If you’re a long time Buffalo Bills fan, you probably will never forget – no matter how hard you try – hearing those words from a TV or radio announcer on the night of Jan. 27, 1991. More than 27 years later, the words still carry a sting.
“Wide right” were the soul-crushing words that announcers used to tell you that kicker Scott Norwood had narrowly missed a long field goal that would have won the Bills their first Super Bowl, and would have set off one of the biggest, most raucous community celebrations ever seen in Western New York.
Norwood missed the kick. The Bills lost, and in very painful fashion, our team would lose three more Super Bowls over the next three years.
And the Sabres would frustrate their fans again and again in their unsuccessful quest to win professional hockey’s Stanley Cup.
But how would we all feel if – just once – the Bills won it all?
That’s the premise of “Once In My Lifetime: A Buffalo Football Fantasy,” a play produced by lifelong Bills fan Chris Braun and written by Buffalo playwright Donna Hoke.
The football fantasy, described by Braun as a “love letter” to Buffalo sports fans, will be performed at the intimate Shea's Smith Theatre with a discounted preview on Aug. 28. The play then runs for 13 performances through Sept. 8, closing the Saturday before the first Bills game of the season. This play about Bills' fans is also helping a fan: Braun is donating 15 percent of ticket sales to defray rising medical costs of cancer treatments for Ezra Castro, known as Bills' superfan Pancho Billa. (Use the code "Pancho").
The story takes place in the Miracle Bar, a struggling watering hole full of Bills fans, memorabilia and memories of painful losses. "Lyn bought Miracle after her husband died and his best friend told her it was his dying wish for her to open a bar and leave it open until the Bills won a Super Bowl," Hoke said. "So for 15 years, she's hosted a motley crew who each have their own relationship with the Bills and their losses."
Putting the play together has been a labor of love for Braun, 47, who grew up in West Seneca, served in the Navy and now works as an advertising executive in San Jose, Calif..
Braun lives on the other side of the country, but he said he has never stopped rooting for Buffalo’s sports teams. He has been a devoted fan since 1971, when his father took him to his first Bills game in the old Rockpile on Buffalo’s East Side. Braun said he still remembers the bright green grass, the smell of cigars and pipe smoke in the air and the excitement of watching behemoth athletes in action.
And he will never forget that 1991 Super Bowl loss – which he watched in a room full of California Navy buddies. Ironically, Norwood’s missed kick that night enabled Braun to win $250 in a Super Bowl pool.
“As Norwood lined up for the dramatic kick, I told everyone I'd much rather Norwood make the kick and lose the $250 than the other way around,” Braun said in a recent interview. “They didn't believe me.”
When he watched the kick sail wide, Braun said, “I was sick to my stomach.”
He said he realizes every Bills fan has his or her own memories of the team and its struggles. About 18 months ago, he and Hoke began working on a play they hoped would resonate with Buffalo fans.
One night, everyone working on the project gathered at the home of director Victoria Perez to watch a recording of the “Wide Right” game.
“Some cast members were still in a bad mood the next day. Just from the memory of it,” said Hoke, a Buffalo native who has written plays produced in 46 states.
Braun and Hoke said they are proud of the effort that went into re-creating the atmosphere of a downtrodden Bills bar.
She said set designer Paul Bostoph and lead actress Josie DiVincenzo have worked hard to gather nostalgic items for the bar. Among the items: signed jerseys, foodball; framed headlines of Thurman Thomas, Marv Levy and Jim Kelly from the glory days; an unopened box of Flutie Flakes; Buffalo-centric beer neons and signs; and handmade signs from past games including “the Bills are MARV-a-lous!!”.
Each performance will include a “celebrity cameo” featuring someone connected with the Bills and their fans.
And yes, each performance will also have its own “tailgate party,” which will start about an hour before showtime at the Shea’s Bistro Bar.
“This play is all about faith, as you'll see,” said Hoke, who is known for her work with Buffalo’s Road Less Traveled Productions. “It’s as much a Buffalo story as it is a Bills story.”
"Once in My Lifetime"
Opens with preview on Aug. 28; opening night is Aug. 29 and it continues to Sept. 8 in Shea's Smith Theatre, 658 Main St. Tickets are $42 and $50 (on stage) and $27 on preview night Aug. 28.