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One-on-One Coverage: For Marv Levy, Bills' four Super Bowl losses 'still hurt'

In 1995, prostate cancer took its best shot at Marv Levy. His then-70-year-old body not only absorbed the punch, it punched back. After a brief hiatus, Levy resumed coaching the Buffalo Bills.

Eight months ago, at 92, Levy took another hit, this time in his native Chicago.

“I was out for a walk and all of a sudden I lost all balance and reality,” Levy said. “They rushed me in to see if it was a heart attack or a stroke. It wasn’t. It’s something called vestibular neuritis.”

The condition, which results from an injury or infection to the inner ear, causes vertigo and dizziness.

“It’s (a case of) slowly building back balance, which was awful,” he said. “Now, I’ve got about 50 percent of it back. I’ve had a lot of physical therapy.”

The Hall of Fame coach, who turned 93 in August, blames his bout with vestibular neuritis for disrupting his daily routine enough to prevent him from keeping typically close tabs on the Bills. But it hasn’t stopped the author of four books – his memoir, a novel, a book of poetry and a children’s book entitled “Go Cubs Go,” about the 2016 World Series – from much else.

In late October, he was at the Bills’ Monday night game against the New England Patriots for the retirement of Thurman Thomas’ No. 34. Earlier this week, Levy was in San Antonio, to receive the 2019 Amos Alonzo Stagg Award from the American Football Coaches Association.

“I was actually Amos Alonzo Stagg’s mentor,” Levy joked of the football coaching legend who began his career in 1888.

These days, Levy said he and his wife, Fran, are mainly kept busy with their two grandchildren, ages 10 and 4.

“I do a few speaking engagements,” he said. “I exercise a lot. I do get in an hour a day of a good, brisk walk – if I can call it brisk. I still read. I’m trying to write (more). I might take a writing course for seniors at Northwestern. Fran and I are thinking about (traveling to Russia and) taking a river cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow later this spring.

“Other than that, I try to get a few hours' sleep.”

In the latest “One-on-One Coverage,” Levy spent some time on the phone with The Buffalo News discussing a variety of topics, including the Bills’ four consecutive Super Bowl losses, Frank Reich’s first-year coaching success with the Indianapolis Colts, Steve Tasker’s Hall of Fame worthiness and Sean McDermott.

Buffalo News: Does the fact the 25th anniversary of your fourth Super Bowl, at Atlanta, is coming up on Jan. 30, only days before this year’s Super Bowl in Atlanta, mean anything to you?

Marv Levy: It’s interesting now that you called it to my attention. Twenty-five years. Honestly, it seems like longer ago than that. A lot of sand’s expired. Those Super Bowls, it still hurts that we lost them, but I still remember the good and great guys.

There are times when I’m on a plane and I let my mind flow and I keep thinking, what I might have done differently in this situation or that situation. But I’ll remember the good. As much as it hurt at the time, I’m just going to remember the good. And so many of our great fans, too. They are terrific fans in Buffalo, I really believe that.

BN: Given those four losses, is it at all difficult for you to celebrate the Super Bowl’s arrival each year as millions of people do?

ML: No, no, no. I don’t brush it off. It’s just an unbelievable feeling when you walk out on that field and say, “Am I really here?” There’s a lot of clutter that goes with it that you’d just as soon not have there, so you can focus on the game. But, no, I haven’t the slightest regret that we got there. And, again, what could we or should we or might have we done different that could have changed the outcome? It’s just heartbreaking.

We’re sitting here in Chicago right now where they’re agonizing over that field goal that bounced off the goalpost last week. Not a Super Bowl game, but one on the way. No, I’ll remember the good. It would be even a better memory if we won it. But I’ve been affiliated with far too many good people in our quest for you to have any agonizing about it.

BN: As you watched Cody Parkey’s kick bounce off the left upright and then the crossbar and cost the Bears their wild-card game against Philadelphia last Sunday, how much did you think about Scott Norwood’s miss that cost you Super Bowl XXV?

ML: When it happened, I said, ‘Oh, my, golly!” I knew the parallel to it. It’s just a shame. It’s amazing, this guy hit the goalpost during the course of this season five times. I’ll bet if he had been aiming at it on every kick he ever made, he might not have hit it.

But, yeah, sure, it did strike a chord. Poor guy. His teammates rallied around him wonderfully. There are a few people who are being very mean in their response, but a very small percentage of them. I understand it’s aggravating. Go back to work. That’s all.

Marv Levy and his grandchildren Georgey, now 4, and Angela, now 10. Both inspired characters in "Go Cubs Go!" (Photo courtesy of Fran Levy)

BN: In your encounters with Scott through the years, have you ever gone out of your way to show him a little bit of extra support?

ML: No. It’s over with. It wasn’t a crime, it wasn’t a sin. It’s what the game is about. He’s recovered from it in a remarkable way. A fine character guy. We all joke about it, actually. We don’t bring it up (as a topic of conversation). Why bring up something that was bad? I think Scott has done a wonderful job of coping.

At first, he felt so bad, but he’s not reluctant to come back to mingle with the guys and to talk. We’re no longer patting him on the back and saying, “Oh, that’s alright.” That’s long, long ago.

BN: Do you have any specific recollection of your feelings after that fourth and final Super Bowl appearance?

ML: No. You lose it and it’s one of those – watching my language – “Doggone it, darn it” times and you’re ready to kick over the waste basket again and stuff like that. But still resolve to go back to work. After our second or third (Super Bowl loss), on my call-in show I got a call from a guy who said he was a great fan and he said, “Don’t go back to the Super Bowl. I can’t stand it, the pain …” And he went on and on about it. And I said, “Sir, I understand your agony, I share it … but I’m glad you’re not on my team.”

We wanted to go back (after the fourth loss). We still wanted to go back. And the next several years, we went back to the playoffs two or three times and still never did it. It’s something I regret. You wish you would have done it better, but you didn’t. Two lines in that book of poetry I wrote were: “Play hard, play clean and play to win. But win or lose, dig right back in.”

BN: What are some of your observations on the job that Frank Reich has done as a first-year NFL head coach?

ML: Jim Irsay, the owner of the Colts, has told both Bill Polian and me it was our recommendations which carried a lot of weight in his hiring him. I was extremely complimented to hear that. Frank and I have stayed in touch. Not a lot, I don’t want to bug him during the season. But this is Frank Reich in action – the high character, tremendous work ethic. He buys into his teammates or co-workers, whatever you want to call it, and they buy into him.

Frank was the assistant coach with Peyton Manning in his developmental years, then Nick Foles last year and now here in Indianapolis. It’s amazing what he’s doing and I’m not surprised that a guy of that character has moved to this degree. What a great teacher, great citizen, great family, everything about him is so admirable … except his beard (laughing). Oh, well, I’ll forgive him.

BN: What qualities did you see in Frank, the player, that indicated what kind of coach he would be?

ML: His preparation, how well he studied, his inquiries. He was always trying to learn. He wasn’t a know-it-all by any imagination. He was unbelievably aware that it was a team game, what his teammates could put in. He knew how to motivate them without pep talks and rah-rahs.

Jim Kelly once told me, “I’d never been the quarterback I was if it wasn’t for Frank Reich.” I’ve got to say, to a degree, both Jim and Frank have learned a little bit from each other in how to function. I think they each made the other guy another degree better, some degrees better, by their association.

I saw so many qualities in him that just told me, this guy’s going to be a fine coach. Did I think he’d ever be a head coach in the NFL and on his way, hopefully, to a Super Bowl? Long shot on that. That’s always a long shot.

BN: You have been a strong advocate for Steve Tasker to join you and others from the Bills in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Once again, that advocacy has fallen on deaf ears, but what has made you so steadfast in your support?

ML: Well, first of all, I do believe that there are three equally important parts of the game: offense, defense, kicking. And, yes, there’s been two or three kickers who have gone in. But there’s nothing in a game that is highly physical, no department more physical than a special-teamer. Not the kicker, I realize that. That’s almost a separate category from it all. But the kicking, it affects the outcome of a game every bit as much as those other two.

(Tasker) is a special-teamer that there’s never been anyone close (to his performance level). You can’t believe how many coaches have told me that – Dan Reeves, Bill Parcells, Bill Cowher. They’ve all made that comment to me about, “He was the guy we had to prepare for the most.”

Beyond that, great citizen, great team leader; seven or eight years in a row he was elected a team captain. Goes to the Pro Bowl seven or eight years in a row as a special-teams guy. The only special-teamer ever to be the MVP (of the Pro Bowl), which is an example of his qualities. And high character, everything about the game. I feel badly that he’s being overlooked, I believe so strongly, in the kicking game.

BN: What did Thurman Thomas mean to your teams?

ML: It’s crazy stuff. Because we traded for Cornelius Bennett, we didn’t have a first-rounder and six running backs went off the board before we had a chance to pick. And in the second round, we picked him. But, wow, what a player he was, turned out to be.

He’s another one who exemplifies what’s good about the game. He’s a wonderful family guy, he was a great teammate. Yeah, he was a little bit off-the-wall sometimes with his sense of humor, but he has had a very successful post-career. I’m so proud of him and I’m so proud of me to be able to say I coached Thurman Thomas in his pro career.

BN: What was the most satisfying part of your career?

ML: The people with whom I associated. Other than that, walking out on the field on game day there in Buffalo. Walking off the field after a win.

BN: And the most disappointing part of your career?

ML: Walking off the field after a loss. Getting fired. At Cal Berkeley, we couldn’t win. There was no affirmative action program there. We couldn’t get a student in from out of state at the time. I liked it there and had hoped that, over time, I might be able to rebuild it.

But when I got fired, the former legendary Cal coach Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf – who also was the head talent scout for the San Francisco 49ers – he immediately and unbeknownst to me, he called somebody he knew at William & Mary and said, “Get this guy.” And I got there, so I owe it to him.

BN: What are your impressions of Sean McDermott?

ML: I’ve had a little bit of communication with Sean. I think very highly of him. I’m favorably impressed with the bit I have known and found out. He’s in the struggle stage right now.

In a book I wrote, the chapter I wrote about the guys from William & Mary was titled, “The Overachievers.” Sean McDermott’s one, like Mark Kelso and Mike Tomlin and those guys.

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