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Sean Kirst: Ex-Bill Mark Maddox looks to fans for memories stolen by CTE

Sean Kirst

It was a furious scramble for a careening ball, a third-quarter play that in most games with a score of 35-3 would have been utterly meaningless.

In this case, it was a pivotal instant in an astounding piece of football history.

Mark Maddox, who was in the middle of it, only wishes he could remember.

A little more than a quarter-century ago, with the Buffalo Bills trailing the Houston Oilers by 32 points in a 1993 wild card playoff game – moments after a 58-yard Bubba McDowell interception return for a Houston touchdown had turned a sure blowout into something even worse – an Al Del Greco kickoff smacked into Maddox's calf, and then bounced loose.

Maddox, his body twisted, turned back and lunged for the ball. For a moment, an Oiler seemed to have his body on top of it. Maddox listened for the whistle and kept clawing, finally managing to pry loose the ball and get control of it at midfield.

The Bills had possession. It was a swing play in the greatest comeback of all time. Quarterback Frank Reich used that unexpected field position to drive the team toward a Kenneth Davis touchdown run from the 1-yard-line, which broke everything loose. Magically, fatefully, the Bills kept on scoring.

They defeated the Oilers 41-38, in overtime. Maddox, now 50, appreciates just how much every play mattered against the dwindling time left on the clock, how everything could have been different if the Bills had not come up with the ball, where they did, on that kickoff.

It happened at an especially vivid moment in his life: He was a 24-year-old linebacker fighting for National Football League survival, a guy who had recently learned his daughter Ashley – now doing fine an adult – had been born with a separation of her optic nerve.

All of that worry and desperation went into the struggle for the ball. He knows of it through what he has read, or through watching video, or through accounts from friends and teammates. When I wrote about that play, years ago, I called Maddox and he distinctly recalled every instant, every frantic detail on the turf, of that fight for possession.

Today, he said, he retains few, if any, of those memories.

"They tell me these stories," Maddox said. "I have no clue."

Bills linebacker Mark Maddox (55) with Nate Odomes (37)  during a 1993 game against the New England Patriots. The Bills won, 13-10. (Photo by Harry Scull/Allsport/Getty Images)

He believes he suffers from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the degenerative brain disease endured by many football players who experienced repeated concussions or traumatic violence to the brain. He spoke of collisions so severe he was left "seeing stars" on the sidelines and then returned to the game, long before the league formally acknowledged the effects of head trauma.

For all those reasons, Maddox said, he is among thousands of former NFL players involved with a 2011 lawsuit against the league built upon concussion-related injuries.

To recall the moments he wishes he could remember, he turned recently to a digital campaign he calls "Memories with Mark." He is asking people who knew him when he was younger, going back to childhood – including fans with distinct memories of watching him play – to share details of stories that he said he has too often lost.

The effort has taken off on social media, in no small part due to Lara McKee, a Batavia native who runs the Twitter page for the Wild West Bills Backers in Glendale, Ariz. She met Maddox when he showed up to watch January's drought-ending playoff game with Wild West club members, McKee said.

She described him as "wonderful, stopping to take pictures with everyone." McKee and Maddox are Facebook friends, and she said she was heartbroken to read his post about his memory quest.

By tweeting about the effort, she helped it to gain traction. Maddox was soon receiving hundreds of replies, comments and reflections. With each one, he quickly saves and catalogs the details, hoping they might jog more memories.

"The most frightening thing is wondering if what I remember today is what I'll still remember tomorrow," he said.

Born in Milwaukee, Maddox played his college ball at Northern Michigan University, and then spent 10 seasons in the NFL. His seven years with the Bills included many of the team's most glorious peaks. He went to three Super Bowls while in Buffalo, a city he still loves, including the first loss to the Cowboys in 1993 – a Super Bowl appearance that could not have happened without the comeback.

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Yet he said he has lost specific memory of almost all of it. He cannot remember the scent of turf and sweat, or the explosion of sounds and contact at a snap that is almost like a kinetic language, or euphoric moments that followed game-changing plays. It is all a blur, a swirl, and the effort to bring it into focus, he said, can cause physical pain.

The enormity of the loss started to hit him when he saw a video, sent by a fan, that showed him making distinctive plays in a game against the San Diego Chargers, plays of such authority that Maddox knows he should remember. It was haunting and frightening, he said, to watch his own reaction to these moments, and to realize he had no recollection of when or how they happened.

"It makes me tear up," he said, "because I know I should."

Maddox, now divorced, is the father of four children. He said he struggles to remember a trip he took to DisneyWorld with his family, and many images are equally hazy of his kids when they were young.

Hearing the stories, he said, becomes a kind of reintroduction to himself.

He said he has received dozens of messages from adults who watched him play for the Bills during their childhoods. He was contacted by a high school friend who reminded Maddox of a time when he played Santa Claus for children. Another friend recalled a girl in high school whose parents objected to Maddox because he was African-American, a girl Maddox asked to go with him to the prom.

On prom night, his friend picked up the girl so Maddox could be her date.

Those are the kind of moments that should stay with a teenager forever, Maddox said. How could he possibly forget?

"Football," he said, "has taken these memories from me."

After the NFL, he did some work as a sports trainer, as a photographer and also served as a defensive coordinator for a high school football team in Arizona, where he still lives. He stopped coaching, he said, because it became too difficult, because he felt a gap in what was once his intuitive reaction to the game.

He spends increasing amounts of time at his house, taking in the stream of responses to his campaign. While he is busy getting together the medical paperwork he needs for the lawsuit, he said he is not bitter about his football career. It caused him to go places that a young guy from Milwaukee might never have seen, Maddox said.

The game changed his life, he said, and allowed him to care for his family. To Maddox, the critical issue with head injuries is what happens going forward with the NFL, as well as with high school and college programs.

The people in charge of competitive football at all levels need to respond with real compassion to the players who have been hurt, he said, and they need to take clear and open steps to save young players from enduring the same thing.

"It's the way it is not just in football but in life, in all things," Maddox said. "I have no regrets. But you have to learn from what previous generations went through, to make it better for generations coming in the future."

Mark Maddox today, at a Christmas party he hosts for families with children born disabilities or other special needs. (Submitted image)

For now, he finds a kind of healing in reconstructing his own life. He was contacted, for instance, by the Rev. William Mills, 45, a minister in Florida whose mother had relatives in Chautauqua County. As a teenager, Mills often spent his summers near SUNY Fredonia State. When the Bills trained on the Fredonia campus, "I was there all the time," Mills said.

To an 18- or 19-year-old, the players seemed impossibly impressive. Mills studied them and watched the way they carried themselves. He noticed that Maddox was unusual in the amount of warmth he showed to spectators, a point made by many others who offered memories. Maddox not only signed autographs, they said in their reflections, but he would linger to speak with everyday people on the field.

"There were a lot of guys who would sign a few autographs and flee," Mills said. As a minister, he sees Maddox as a practitioner of the Golden Rule, a star athlete who treated others in the way he wanted to be treated. That example had such power that Mills said it influenced his life, which is why he felt the need to write a note.

Even if Maddox cannot remember, Mills said, he deserves to know.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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