those days. He might have been more beloved off the field, as a man whose Punt Foundation funded programs at local hospitals.

When Moorman was cut by the Bills in 2014, he published a long letter to the fans, saying the lessons he learned here went “far beyond the football field. The people of Buffalo and WNY are proud, generous, stubborn and loyal, and once they put their arms around you, you’re friends for life.”

Jacksonville becomes Buffalo south for former Bills punter Moorman

So Moorman was thinking about the Buffalo people, and the guys in the locker room, when he was rooting for the Bengals at a New Year’s Eve party in Jacksonville, and naturally, fearing for the worst. But finally, the fates smiled on Buffalo.

“Yeah, finally,” Moorman said. “You have all the flashbacks, thinking ‘Please, don’t let it happen.’ Thinking back to the times when we had that opportunity and how easy it is for it to slip away, I can only imagine how excited they were. I saw videos of how the locker room erupted. It gives you chills.”

He would have loved to be there. “Oh, sure!” he said. “Who wouldn’t? I doubt there’s any player who played from 2000 until now who wouldn’t love to have that feeling. But that doesn’t take away from how we feel for those guys.”

Terrence McGee played 10 seasons as a Bills cornerback from 2003-12. He set most of the team’s kickoff return records. He’s part owner of a Buffalo steakhouse with Moorman and Fred Jackson and lives between here and Texas. McGee watched the game in Buffalo and was happily surprised when they got in.

“Man, when it happened I went ‘Wow, Buffalo is in,’ ” McGee said. “I feel good mostly for the city, because I don’t know any of the guys except Kyle and Wood. I know how much they wanted to have that playoff atmosphere. I wish it was a home game. But it’s good for the team, good for the city.”

McGee, who had to retire because of recurring knee injuries, admitted to feelings of regret about never making the playoffs and leaving so soon.

“I guess you could say I definitely have mixed feelings,” he said. “I wanted to know what a playoff atmosphere was like. I’ve been away five years now, so my feelings don’t matter. But when you don’t get the experience, it’s hard, like right now. When I first left the game, I still wanted to play, still wanted to be out there making plays. I wanted to see what the playoffs were like.”

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Aaron Schobel had similar feelings. Schobel played nine seasons, from 2001-09. Like McGee, he never played anywhere else, but wonders if he might have played longer. Schobel, who lives in Columbus, Texas, said he doesn’t watch many NFL games, but was tuned in for those decisive games last Sunday. He also saw footage of the locker room celebration and his old protege, Kyle Williams.

“That was nice,” Schobel said. “I’ll say this, that’s the part about football that I miss most. The camaraderie with the guys. So to see them and know how they felt – or know how I think they would have felt – is pretty neat.

“I’ve never been able to replace the feeling of playing with them and winning. You do not replace the feeling of accomplishment you get from playing well, from winning. I haven’t replaced that. I like to go play a good round of golf. That’s nice, but it ain’t nothing like that was.”

Chris Kelsay played 10 years in the NFL, all with the Bills, his career directly paralleling McGee’s from 2003-12. He spent the middle four years playing on the same defensive line with Williams and Schobel, who have all remained close over the years. Williams has talked about “carrying the torch” for those and other Bills who never made it to the postseason.

“Every year, I came in optimistic that this would be the year we made it to the playoffs,” Kelsay said. “I didn’t want to leave because of more money or a better situation, whatever that might have been, and have the Bills go to the playoffs and not be part of it. But it wasn’t in the cards for me.”

Kelsay, who has three children, watched the games on New Year’s Eve with family and friends in his native Nebraska. He said his cellphone blew up when the Bills got in, with messages from people all over the country. He also saw the videos of the locker room celebration and got a little wistful.

“I got to admit, I was a little jealous,” Kelsay said. “Man, I wish I could have experienced something like that. I’m so happy for everybody, especially Kyle Williams and guys I played with. There aren’t many left. I’m happy for the organization. It’s been a long time coming. I’m glad it worked out.”

“But I’m also happy for that city and all the diehard fans. They deserve it just as much as the players and the coaches. It’s a great feeling for everyone out there. I mean, I wish we would have won more. I say that to this day. But I wouldn’t change my career. I was very pleased to stay with the Bills my entire career. You build a lot of lifelong relationships.”

Ruben Brown has built countless friendships since his rookie year with the Bills in 1995, both in sports and media. Brown, an eight-time Pro Bowl guard, made the playoffs early in his career with the Bills and late with the Bears. He was a Bill for four years of the drought. But he felt the community’s pain.

“I didn’t celebrate that night,” Brown said from Jamaica. “I was just kind of numb. I was happy for the guys. But I didn’t get up and jump around. I just kind of sat there and took it in for its historical significance. Like ‘Wow, it’s been a long time.’ The last time that team actually made the playoffs (1999), I was on that team and we were pretty successful.”

“I’m happy for the town, happy for the team, happy for the veteran guys like Kyle,” Brown said. “I was fortunate when I came there, I was spoiled. The Bills were going to the playoffs every year.”

Brown made the playoffs as a rookie in 1995. Marlon Kerner was a rookie cornerback on that team. They were part of the last Bills team to win a playoff game, a 37-22 home win over Miami in which they rushed for 341 yards in Don Shula’s final game.

Kerner suffered a couple of ACL knee injuries that cut his promising career short. He missed all but one game in 1998 and the entire ’99 season before retiring. Kerner is now the Bills’ director of player engagement and alumni, the guy who handled a mountain of requests from former players this week. He remembers watching the Music City Miracle on TV at home in Columbus, Ohio.

When he was healthy, Kerner was the safety on the right sideline on kickoff returns. The late Bruce DeHaven taught his coverage men never to get out of their lanes. When Frank Wycheck got the ball, Kerner knew what was coming.

“I told my cousin, ‘It’s a throwback,’” Kerner recalled. “He’s going to throw it back. He’s like, ‘No way.’ I said, ‘I can’t believe we’re about to lose on this play.’ I’m standing there at home saying, ‘Come on guys, somebody stop them. I called the Throwback as it was happening, yes.”

Home Run Throwback worked, of course. They lost. Thus began the longest drought in professional sports, with an injured Bill yelling at the TV screen because he knew what Tennessee was about to do, powerless to stop it.

For nearly 18 years, that was the story of the Bills, with circumstances working against them in odd and soul-crushing ways, causing a lot of proud NFL players to go an entire career without making the playoffs.

But ultimate despair is no longer what happens to the Bills every time. Andy Dalton found Tyler Boyd on fourth-and-12. The Bills are going to Jacksonville for a playoff game. Moorman, who played the most games of anyone during the drought, will be there in his Buffalo colors.

Fitzpatrick figures if the Bills can break the drought, he can, too. He’s a free agent, but he wants to come back for another year, if anyone will have him. “Hopefully, that will be the year,” Fitz said. “It hasn’t been the 17-year drought, but it’s getting up there for me. It’s 13 years.

“You just never know.”

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